MotherTongues: Wear Words, Celebrate Cultures

about words, languages, cultures, travel

Helping Words September 15, 2017


If the words we use to describe helping each other are different in diverse cultural (and language) contexts, does that mean that we help each other differently? Or are we just describing our way of helping differently?

Here are some helping words that I’ve come across, used on different continents:

Ubuntu – Zulu and Xhosa, South Africa. Ubuntu describes the idea of community in Africa: if you are a better person, that makes me a better person because we are all connected. “I am, because of who we are.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu described ubuntu as “…part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go the extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours.” The Ubuntu t-shirt is also the bestselling MotherTongues t-shirt.

Maestranza – Spanish. In Season 1 of Chef’s Table (a Netflix original), Francis Mallman describes maestranza as the people who are around you, helping. I can’t easily find more information about maestranza online: is it a word from Argentina, or a Spanish word used widely? Please comment if you know more!

Pamoja, Pamoja – Swahili, Tanzania. This saying, literally meaning “together, together”, is used to describe togetherness as one. When we stand together, we are strong.

Minga – Quecha, a family of South American languages. A minga is called when the community needs to build a school, repair a road, or needs some other community infrastructure. This gathering is hopeful and happy, with families and neighbors coming together to do something that benefits the whole community. Every person and every community will need the help of others at some point. This South American word, which also exists as a concept in other words and cultures, teaches us how to work together joyfully for the common good of the community.

Yuimaru – Japanese. Meaning “the connecting circle”, yuimaru describes the web of life. It is used to talk about the practice of sharing and helping each other out, the spirit of cooperation, taking care of each other.

Sitike – Apache: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona. The group of (unrelated) people who will step up and help you in your time of crisis. We all need such a group!

Maybe it doesn’t matter that we use different words to describe how we help each other. Maybe it is just important to go out and help.


Rethinking Junk December 31, 2014

Filed under: Be the change,Greener lifestyle — Michelle @ 3:55 pm
Tags: ,

During this break, I got the chance to read for fun again, something I haven’t done a lot since signing up to be a student again in August. I read the book Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter, and it opened my mind to the global world of recycling. Adam grew up as the son of a scrap dealer in Minneapolis, became a professional journalist and now lives in Shanghai.

Junkyard Planet

Recycling / junk / eyeopening book

The book explains what happens to our (recyclable) junk: e-waste, plastic, cars, metals, paper. It is not a pretty story, but it is efficient. Since our waste flows to the place where the biggest value can be extracted from it, and globalization made shipping from the west coast of the USA to China cheaper than shipping from California to Colorado, (think empty containers going back to China after delivering stuff) a lot of our waste ends up in China or other parts of the East. Cheap labor makes extraction and sorting of the valuable metals possible, something that would not happen here in the USA, where most of the waste would just end up in landfills if it wasn’t shipped elsewhere. Unfortunately, the extraction is not always done in a safe and healthy way, so there are two sides to this recycling story.

“Nothing – nothing – is 100 percent recyclable, and many things, including things we think are recyclable, like iPhone touch screens, are unrecyclable. Everyone from the local junkyard to Apple to the U.S. government would be doing the planet a big favor if they stopped implying otherwise, and instead conveyed a more realistic picture of what recycling can and can’t do.”

As an example, iPhone screens contain rare earth elements, that can’t be extracted from the glass. Paper cannot be recycled indefinitely. Plastic recycling is not very efficient either. Metals are different. Copper can be recycled indefinitely, but it is not always easy to get to the copper inside of a device or a cable. Thus the need of (cheap) labor, or (expensive) technology.

In the end, increasing the recycling rate isn’t going to save the world. We need to consume less, and waste less. Reduce, reuse, recycle: in that order. Or as Bea Johnson says in her book Zero Waste Home: Refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. Junkyard Planet doesn’t give us answers, but it shows how the global world of recycling works. It is a very interesting read, if you are interested to know what happens to your junk after it leaves your recycling bin.


World Cancer Day: do something February 3, 2014

Tomorrow, February 4, is World Cancer Day. I’m sure all of us have been affected personally by cancer: be it ourselves or a family member or a friend. Let’s stand strong against cancer on this day, celebrating the survivors among us and raising awareness.

So what can we do to mark World Cancer Day? You can find events around the world here, you can spread the Debunk the Myths message through Social Media, you can purple your profile (and Chevrolet will donate $1 to the American Cancer Society), or you can donate to the American Cancer Society.

I’d like to do something too. The MotherTongues Sisu t-shirt describes the determination to get things done against impossible odds. The Dancing Woman labyrinth on the back is a symbol of women’s strength and compassion. Normally, $1 of every Sisu t-shirt sold is donated to the American Cancer Society. For this week, till February 8, MotherTongues will donate $5 of every Sisu t-shirt sold to the American Cancer Society. The shirt is available in women’s cut and unisex tees, with a little purple in the design to celebrate cancer survival. Let’s do something!

Thanks for joining me,
Michelle @ MotherTongues


Review: Where am I eating? August 21, 2013

A couple of years ago, I read Kelsey Timmerman’s book, Where am I wearing? and wrote about it in this blog post about the different places where our clothing is manufactured. Kelsey now published another book, called Where am I eating? He visited 5 countries where his (and our) coffee, chocolate, bananas, lobster, and apple juice come from.

Once again he did a wonderful job of describing the people who owns the farms, work on the farms, or in the case of lobster, dive for the food we get to eat here in the USA. And once again he made me realize that it is not a black and white world. Food grown in the USA is not always grown in a sustainable way, and food grown outside of our borders do not always mean low wages or enslavement.

