Cork project celebrates mothers’ sayings from all over the world

The inherited sayings and mantras of mothers are celebrated in a new project, ‘Mother Tongue’ writes JENNIFER HORGAN
Cork project celebrates mothers’ sayings from all over the world

Deborah Oniah, Blerina Hysaj, Margaret Wanjiku Ndiritu, Dr Naomi Machete, Arife Hysaj and Inga Snetkova at the unveiling of Saoirse, the public art mural created, an installed, by visual artist Holly Pereira at Nano Nagle Place as part of The Mother Tongue Project. The ladies are also holding some of the beautiful tote bags designed as part of the project. Picture: Darragh Kane

PEOPLE commonly carry their mothers’ sayings with them throughout their lives. Mine was fond of ‘waste not, want not.’ It runs through my head most days, usually as I obediently portion away leftovers in the fridge.

The Mother Tongue project, part of the Kinsale Arts Festival this weekend, draws together these inherited sayings and mantras. Sponsored by the Local Enterprise Office in County Cork and run by mothers, Mother Tongue embraces multilingualism as a source of creativity, and acknowledges the vital role of mothers in our communities.

The final products, on sale at the festival, are beautiful hand-crafted tote bags adorned with these sayings from around the world. The story of their creation is the story of a project that connected a group of women in Cork’s Migrant Centre, Nano Nagle Place.

Deborah Oniah, second from left, who spoke to us about the Mother Tongue project, and Sr Jo McCarthy founder of Cork Migrant Centre, far right with some of the Mother Tongue tote bags.
Deborah Oniah, second from left, who spoke to us about the Mother Tongue project, and Sr Jo McCarthy founder of Cork Migrant Centre, far right with some of the Mother Tongue tote bags.

Coffee Morning Creatives

The project developed organically from conversations held during Friday morning coffee morning for mothers in Direct Provision at the Cork Migrant Centre. The sessions, run by practitioners working in Cork Migrant Centre, alongside volunteers from U.C.C and the community, have proved fruitful.

Deborah Oniah, a member of the coffee morning group explains that during lockdown they made facemasks. When restrictions were lifted, they were keen to continue their collaborative work.

“We are always working on something, wanting to contribute. The original idea for Mother Tongue came from simple conversations about our mothers, about what they would say to us growing up. That was it. But we soon discovered how rich those stories are.”

Deborah Oniah with one of the Mother Tongue totes. Picture: Darragh Kane
Deborah Oniah with one of the Mother Tongue totes. Picture: Darragh Kane

The group is mostly made up of mothers with small children. In Direct Provision they lack the help of extended families so time away from the young ones is precious. The coffee mornings have been a lifeline for many, Deborah explains, bringing women together from the different centres across Cork.

“Being a mum in Direct Provision doubles your restrictions. You can’t call to a family member. It is you and your kids in that room all the time, without any break. It is very hard for us mothers to feel like we’re part of a community, to feel that we’re really contributing something.

“These coffee mornings are great. We are given time to do workshops or to do yoga, to collaborate creatively away from our children for just a short time. This time empowers women and makes us feel safe.”

Kinsale Totes

The profits from the totes, produced for 15 euro and selling for 20 euro, will help the group to continue in their collaborative projects. Each tote will identify the language of the quotation and provide an English translation.

“Some members of the group are trained seamstresses, so they are very skilled in working with fabrics. That’s how we created the totes, with the help of artist Deirdre Breen.

The Mother Tongue tote bags.
The Mother Tongue tote bags.

“The tote bags showcase our many talents and just how diverse we are as a group. We have women from Albania, Pakistan, Nigeria and many other countries. 

"What’s interesting is that the more we talked the more we recognised that we had similar mothers in very different cultures. My mother’s saying means that tomorrow can only get better. So many of the ideas are universal.”

These sayings and wisdoms, Deborah informs me, are what mothers have shared for generations with their children. The project facilitates the intergenerational transfer of this maternal wisdom.

