Let us mark Mother’s Day with Sophia, Semenya and a dash of Meghan-mania

Friday May 10 2019

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, pose for a photo with their newborn baby son in St George's Hall at Windsor Castle in Windsor on May 8, 2019. PHOTO | DOMINIC LIPINSKI | POOL AFP

By Austin Bukenya

Sophia is the name of one of my mothers. I have many mothers because all members of my mother’s lineage, or clan, are my mothers. That includes the men of the lineage, whom I call my male mothers (ma-rume). That is how, as I told you, my local MP, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, happens to be one of my “mothers”.


Mother Sophia is a Muslim and she should be observing the hallowed pillar of the Fast (saum) during this month of Ramadhan. Sadly, however, poor health and advanced age will only allow her to seek the blessings of the season through alternative devotions, like providing the underprivileged believers with iftar, the wherewithal to break the daily fast.

I always think with profound tenderness of my many close Muslim relatives and friends during this season of prayer and discipline. As our wise and prudent leaders always remind us, the exercise is a training school for the challenges of life. There were, however, other reasons why I particularly thought of Sophia this year.

Tomorrow, May 12, as you realise, is Mother’s Day, it being the second Sunday of the month. That is from a different tradition, but my Sophia is one of the last surviving nieces of my mother and I thought she should represent all my mothers at my celebration of motherhood. Intriguingly, Sophia is a name that is beloved of all followers of the monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In Judaism, it often appears as “Tzofia”, but those are just the vagaries of enunciation.

The point here is that we would all be a lot happier in our faiths if we recognised and appreciated the things that unite us across the different expressions of our faith. We are all the products of many backgrounds — or heritages, as Ali Mazrui calls them — that thrive simultaneously around us and even within us. Sophia may thus be Islamic, Christian or Hebraic.



But the Sophia that I am celebrating this Mother’s Day is bigger and tronger than the frail but beloved frame of my ageing “mother”. Sophia is a Greek name meaning “wisdom”. Thus, philosophy (philo-sophia) is the love of wisdom. But “Sophia” is a more, well — sophisticated — concept than plain wisdom. It is a whole complex web of knowledge, skills, perceptions, insights, experiences, judgments and competences associated with meaningful existence.

This is the wisdom, the mother of all understanding, and the all-understanding mother, that I would like us to celebrate tomorrow as we honour our mothers. Their wisdom is, in our faiths, so exalted that it is regarded as an attribute of God. You may want to see if it is accurate to describe Chapter 8 of the biblical book of Proverbs as a “Hymn to Wisdom”.

Often when we celebrate our mothers, we think of their beauty, their tenderness, their love, their strength, their patience with us and their sacrifices for us. This is as it should be, and anyone who does not appreciate these gifts in one’s mother either never had a deserving mother or never deserved having a mother.

But mother’s wisdom is a quality that we tend to take very much for granted, maybe because of its patent obviousness. Yet it is not so obvious the moment you start thinking about it.

How, for example, do mothers manage to communicate with us, almost infallibly, long before we can utter a sound, pull a face or manage a touch? How do they make the delicate life-or-death decisions whether to have us at all, not to throw us away or suffocate us at birth, even in the face of a brutally and brutishly indifferent or hostile world?


As for raising us, I once provocatively told my fellow men somewhere that, to a certain extent, every mother is a “single” mother. Maybe that is where the strength comes in.

Speaking of strong women, the strange tale of Caster Semenya dominated this week. The phenomenal South African athlete is, apparently, being advised by world sporting authorities to take drugs in order to affect her performance on the track.

This is long after she successfully passed all the strange tests performed on her to “prove” that she is a woman, following her uniquely good performances in her 800-metre races.

My understanding is that this woman is being told that, in order to compete fairly with other women, she will have to take (performance-reducing) drugs, substances that would affect her naturally occurring hormone levels. The Kiswahili word that came into my mind on hearing of these strange goings-on was “mantiki”, logic. Briefly, two questions arose in my mind.

First, why has no man ever had to prove that he was really a man following his exceptionally strong performance? Secondly, how can it be right for Semenya to take drugs to affect her performance, downwards, when it is wrong for other athletes to take drugs to affect their performances, upwards? I admit I am too thick and ignorant to consider the possible side effects of Semenya’s proposed “treatment”. Would it not be easier to create a category for people like Semenya to compete among themselves?


But to end on a motherly note, did you notice Meghan Markle’s giving the world a baby during the build-up to Mother’s Day? Remember the duchess was an actor in her previous life, and timing is crucial in that trade. I told you about the Meghan-mania phenomenon, about this time last year, and suggested some reasons for it.

The fascination has continued unabated up to now. Maybe now that Meghan Markle is actually a mother, we may add another reason for the craze. Is the world, especially the Anglo-American world, in need of a mother?

The late poet Jonathan Kariara’s favourite song was the spiritual “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child”. Maybe “toxic” America and (not quite yet) Brexit Britain felt like that, until Meghan Markle began to sparkle.

Happy Mother’s Day to our wise mothers, and all who love them.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]