The president's wife is not the 'mother of the nation'

Sep 19, 2012

'Mai' means 'mother' in Shona. 'Amai' is the more expansive, respectful form which covers a lot of broader uses, such as indicating not just literal motherhood, but a woman's overall status as a respected matriarch of her general community. While it is quite appropriate to refer to the president or prime minister wife as 'Amai whatever-her-name-is,' it is dangerous and not appropriate in a modern democracy to try to suggest that 'Amai X' is also somehow the symbolic 'mother of the nation.' It is not difficult to understand why this may be appealing to politicians, but it is nevertheless nonsense.

The corresponding  'father of the nation' tag in Zimbabwe is usually officially applied to refer to the late freedom and one-time vice president, Joshua Nkomo. Once he was safely dead and out of the way, the people who had made much of his post-Independence life so miserable by hounding and persecuting him have tried to appease his family and followers by post-posthumously flattering him with the 'father Zimbabwe' tag. 

In that limited usage, despite its political cynicism, the 'father of the nation' appellation has a little bit of validity, given Nkomo's undoubtedly pivotal role in bringing about Zimbabwe's Independence.

But generally, 'mother or father of the nation' are hero-worshiping terms that have no place in a democratic society. They are often used to add to the mystique and personality cult of the president/prime minister of the day. 'Father' or 'mother' in such contexts is designed to apply an extra degree of gradations between citizens. It attempts to hide the fact that the president/prime minister is (supposed to be) primarily Public Servant Number One, not a sort of lord over everybody.   

Sally Mugabe, president Robert Mugabe late first wife, seems to be  widely remembered as having been approachable, down to earth and generally 'motherly' in her nature. Perhaps the genuine regard she earned from many Zimbabweans is where the whole semi-official 'mother of the nation' nonsense began.

When she died, the handlers of her controversial, much younger  successor as wife of the president tried to have her 'inherit' the 'amai we nyika/mother of the nation' semi-official 'title.' The effort was a horrible failure and was largely abandoned. She simply did not have the same respect and affection of the Zimbabwean public for that gambit to work. She must settle for the less culturally weighty but fashionable non-official title of  'first lady,' although this has been ridiculously strung out to even refer to her husband and children as 'the first family.'

One can see how this kind of fawning behaviour makes the affected politicians do everything in their power to hang on to power until the very bitter end, whatever it may take. For those who are particularly needy and impressionable, this kind of flattery goes straight to their heads and becomes an intoxicating addiction.

So she is fairly enough referred to as 'Amai wife-of-the-president,' but the occasional efforts to suggest that she is therefore also 'mother of the nation' just sound feeble and embarrassing. Those kinds of informal titles of respect and affection are earned and bestowed by public acclamation, not by edict of the rulers propagandists.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has just got himself a new wife after his first wife died a few years ago. Officially introducing her to a crowd of his supporters, Tsvangirai is reported to have said something to the effect that 'ndi amai venyu/she is your mother,' and to suggest his followers should use her as a conduit to funnel their concerns.

Even keeping in mind that what is said in Shona has in-group, more culturally-wide interpretations that do not directly translate into English, it is still wrong and ridiculous that Mrs-wife-of-the-prime minister automatically assumes a mothering/mentoring rule to the party faithful!

The presidency or prime minister-ship are not family projects of the individuals occupying these positions at any given time. Their spouses are their partners, but are fully private citizens with no semi-official or symbolic role except any that they may earn on their own system over time.

You cannot appoint 'Amai-your-wife' to be 'mother of the nation or of the party,' for goodness sake.

Children can refer to their parents as 'father' or 'mother.' Citizens of a modern democratic state are well advised to simply regard and refer to the spouse of the president/prime minister simply as "Mister" or "Mrs/Madam" so-and-so.

The Zimbabwe Review



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