01 02 03 Africa Expat Wives Club: Madam, Mze, Bwana, Mma, Rra... 04 05 15 16 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 31 32 33

Madam, Mze, Bwana, Mma, Rra...

I received a comment asking what the titles Mma and Rra in Alexander Macall Smith's the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency meant. I must admit that I googled the answer that revealed Mma short for Madam and Rra for Sir.

It got me thinking, I have been called 'Madam' for the past ten years in Africa which is very old fashioned and strange (especially as when I arrived I was in my mid twenties) but you get used to it and after a while stop noticing. Maybe it strikes our overseas visitors as odd, but no one has mentioned it. Perhaps I should have been more insistent that people use my name, especially people that I see every day but I never thought of doing this which is rather shameful I guess. In fact being called 'madam' is just how it is and how it has been for a very long time. There is the added complication that my name is in fact a boys name here, so whenever I do give my christian name the reaction is disbelief.

In Kenya it is customary and polite to call ladies 'madam' or 'mama' (mother), for younger women it is sometimes 'dada' meaning sister and men 'bwana' or even 'boss'. There is also the title 'mzee', which literally means 'old' but because being old means that you deserve much respect in this community then it is a flattering title (though my father in law does not agree and still says: 'less of the mzee thank you!').

In Tanzania it is very important to use the correct etiquette when greeting people. Endless exchanges of: how are you? how is your home? how are your children? how is your job? can be tiresome, especially when taking place in a lift with a stranger or on the telephone when you only want to be transferred to speak to someone else. In Kenya people cut to the chase a little quicker but there is always some kind of greeting first. Even in business, to pick up the phone, omit to say hello and open with 'can I speak to...' would be considered very rude.

Politicians are given the title 'honorable' for some reason and while the newspapers delight in revealing corruption stories linked to government MPs they will still give them their correct title. At the time of the election chaos there was some debate on the radio as to whether some political figures actually deserved to be called 'leaders' in light of the fact that they seemed consumed by only pursuing power for the sake of their own gain and not the greater good of the country.

The custom of calling everyone by their first name in England has not yet reached here though things are gradually becoming less formal. I know that there are many people in the UK, particularly of the older generations, who might regret that more respectful titles have been dispensed with. At my eldest daughter's school, they still call their teachers 'Mrs' or 'Mr' and are forbidden to do otherwise.

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