Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Use Of "Mama" & "Papa" In The Congo To Refer To Non-Parents

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases excerpts of two online articles that provide observations of the use of the referents "mama" and "papa" among people of the Democratic Republic Of The Congo (DRC).

The content of this post is provided for sociological and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Schooling in Congo, July 7, 2010 [written by] erasingborders [Excerpt]
"Nearly everyone here is “Mama” or “Papa”. Children at an early age are acknowledged half wryly but affectionately in this way. Rev. Bonanga is not “Monsieur le President” as the head of the Disciples community; he is “Papa President”. And I have never heard Sandra Gourdet, the Global Ministries Africa Executive, referred to as anything but “Mama Sandra”. There is simply no more respectful honorific the culture can bestow than “Mama” and “Papa”.

While everyone is given the title, both parents and non parents, adults work hard and sacrifice heroically in their role as parent. “Papa Pierre”, one of my night time guardians in the compound, hopes to receive an advance today of $45 on his salary. Tomorrow his daughter graduates from her sixth year of primary school and there must be an appropriate celebration of the milestone. A new dress and shoes at a feast shared with family and friends crown the occasion. The expense projected is more than his monthly salary but is not an unusual outlay for a child even when there are eight or nine in the family, as is typical here.

The other night sentry in our Disciples guest compound “Papa Dominique” has with his wife continued to work a field more than 20 kilometers from the family‘s home in Mbandaka to pay his 9 children’s school fees. Papa Dominique’s wife sometimes spends two or three months away from home cultivating and harvesting before marketing the manioc root and leaves, corn, rice and potatoes. Even parents who have jobs in Equateur, the least developed Province with the highest unemployment, must seek additional income for their children’s education"...
If I understand correctly, erasingborders, the author of that post whose excerpt I quoted and hand others in that series, was a missionary worker in the DRC with the Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.

Monday, July 29, 2013 at 9:56 AM "13 Surprising Things About Parenting in Congo" [Excerpt]
“For our Motherhood Around the World series, our third interview features Sarah ... and Jill .... two American friends who live in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa with their husbands and kids....

On hiring nannies and housekeepers: Jill: We had never hired people to work in our homes before moving to Congo. But it’s expected here for families who are relatively well off to use some of that income to provide work for others.

Even Congolese families who aren't well off often hire or ask someone to help with a new baby. For the first three months, babies’ necks are too weak to be carried on their mother’s backs. However, work still must get done, so someone—often a young relative—comes to carry that baby around while the mother works. Then, at three months (usually, on the dot!), babies are tied on their mothers’ backs, where they stay most of every day until age two or so.

On "Mamas": Jill: Our kids are super lucky. They have two biological parents, but also Mama Vida, Mama NouNou, Mama Youyou, and Mamitsho to look out for them, wipe their crusty noses, say "Sorry, sorry" when they fall down, and laugh adoringly when they say something cute. These “mamas” are the Congolese women who help us care for our kids and our homes. Mama Vida is our nanny, who comes every weekday to take care of Loulou while we are at work. Mama NouNou cleans our house three times a week, but her passion is food, and we love it when she makes us a dish to try.

In Congo, all women are called "Mama So-and-So" out of respect, whether you’re a mother or not.* I thought I would be uncomfortable sharing my mama title, but I’m not. It's a strange relationship—that of nanny and parent and child—but one that is less threatening and more loving than I expected. Now it’s hard to imagine raising children without so many mamas."...
Italics were added by me to highlight that sentence.

The second sentence in the excerpt that indicates that "Children at an early age are acknowledged half wryly but affectionately [by being called "mama" or "papa"] struck a chord with me because that custom is a familiar one among some populations in the United States. A number of blogs* have posted discussions about this topic.

While some people who posted to those blogs were unfamiliar with that custom and asked if it was a trend, other commenters indicated that it was very normal for some (but not all) people from a number of different racial and ethnic backgrounds -in all socio-economic levels- to use what I call "parent referents" for children. The commenters on those blogs who wrote that they such referents indicated that they or people they knew who used those terms are Latino/Hispanic (in the USA), African Americans**, from South American nations, from Caribbean nations, from the Middle East (Arab; Israeli), from India, Middle Eastern nations, India, and Italian American. The parent referents which were cited were "mama", "mami", "little mama", "mamacita" and/or "mamas" for girls as young as babies and "papa", "papi", "papito", "daddy", "little daddy", and/or "baba" (which means "father" in Arabic) for boys as young as babies. All of those referents were considered to be terms of affection for children which are used by adults, including the children's parents. These terms can also be used as referents or nicknames for specific children by other children. And sometimes people keep those nicknames when they become adults - for example, Boston Red Sox baseball player David Ortiz ("Big Papi") who is from the Dominican Republic.

Given that information, it was interesting to learn from that post that that custom is practiced by Congolese. I wonder how old that custom is and if Central Africa (and probably also West Africa) was the source of that custom for African Americans and Latinos, if not other people throughout the world.

*Here are some links to those discussions about the use of "parent (given in no particular order):

**For the record, I don't recall hearing "mama", "little mama", "daddy", or "papa" etc. used to refer to children, teens, or young adults who weren't parents when I lived in my home town of Atlantic City, New Jersey, I left my home town when I was sixteen years old, but if those terms were used around me, I'm sure I would still remember that. However, I have heard some Black people use them (particularly "little mama" and "mama" in my adopted city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While I had heard those terms before but never used them myself, I became particularly conscious of the use of those terms (and "little man" and "man" for Black boys, including babies) when I started working in foster care in the early 2000s.)

"Examples Of "Mamacita" & "Little Mama" In American & Caribbean Records"

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  1. When my mother was in long term care, many of the personal support workers were recent African immigrants. They called my mother Mama and she didn't like it; she felt it was overly familiar and wanted them to either call her by her Christian name, or as Mrs. _____. I talked to some of them about it, and they said that calling someone Mama was the ultimate sign of respect, which I appreciated, however my Mother didn't like it, and she had a right to be referred to in a way that she was most comfortable with - especially since she was paying over $4,000 a month. They never stopped, and it really bothered my mother. She had the right to have her cultural sensibilities respected.

    1. Greetings, S. B. Sieber,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I agree with you that your mother should have been called by the name that she was most comfortable with. Therefore, when you informed those staff members that your mother disliked being called "Mama". they should have honored your mother's request and your request even if calling a woman "Mama" was a term of respect in their cultures.

      I'm sorry that this caused your mother and you grief.

      Hopefully, the long term care home has or will include this point in their staff training and ensure that staff understand why they must adhere to the patient and her/his family's requests in this regard.