Friday, August 12, 2011

Words for Aunt

In Swahili it seems there are a million different names for “aunt”. Of course all of them mean different things. On your mom's side you have “mama mkubwa” (big mother) if she is your mom's older sister and mama mdogo (little mother) if she is your mom's younger sister. On your father's side the word is usually shangazi. At least, I think.

I used to get frustrated all the time in Goma, trying to learn the various names to identify different family members. Where English might offer one sort of generic word like “aunt” or “cousin”, Swahili would offer a very precise word, a description of each person's exact relationship to you. To me it always seemed a bit over the top, and I often resorted to generic words like “ndugu” (relative) or “jamaa” (family). But my Congolese friends rarely referred to their own relatives in such generic terms. The specificity was important.

Yesterday morning my Aunt Pat died. She was a strong and independent woman who I admire deeply. She was incredibly loving and generous, in a way that everyone felt like her little house was home. She was at the heart of every family gathering with her love of card games and Trivia Pursuit, her voice that carried from one room to the next, and a hearty laughter that belied the fact that her body has been giving out on her for years. Even when she was very sick, she never stopped welcoming people into her home and into her heart. As one of my cousins said, she was the aunt who has always watched over all of us, and who still does.

As I was telling the SHONA ladies about my aunt's death, I suddenly got it. Speaking in Swahili, the term Shangazi suddenly sounded so much better than “aunt”. There is a weight to it. Something about specifying the relationship makes it more personal. While in English an aunt might be distant or close, the term Shangazi automatically carries with it the understanding that this is a second mother. This is a woman who as a young child herself, probably took your father under her wing. And when you were born, did exactly the same for you. The term just carries that sense of the wise and strong older woman, who has cared for a generation.

And that indeed is my Aunt Pat. She never had children of her own, but to all of her many nieces and nephews she is Shangazi. Or actually, to be exact in good Swahili fashion, to some of us she Shangazi, to some of us she is mama mkubwa and to others she is mama mdogo. You see it can get confusing with all of these names.

But Perhaps it is not actually the specific name that matters so much. But the value it communicates. The African understanding that family is infinitely important, and that each member is specific and irreplaceable, each relationship unique.

So maybe I will go back and learn all those different classifications for family members in Swahili. I've always been lazy on that front. But at least for now, the term shangazi seems to stick in my head. And I am thankful to have one more word to help me describe my Aunt Pat, a woman for whom there are never quite enough words. She was a woman who we all admired. A woman who we were each shaped by. A woman who we all will carry with us forever.

And that, also, is why the Swahili sounds right. In remembering that she is both Shangazi, and mama mukubwa and a thousand other names too, each one to a different person, I realize what she has meant to so many people. In good Swahili tradition, she deserves not one specific name, but a thousand, for each of the hearts she has shaped along the way.

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