Creating community, one t-shirt at a time
I live between my mother tongue, Afrikaans, and American English. As someone born and raised in South Africa, I brought to the United States values of community and being that are very different from North American culture. Fourteen years after leaving South Africa, however, I am more convinced than ever that one culture can educate another. And so MotherTongues, our small T-shirt company, was born.
We (my husband is my big inspiration and motivator) started with words known to us that can’t be directly translated into English. We printed these words on T-shirts and defined the words in a poetic description on the back of the shirt. The first T-shirt we did was “ubuntu,” a Zulu or Xhosa word from South Africa. Ubuntu is a term for humaneness, for caring, sharing and being in harmony with all of creation.
In “No Future Without Forgiveness” Archbishop Desmond Tutu says this about the concept of ubuntu: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu u nobuntu’; ‘Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have … We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons …’” Tutu adds: “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”
We wanted to share this concept with the world.
Now, with every T-shirt we add, we draw on the wisdom within various cultures as they speak to community, social justice and ecological awareness. We continue to search cultures for interesting words, whether on our travels, by reading lots of books or by asking people who can speak languages other than English whether they have more wisdom to share.
These concepts speak to people of all faiths and currently, MotherTongues T-shirts are worn in 14 countries, from Australia to Zambia.
I love this quote from Maya Angelou in “Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now”:
“Being exposed to the existence of other languages increases the perception that the world is populated by people who not only speak differently from oneself but whose cultures and philosophies are other than one’s own. Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry but by demonstrating that all people cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try to understand each
other, we may even become friends.”
I hope the messages of the T-shirts will convey meaningful values from various cultures that we can all relate to and learn from.
Research about the words we choose is leading us on an interesting journey. While traveling in Australia and reading about Dadirri, which describes the way the Aboriginal people in Australia have lived in harmony with the earth for thousands of years, I felt that only 100 percent organic cotton would do the concept of Dadirri justice. This has led to more changes. All the tags of the T-shirts that describe the words in more detail, as well as our brochures and shipping labels, are now printed on 100 percent post-consumer waste (recycled) paper. In 2007 we switched the T-shirts to 100 percent organic cotton, made according to Fair Trade principles. We are also supporting the Center for Women in Transition locally with $1 of every t-shirt, bag or apron sold, with the intention of supporting more causes in our community and wider as MotherTongues sales grow.
MotherTongues has been transformational in my own life. My ecological awareness has grown even as my concern for many societies around the world increased. Celebrating cultures one word at a time is true for me. It continues to be an exciting journey!