Kelsey’s book makes it clear we really do not have a connection to our food and the growers/harvesters/slaughterers of it. Yes, after reading Michael Pollen‘s books, we joined a CSA and try to buy as much from local farmers as possible. But who knew that 86% of the seafood in America is imported? Who knew that nearly 50% of the spiny lobster imported into the US come from Brazil, Honduras, and Nicaragua? Kelsey visited Nicaragua and describes the divers having access to inadequate equipment, no instruction, with disastrous results.

And then, my favorite “foods”, coffee and chocolate. I’ve been happily drinking Starbucks coffee for the last year since we moved and I don’t have access to our wonderful local roaster in MI. Reading about the C.A.F.E. Practices program, Starbucks’ own set of environmental and social standards, and what Kelsey found in Colombia, made me switch back to buying Fair Trade Certified coffee. This case shows again that it is always better to have a third-party certifier.

The chocolate situation in West Africa is appalling. I’m so grateful to organizations like Green America who keep companies like Hershey’s accountable for child labor in their supply chain. I hope someday soon all major chocolate companies will insist on Fair Trade certification for their cocoa sources.

Read this book and become more aware of the “who” of your food. Who grew it, who harvested it, who slaughtered it, and who dove for it? I recently learnt of the Japanese phrase “itadakimasu”. Said before a meal, it expresses gratitude to all who cultivated, hunted, or prepared the food, as well as to the animals and plants.  I hope I can live with some more “itadakimasu”, giving more daily thought to where my food comes from.


Why choose Fair Trade for MotherTongues? July 4, 2013

Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.

It has now been about 5 years since I switched the MotherTongues t-shirts to print on 100% organic cotton t-shirts. I made this switch after we visited Australia, learned about the word Dadirri, and realized that if I want MotherTongues to be an example of the life-affirming words printed on the t-shirts, I need to use sustainable, eco-friendly apparel. I also realized that printing words about social justice, means that I need to use t-shirts made with fair labor.

Why go to all the effort to find Fair Trade t-shirts? Why not just use whatever cheapest t-shirts are available?

As a reminder, the nine principles of Fair Trade are:

1. Create Opportunities for Marginalized Producers
2. Develop Transparent Relationships
3. Build Capacity
4. Promote Fair Trade
5. Pay Promptly and Fairly
6. Support Empowering Working Conditions
7. Ensure Children’s Rights
8. Cultivate Environmental Stewardship
9. Respect Cultural Identity.

MotherTongues is committed to values such as fair trade, cultural sensitivity, ecological sustainability and economic justice. In light of these values, going Fair Trade makes sense to MotherTongues.

After a long time of searching, I decided on three suppliers of wholesale apparel and accessories. I’ve been using HaeNow, econscious, and Maggie’s Organics as suppliers of the apparel that I print on. A couple of years ago, Fair Trade USA started their pilot program for Apparel & Linens. HaeNow was one of the first companies, along with prAna, to have their products Fair Trade certified. The Fair Trade Certified Apparel program is the first of its kind, enabling consumers to consider the social, economic and environmental impact when shopping for apparel. This program directly benefits the farmers who grow the cotton and the workers who sew the clothing. MotherTongues is proud to use Fair Trade certified t-shirts. Look for the familiar Fair Trade Certified hang tag on your MotherTongues t-shirts – the same logo as on your coffee.

In the light of the Bangladesh factory incidents, I believe we should all be more aware what we are wearing. I believe that I have a responsibility towards the earth and towards the people making the t-shirts that I sell. I believe that:

environmental consciousness + social responsibility = 100% organic cotton, Fair Trade apparel = sustainable apparel

I know this is a process: there is no such thing as “the perfect t-shirt” and I can only strive to find more sustainable clothing, that is good for the earth and for the people who work in the production process. I know that as a small business, I don’t make a huge impact. But my hope is that together, we can help communities around the world. How wonderful is that.

Remember, every purchase matters!


Celebrate International Women’s Day with a song of unity March 8, 2013

Today is International Women’s Day. This year, very appropriately in light of the recent events in India and in my home country of South Africa, International Women’s Day focuses on ending violence against women. And yesterday, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. Violence against women is a gross human rights violation and affects up to 7 in 10 women – what a statistic!

A new song was launched today by UN Women. From China to Costa Rica, from Mali to Malaysia acclaimed singers and musicians, women and men, have come together to spread a message of unity and solidarity: We are “One Woman”. “One Woman” reminds us that together, we can overcome violence and discrimination: “We Shall Shine!” Enjoy this musical celebration!

My company, MotherTongues, has been giving $1 of every t-shirt sold to the Center for Women in Transition in Holland, MI, for about 5 years now. I hope to support more non-profits that help women who have lived with abuse and violence, as MotherTongues grows. Thank you for helping MotherTongues make a difference!


Domestic Violence Awareness Month October 5, 2012

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence started a Day of Unity in 1981 to connect battered women’s advocates across the nation who were working to end violence against women and children.

Did you know that 2 out of 5 women will experience abuse or violence during their lifetime? The statistics are shocking.

For the last 6 years, MotherTongues has given $1 of every t-shirt, apron or tote bag sold, to the Center for Women in Transition (CWIT) in Holland, Michigan. This amazing organization helps women and children deal with significant life challenges. I’m proud of how we have been able to help out, in our small way. And thankful for organizations like CWIT all over the country, helping out in the communities where they are located.

This month is a time to celebrate survivors, congratulate advocates, empower victims, and mourn the deaths of those lost to domestic violence. Find out if there are vigils in your community (or organize one), go listen to survivors speak out, and talk to your kids. Because we are part of an Ubuntu community – a community who cares.


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