The original idea for Mother Tongue came from simple conversations about our mothers, about what they would say to us growing up.
The original idea for Mother Tongue came from simple conversations about our mothers, about what they would say to us growing up.

Core to the mother tongue project is highlighting the similarities among mothers globally and locally. These sayings are GLOCAL (Global + Local) and celebrate cultural particularities while highlighting the connections which unite mothers and women across all boundaries, both physical and imagined. That connection is hugely important argues Oniah.

One of the tote bags with a mother's saying.
One of the tote bags with a mother's saying.

“When you have no-one you feel lost. When you connect with other people you start to find yourself again. The core reason we left our countries was to feel safe. That’s why we are all here. But we also need connection to feel safe. We want to be a part of something, just like everyone else.

“We all have mothers, so this project connects us. The more we talked about our mothers and our language, our home countries, the deeper the conversations became. Irish people might think of saying in Irish too. This is about everybody.”

Deborah Oniah is deeply thankful to the festival for inviting the group to participate and believes that projects of this kind are vital for everyone in society.

“Our concerns about mental health are very real. We need far more empathy in the world and sharing stories of our mothers is a part of that. Everyone should mind themselves and each other.”

The Ubuntu Dance Group at Nano Nagle Place, who also perform at Kinsale Arts Weekend
The Ubuntu Dance Group at Nano Nagle Place, who also perform at Kinsale Arts Weekend

Ubuntu Project

The mother tongue project happens alongside another wonderful contribution from the Cork Migrant Centre at Nano Nagle Place. This time, it’s the young people at the helm. UBUNTU, the name of this second project is a Zulu word for interconnectedness or humanity. Its closest translation is ‘I am because we are.’

I spoke with Youth Project Worker Fionnuala O Connell. She works with the young people in the Migrant centre alongside the women who meet for their coffee mornings. She coordinates activities to empower young people, creating a platform, and exposing them to different mediums to express themselves.

“We work with an amazing team engaging with so many amazing collaborators and volunteers in the community that are so dedicated to supporting young people.”

The CMC Ubuntu dance group from the Millstreet Direct Provision centre are led by a young person called Ardinie Mulanga who was mentored by Andrea Williams and will perform at the Kinsale Arts Festival.

Alongside the dancers, a film will be screened comprising footage from another aspect of the Ubuntu project, done in collaboration with UCC Cypher project and the Kabin studio in north Cork. The footage comes from the making of the TV series Ireland’s Changemakers, aired earlier this year. Expect dazzling hip hop and heaps of talent.

Crystal-Lee Nolan, who took part in the series, comments: “It was an experience of a lifetime for me, it was the first live performance I was involved with. I really enjoyed it all together and the audience was amazing as were the performers, dancers and everyone involved with the Ubuntu project.”

The profits from the totes, produced for 15 euro and selling for 20 euro, will help the group to continue in their collaborative projects. 
The profits from the totes, produced for 15 euro and selling for 20 euro, will help the group to continue in their collaborative projects. 

A universal Language

Fionnuala O’Connell, excited about the event, identifies the need for such continued artistic expression among communities who have been forced to flee their home countries.

“My mother is from Liberia and had to leave during the Liberian civil war. So much can happen to a person that is out of their control and that makes them feel afraid and isolated. 

Another one of the bags designed by the women.
Another one of the bags designed by the women.

"I know first-hand that people need to feel safe and supported wherever they are. It’s so important to give them a voice and to celebrate their talents. 

"The young people we work with speak so many different languages but through the universal language of the arts they can have their say and be empowered.”

O’Connell recognises the desire for this in her work at the Cork Migrant Centre.

“We cannot neglect the psycho-social element of wellbeing. People need to feel confident to have self-esteem. They need creative outlets to contribute to the society they find themselves in. It is so important that they don’t feel isolated.”

The Kinsale Arts Weekend runs from July 7 to 10. See www.kinsaleartsweekend.com/

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