In Memory of Mama Iris

Dear colleagues and friends,

In the midst of the daily demands and challenges of our far flung network of the urban poor, I face the task today of once again bidding farewell to an iconic figure in our movement, who in her own quiet and unassuming way contributed so much to what we have become.

Iris Limakatso Namo, or Mama I as she was known to all of us, passed away this Workers Day. Born in 1930 she spent most of her adult life in Katlehong. At first she made a career as a social worker – no easy task at the best of times but especially during the brutal years of apartheid – and the East Rand (today’s Ekurheleni) was one of most brutal places during those brutal years. Always a prominent member of her congregation and the wider Catholic Church she was nominated in 1990 by Sr. Marie Mcloughlin, who ran what became the Southern African Catholic Development Agency, to run a conference on homelessness, landlessness and poverty. It was a responsibility that I shared with her, and that formed the basis of a fifteen year partnership that took us to hundreds of informal settlements in South Africa and beyond. It was a decade and a half in which we immersed ourselves fully into the lives and struggles of the slum dwellers whom we were fortunate enough to support in their extraordinary efforts to form a network of women centred savings collectives that continues to strive for equality and justice throughout the continent.

The movement itself shares many of the characteristics that we all came to identify with Mama I: quiet, understated, preferring to get on with doing things instead of making a noise and seeking attention, principled but not at the expense of pragmatism, and pragmatic but not at the expense of principle. What is more there is an ethos that defined Mama I and which the more dedicated professionals in this movement still maintain. To be sure she had the benefit of her life experience as a poor black woman growing up in apartheid South Africa to fuel her innate understanding of injustice, exclusion and exploitation. As a result she was devoid of the fuzzy sentimentality or even the professional political correctness that are valorised today ahead of (and sometimes instead of) a no nonsense determination to produce results, to work with the urban poor on their turf and on their terms.

With Mama I’s passing we can be tempted to proclaim that we have come to the end of an era – at least as far as the SA alliance is concerned. Sure there are many veterans still around, but Mama Iris joins a long list of SA alliance stalwarts who have left us for good: Vusi and Pule, her son Lucky and Magebs, Tembelihle and Mamlilo, Mam Tohlo and Tatane, Janap and Manuel, Gregory and Nomvula … the lists runs into the hundreds. I imagine she has already tracked them all down and while they are trying to comfort her, she is leading them in Federation songs, telling Patrick not to be so irreverent and making sure they are all saving every day.

Hamba Kahle Mama I. I owe you more than you ever knew.

Joel Bolnick 

Manager, SDI Secretariat


Later that same day, the SDI Secretariat received this email from a colleague in our Kenyan affiliate:

This is truly sad.

In Kenya we are currently putting together Muungano’s history. A few days ago, we remembered Mama I  in the backdrop of a 2002 enumeration exchange visit to Katlehong. I got to spend a car-ride worth of time with her then. We got to share a very special moment together. A moment that framed for me what the federation struggle meant.

I was on exchange with a rather cantankerous, far from refined, 60-something old federation mama called Monica. I love her spirit. She didn’t read and write and carried pencils, forms and other enumeration materials, with great passion and precision.

Mama I’s son picked us from the airport. Before we went to Katlehong, we drove to some place near Pretoria to pick Mama I.  On our way back, in what seemed to be a long uninteresting road, Monica startled us all by demanding in Swahili that the car stop. I translated and the car stopped.

Monica, untied the knot she had made of the seatbelt (something we all had laughed about). She got out of the car and fixed her eyes on the police station across the road. Then as if to herself said, “this is the place they killed Steve Biko”. I translated for Mama I, and asked if this was true. Mama I didn’t say anything. Monica did not need our confirmation.

Back in the car Mama I asked if Monica had been to South Africa before and I said she hadn’t been. She asked me to ask Monica how she knew this. Monica said that there was picture in the Kenyan newspaper the day Biko died.  She had kept a newspaper cutting. We all didn’t say very much after.

I then understood Monica’s struggle was far deeper than the accurate tabulation of enumeration results. I think Mama I may have shared a kinship with Monica far beyond distance, refinement, language, programming… – I am sure they shared a special depth in understanding of the state of poverty.

May she rest in eternal peace.