For the last two years, my students at the two seminaries where I taught addressed me as “Ma.” For a while, I thought the term was short for “Ma’am,” since male teachers were often addressed as “Sir,” or “Prof.”  As time passed, however, I realized it was a more personal, endearing, but complicated short form for, “Mother.”


Mothers in Nigeria are almost universally highly regarded, respected, and revered. Once a woman has given birth to children, raised them, and has a few (or many!) gray hairs, she has earned respect and even a right to be listened to – even outside of the family context where she traditionally reigns. Being addressed as “Ma,” in this sense, is an honour and a natural extension of what the students saw as my role – as an older person and as a mother. Perhaps the subject matter I taught also encouraged this sort of connection. Mothers, after all, are considered the key trainers of children, inculcating the moral and ethical values of the society in their offspring. Peace studies focuses on how relationships work and its foundational value is that peace and non-violence are social goods.


In contrast, women in Nigeria have a deeply paradoxical experience. On the one hand, several have achieved political acclaim. The Finance Minister in the last federal government was a woman. There are many women who are professors, principals, doctors, teachers, lawyers…though there are few female leaders in religious institutions. On the other hand, women are also marginalized. While almost 70% of men in Nigeria can read and write, just under half of the women can – representing a 20% gap in literacy rates.[1] 70% of those living below the poverty line in Nigeria are women.[2] “Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates [in the world]…. [E]very 10 minutes, a woman dies from pregnancy related complications.”[3] Though difficult to document, a 2008 study suggests that 28% of Nigerian women have experienced physical violence.[4] There are estimates that 12,000 women have been raped by Boko Haram.[5]


Grappling with what I perceive as contradictory experiences of mothers vs. women in Nigeria is a knot I cannot untie. My Nigerian female friends value their role as mothers and home makers and use their age as an advantage that forms a platform from which they advocate for the political and social change they require, even if they are also professional women.


Meanwhile, I contemplate returning to doing some university teaching in Canada. What has given me authority and esteem here – motherhood and age – I expect will mean little there. Perhaps these aspects of my identity may even be considered a detriment. Feminism in the west has made it more possible for women to garner respect based on their knowledge, skills, and experience and we are, at least officially, evaluated on the same grid as men. I wouldn’t want it any other way either and will continue to struggle with others against the “white, male, heterosexual” power norms.


Still, as traditional as it may sound, I expect to feel a level of sadness that two important aspects of Who I Am may mean little, or be considered secondary qualities. While a term like “motherhood” is being redefined and its use is not always politically correct, I believe there is much that I have to offer from my experience as a parent and mentor.  As an older woman with almost white hair, I know that 50+ years of life and work in four countries and two continents has formed in me some “old-fashioned wisdom”. While knowledge and information are valuable, they are incomplete if not integrated with insight, judgement, and foresight borne of experience.


So when I enter the classroom next September, I don’t want Canadian students to call me “Ma” – not at all.  But I do hope I earn their respect – not just for the rigor of the presented subject matter, but also for wisdom and guidance.


[1] “Nigeria,” CIA The World Fact Book, (18 May, 2015), https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/resources/the-world-factbook/geos/ni.html, accessed 7 June, 2015.

[2] Agabus Pwanagba, “70% of Nigerian women are living below poverty line – Minister,” Daily Post (13 July, 2013), http://dailypost.ng/2013/07/13/70-of-nigerian-women-are-living-below-poverty-line-minister/, accessed 7 June, 2015.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Research and Statistics,” Domestic Violence and Abuse Resource Centre, Centre for Health Ethics Law and Development, CHELD, http://domesticviolence.com.ng/research-statistics/, accessed 7 June, 2015/

[5] Ludovica Iaccino, “Nigeria: Boko Haram has raped 12,000 women,” International Business Times (4 June, 2015), http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/boko-haram-12000-nigerian-women-care-after-being-raped-by-terrorists-1504485, accessed 7 June, 2015.

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14 Responses to “Ma”

  1. pcwoolner says:

    Thanks so much for sharing these reflections Mary Lou. May your return to Canada and new experiences there be informed by the ‘Ma’ that you have been in Nigeria, and for the wisdom that comes with maturity and experience.

  2. Betty Thiessen says:

    Hi Patrice, I thought I would send you this post because David’s family sometimes refers to me as “Ma.” I was a little puzzled by it and didn’t understand what was behind it. Happy tutoring. Betty

    Sent from my iPad


  3. Ronald Mathies says:

    Well said! Great pictures.

    When will we see you back in KW? Will you be teaching at Grebel in September?

    Patience and Peace in the transitions.


  4. Suzanne says:

    Fantastic and interesting post. What a complex role women carry. Thank you for being a role model of how to wear the many hats with wisdom and with grace.

  5. Elfrieda says:

    I love how you look as “ma” Mary Lou! I was called “Mama Hardy” or “Mama Christine” (names of husband and oldest child) most of the time while we were in Congo. One woman always called me by my first name, and I’m not sure why she did that, but it was like a breath of fresh air. I felt like I had my identity back for that brief moment! I’ll always love her for that.

  6. ALBERT ISAAC says:

    A very interesting read. Thank you for keeping us up to date, and we look forward to seeing you soon. Al & Marg Isaac Date: Tue, 9 Jun 2015 08:32:49 +0000 To: isaacal@sympatico.ca

  7. Craig Cressman Anderson says:

    Thanks, Mary Lou, Dave.

  8. Rose says:

    This post brought me to tears – perhaps getting at a disconnect that I feel deeply as well, but hadn’t thought about in this way. To read about the status of mothers as the caretakers of the future and as taking a respected and important role in the community is inspiring and also saddening, as you said. I know that generally, things don’t work that way here and that those very central aspects of my identity are disregarded and even seen as detrimental to my value as a “productive” member of my community. With my first grey hair taking it’s place on my head, I am beginning to consider the meaning of my age as well. Perhaps, as I struggle to reconcile the “ought” and the “is”, I can simply start to change the way that I see women, mothers and even grey hairs, and model the respect and honour that I crave, to my own children…Thank you for this. The words and photos are so beautiful.

    • Of all people, Rose, you will have a level of understanding of these ideas different from many considering the way you were able to connect deep questions of motherhood with the classical world of philosophy. It is young women/mothers like you who will lead us into the next era. You will stand on the shoulders of those many who have gone before us, but you will forge broader and wider worlds than we could ever dream of. Carry on! ML

  9. Kitshiwe William says:

    Great piece Mary lou. The pictures also speak volume of a mother and friend who deserves all the ‘Ma’. You earned it because you worked for it. I can assure you that you were closely watched and have endeared many by the way you lived. Wish you all the best in your endeavors.

  10. Sara Rich says:

    This is so beautifully written. I often struggle to articulate why in teaching, teaching about information is important but not enough… and you’ve captured it perfectly. “While knowledge and information are valuable, they are incomplete if not integrated with insight, judgement, and foresight borne of experience.” Part of what I strived for as a history teacher was to teach my kids how to use information to make a judgement. Good luck with your transition back to Canada.

  11. Ginny says:

    Thank you, Mary Lou. We look forward to benefiting from your wisdom in North America. Dave, the photo of “Ma” with her students on balcony illustrates well the respect the students give her–and the joy she feels in teaching them.

  12. Margaret says:

    What beautiful photos and your descriptions of your teaching experience are inspiring. I wish you a smooth transition into your next teaching position. But as you say, you will be a different person than you were two years ago. Can’t wait to see you at UW.

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