Tuesday, June 19, 2018

On family separation

"My daughter was 2 the last time I saw her. She is seventeen now. "

The first time I heard these words, my heart caught in my mouth.

These particular words belonged to a middle-aged woman, working diligently to learn English in my ESL class. She came to the class after long shifts at a local restaurant, cleaning tables and serving food. I had known her for several months before I even realized she had a teenage daughter. Had she never said anything? Maybe I'd never asked.

Since that first conversation, I've learned to listen more. And I have heard this story a hundred times. In a hundred different ways.

"My son is is Mexico. I haven't seen him since he was a baby."

"My girls, they grew up with their grandmother. They call me mama but they only know me as a voice on the phone."

At some point I realized, this is not just a collection of individual stories. This is THE story of our broken immigration system.

Recently, a lot of attention in the US has been given to the horrific policy of separating families seeking asylum at the border. We are all rightly horrified. And there is something uniquely horrific about witnessing our own government officials tearing apart mothers and young children and placing them in what appear to be warehouses.

But let us also recognize that our immigration system tragically separate families in more ways than this.
In the US we have created an immigration system in which it is virtually impossible for our poor and working class neighbors to immigrate to this country legally. There is no line for them, or if it exists, it is decades long. And at the same time, the US pursues international policies that gut local economies in the interest of corporations, destabilizes governments and pursues misguided "drug wars". In effect we have made it increasingly impossible for our neighbors to lead stable and secure lives in their own countries. At the same time our economy benefits from the hard labor of workers left with the only option to kiss their children goodbye and come here "undocumented". Nobody chooses that heartbreak. Not if there are other choices.

We are all responsible. Collectively we have failed to listen to the costs of an immigration system built to force a population into undocumented existence.

I don't have any easy answers. I believe that we need to change our immigration policies and our economic policies. And that is just the start. But I believe that first we must understand the true human cost of our current situation. For that, I am thankful for the outcry at toddlers being torn from their mothers. May the horror of it startle us awake. But may we not settle too easily for the myth that these are the only children separated from their parents. May we have the courage to see the story that is not just in our news feeds but all throughout our local communities. We all have people in our communities who are separated from their families, we just have to find the courage to ask.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Top 5 things I have learned from Congolese Mothers

1.  Hit the wall.
In Congo, when a young child gets a little hurt, for example by running into a wall, the adults in the room will often offer a simple solution.  Vengeance.  Against the inanimate object of course.  The adult will say "Pardon! Pardon!" as though the wall had somehow attacked the child unfairly.  And then the adult will offer to hit the wall for the child.  Literally.  It is retribution straight up, and perhaps offers some concerning models of conflict resolution in the long term. But on the other hand, I often have witnessed tearful toddlers crack a smile at the suggestion, as though even they can see the ridiculousness of blaming the wall.  Perhaps that is a world view we could all afford to share.  

2.  Nobody has just one mama.  In Swahili, an aunt is a "mama mukubwa" (big mother) or a "mama mudogo" (little mother).  But the term is often applied generously to women friends of all sorts. And the relationship is real.  Women often take on the role of loving and carrying for and correcting eachother's children.

3.  Carry your baby on your back. 
While sewing.  And cooking.  And walking.

Or let someone else carry your baby.
While African women are often recognized for carrying their children on their backs, what is often left unsaid is that African women often ask OTHER people (particularly older girls) to carry their children on their backs.

Solange carrying Mapendo's baby.

5. Forget the stuff.  Carry a cloth.
I have rarely seen a woman in Congo carrying a diaper bag.  There aren't a lot of baby wipes, pacifiers, or dangling toys.  Children just don't come with the same collection of supplies.  But one thing that every woman has is an extra "kitenge" cloth.  It seems like no matter what has gone wrong, a Congolese woman will always have a "kitenge", quickly unwrapping one from her waist or head.  With that cloth, she can wrap a crying baby on her back, or fashion a diaper, or wipe a runny nose.

4.  Feign Seriousness.  But make a joke.
There is an approach to parenting young children that I will identify as "feigning seriousness".  Congolese women often seem to take children's dilemma's very seriously, but you can always catch a glimmer in their eyes, and the undertone of a joke running through the adults.  Sometimes, I hear myself here in the US, attempting to navigate a bedtime gone awry ("If you wiggle one more time I am going to leave!"), and I think I have lost the thread of the joke.  How serious can wiggling be?  Perhaps it is because of the communal nature of Congolese mothering, and the ever presence of multiple adults, that the jokes keep running.  Or maybe because they are a little less inclined to tie their self-worth to their children's behavior.  Whatever the reason, the undercurrent of joking definitely makes life with many children more enjoyable.

25% off all SHONA Congo bags for the next two days.  
 Discount code: mzazi at checkout. 

 Buy a SHONA Congo bag for one of your friends this Mother's Day.  These bags are great ways to connect to other women and to find strength in our shared journeys.  Each bag comes with the individual story of the woman who made that bag.