Mothers Day has just come and gone and it prompted me to think about what makes a great mother and the mothers I know who inspire me. What would we all like to be remembered for as mums? What will be our legacy to our children? For some of us it might be that we will be remembered for our great cooking (that won’t be me), our sage advice, our calm in the face of a teenage storm, our ability to stretch a meal for four into one for eight at a moment’s notice or our willingness to attend every dance recital, football game and assembly that we could while simultaneously juggling work, home, parents and pets.
In Australia, we mothers agonize over whether or not to work or stay at home, to vaccinate or not, to go private or public with our children’s schooling, how much homework is good for our kids and the list goes on… For my friend Mary in Tanzania the question is first, ‘How can I get enough money to feed my family?’ The next might be, ‘How can I ensure my boys get an education?’
I met Mary when my husband and I and our two children lived in Tanzania in Africa in 2006. Mary was employed by us as a housekeeper as I found that in Tanzania everything we take for granted to run a household took triple the time. Every item of clothing and bedding had to be ironed to kill off the mango-fly eggs that hatch and then burrow into the human body to grow into worms. There was no such thing as a tin of tomatoes so if pasta was on the menu the tomatoes had to be chopped from scratch. The dust was insidious and the floors had to be swept and mopped every day.
Mary earned $25 per month and worked for us six days per week. She walked for one hour each way to work every day through mud in the monsoon and dust in the dry season. She used her wages to pay for her boys to attend school. Mary always wore a gorgeous pair of Ferragamo pumps that she had bought at the second-hand market which she would wipe off when she arrived at our home to help me cook and clean for the day. Mary was very bright but job opportunities in Moshi for Tanzanians are extremely scarce. She was happy to have a job. Her excellent English skills meant that she could translate for me into Kiswahili whenever a visiting tradesman required direction or to clarify issues with our nightwatchman who spoke no English.
Mary never failed to greet us with a smile and her commonsense advice was invaluable to me, a mzungu or white person from Bondi, Australia who had to learn how to navigate the local markets to get food, how to deal with the constant power outages and how to prepare a meal for four with a one burner gas stove. We spent a lot of time together at home when my husband was away volunteering and one of my children was at the nearby International school.
I grew to admire Mary immensely and after a few months of working for us she invited us all to lunch at her home, including my parents who were visiting from Australia. Her house had dirt floors, no electricity and an outside kitchen but she was bursting with pride as she showed us around. It was immaculate and she had prepared for us what I knew was a feast way beyond what she could afford based on the wages we paid her. The food she provided was food that her own family would rarely eat; chicken, beer for my Dad and soft drinks for the kids. Her two boys were dressed as they dressed for church on a Sunday in their one ‘best’ outfit.
We both cried buckets when we left to return to Australia and we have stayed in contact by email. She is still working hard for another mzungu family. She has found sponsors for both her boys to attend a better school than the ones provided by the Tanzanian government and they are doing well. Mary’s legacy to her children is that she made sure they got a good education and they were never hungry. She provided them with a role model of a hardworking and cheerful mum who made the absolute best of what she was given.
Whenever I walk past the gleaming Salvatore Ferragamo store in the QVB I think of Mary and how elegant she used to look in those pretty, patent leather pumps. If she knew how much a pair of those shoes cost she would have been amazed. For Mary life was stripped back to family, work and home but she went through life with uncomplaining grace and elegance and for that reason when I need to be inspired I like to think about Mary.