Perhaps the most touching thing about working with a large group of orphans is discovering the family networks they have built for themselves.
Upon arriving at the school we were introduced to the “Mamas” or staff. Mama Josephine was the first person I met. She is the cook for staff and volunteers and takes care of the volunteer house. Mama Christina is the accountant. Mama Maristella is the headmistress. Then there is Bibi. In a sense, she is one of the Mamas, but as she is older and a grandmother, everyone calls her Bibi or grandma. And she is very much the grandma of us all.
Volunteers are referred to as “sister” or “brother.” I am Sister Natalie – or as most of the girls pronounce it: Sista Natalia. It always makes me smile.
Some have also formed their own family groups among friends. Geradina, one of the form three girls who is very sensible and helps to take care of the others, is affectionately known as “Mama G.” Other girls will shyly introduce you to their friends and say “this is my mama” or even “this is my grandma.” At first this was confusing, but we learned quickly to take it for what it is – a need for connection.
Often one or more of the girls will become very attached to a volunteer. One girl who I talk with a lot has asked if she can call me her mum while I am here. Of course I said yes. Regardless of whether it is a good idea – how do you possibly say no to that question? So I am Jackline’s Mummy, and whenever she sees me she asks how Daddy is doing, and have I heard from him lately. I have told D. this and he seems to think it is quite sweet and asked her to send him an email.
Another student indirectly adopted Matt & Gemma as her parents, while Gemma was teaching her a civics lesson about the various types of families: nuclear, single parent, etc. “Nuclear family is like… me and you and Matt?” she asked with a shy smile. And so it was.
So so far I am Sister and Mummy. Of course, to one group, my Form II English class, I am someone else. They are a very quiet class, and I struggle to get any of them to participate in class or to ask any questions. One day after finishing a lesson, and trying in vain to get them to ask any questions before I left, one girl at the back finally raised her hand. I could not wait to hear what curiosity my ingenious teaching had inspired.
“Do you have a husband?” she asked. OK, so not at all related to the lesson. But someone finally said something. I’ll take it.
“Yes,” I answered. Another hand went up.
“Do you have any children?”
Oh. A moment of silence. And one more hand slowly raised.
“Can we call you Mama?”
Umm… Thankfully by then I realized many of the teachers, and in fact many women are addressed as Mama regardless of your relationship with them.*
“Of course,” I answered. And so now, Forms I, III and IV call me Sister, but Form II calls me Mama.
As someone from a rather large family, I have been fortunate enough to never have to consider what it might be like to not have these connections. Yet I cannot imagine what I would do without them. I rely so heavily on my sisters and brothers, my parents, in-laws and cousins. It is truly heartbreaking to see so many girls longing for what I often take for granted – yet it is encouraging and even inspiring to watch how they create it for themselves, and from themselves.
* I am choosing to ignore the fact that younger women are referred to as sister and older women as Mama. The girls do not think I am old. When they guess my age they usually start at about 22, or as high as 25. When I tell them 32, their eyes widen and their jaws drop, and they insist I look far to young to be 32. Have I mentioned how much I like these girls?