MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

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MotherTongues T-shirts spread global expressions of hope: Grand Rapids Press article July 12, 2009

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MotherTongues article in Grand Rapids Press:

MotherTongues T-shirts spread global expressions of hope

by Myron Kukla | The Grand Rapids Press

Sunday July 12, 2009, 1:30 AM

Mark Copier | The Grand Rapids Press Global expression: Michelle Hamman’s T-shirt displays the Zulu word ubuntu on the front with the English translation, I am because we are, on the back. Hamman is selling her MotherTongues line of shirts at The Bridge store in Holland and online.

HOLLAND — Michelle Hamman had a difficult time balancing a career as a consulting biomedical engineer and a stay-at-home mom with two children.

Five years ago, she decided it was time to make a change and get into a more “mother-friendly” business. Brainstorming with husband Jaco Hamman, she came up with a home-based, T-shirt business that would use their multi-language abilities — the two speak five languages between them, including the South African Afrikaans, Dutch, German, English and a little Greek — and a world-community philosophy.

MotherTongues,, was born.

The focus of the company is to take a unique word from a country such as South Africa that expresses a philosophical thought of that culture.

“Because we’re both South African, we started with the word Ubuntu, which translates into the community concept that I am a better person because we are a community and translates to English as ‘I am because we are,'” Hamman said.

She thought the T-shirt — which displays a drawing of Africa and the word Ubuntu and its translation — might be something fellow immigrants from South Africa might like to buy and wear.

Instead, she found a world market for the cultural T-shirt concept. MotherTongues, which she runs from her Holland home, now has 10 T-shirts, with words from 10 countries plus polo shirts, aprons, travel bags, totes and socks.

“To my surprise, people from around the world started buying the T-shirts,” said Hamman, 39, who manages the business while raising two daughters, Jami, 7, and Michaela, 5.

Online and in stores

She sells her messaged products online and in a dozen stores, mainly in Michigan including Global Infusion at 143 Diamond St. SE in Grand Rapids and The Bridge at 18 W. Eighth St. in Holland.

“We love MotherTongues because it fits with the store’s philosophy and expresses unique thoughts on peace, community and all of us working together,” The Bridge store manager Sara Schipper Russell said.

Among the custom-developed apparel and accessories offered by MotherTongues are one with the Dutch word gezellig, which means “togetherness that knows no time” and one with the Greek word philotimo which translates to “have an open heart.”

“I do a lot of research on words in different language before I come up with one I want to use. Then I do a design to go with the word,” said Hamman whose latest shirt came from a trip to Australia where she discovered the Aboriginal word dadirri which translates to “listen, wonder, nurture. Mother Earth.”

Wearable art

MotherTongues has developed a strong local following including from Western Theological Seminary instructor Steven Chase. He owns all 10 of the shirts.

“In the summer, MotherTongues T-shirts and jeans are all I wear. I think of the shirts as a body prayer that speaks to people when I wear them,” said Chase who teaches Christian Spirituality and Historical Theology at the Seminary.

“Ubuntu is my favorite shirt. People come up to me when I wear it and ask where I got it because they really like what the shirt says,” he said.

MotherTongues shirts sell for $25 each, with $1 from each sale donated to the Center for Women in Transition.

Last year, more than $1,000 was donated to the local center that offers crisis intervention and support services.


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