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. 70% of those living below the poverty line in Nigeria are women. “Nigeria has one of the highest maternal mortality rates [in the world]…. [E]very 10 minutes, a woman dies from pregnancy related complications.” Though difficult to document, a 2008 study suggests that 28% of Nigerian women have experienced physical violence. There are estimates that 12,000 women have been raped by Boko Haram.
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.
 “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.
 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.
 “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/
 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.