From mademoiselle to grandma in six years

In Zimbabwe, being called 'grandma' isn't necessarily an indication of one's age.

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At the ripe age of 34, I started being called a grandma. It was a shock. Six years ago, in my previous life in Paris, I skipped along the boulevards in a pair of strappy white dolly shoes, collecting baguettes and tartes aux poireaux for lunch. The baker's assistant in the Rue des Trois Frères always greeted me with a friendly: "Bonjour, Mademoiselle."

I liked the Mademoiselle, a gallant form of address to a young woman old enough to be treated with respect but probably not old enough to be married. Still, I knew that for me, eventually becoming Madame was as inevitable as graduating to the elegant navy and cream, two-tone court shoes so favored by French matrons.

Being referred to as a grandma, though – now that was a huge leap.

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I didn't notice it at first. Newly arrived in Zimbabwe, I was absorbed in the husband, the fiercely independent tabby with the snow-white chest, and the infant I acquired (in that order).

Of course, I also picked up a smattering of words in the local Shona language, the way you might collect shells on a beach. Mari for money, mazai for eggs, mangwanani for good morning, and mai for mother. I noted my finds in a pink pocket notebook along with the address for a good pediatrician, passed on by a Swiss diplomat at a book fair, and my mother-in-law's recipe for rusks. Chingwa is the word for bread; katsi for cat. All were important nouns – to me, at least.

Slowly, in the muttered jumble of overheard store and bank conversations, I began to pick out words I recognized. How is sekuru (grandfather)? And then, one black yet sunny day a few months ago, I heard it: Could somebody please help fill ambuya's shopping basket?

Ambuya (or the shorter form mbuya) is grandmother. With horror, I lifted my eyes and realized that it was my woven straw basket (bought hastily from the side of the road and now taken on every shopping trip) that needed packing. Six wedding anniversaries and several pairs of plastic flip-flop sandals since Paris, and I had become the kind of woman people refer to as "grandma."

I loaded my own basket and fled to the car. I didn't tell my husband what his wife had become, not wanting him to notice more than was strictly necessary the three gray hairs that sprout determinedly from somewhere to the left of my crown.

Now that I was listening out for "grandma," I started hearing it every day. How is ambuya? Be careful, ambuya. Please weigh those bananas for ambuya. I smiled bravely and said tatenda (thank you).

I think it was my grandma who said that it's important to age gracefully.

It was only when I had Tadiwa come for lunch recently that I realized that octogenarian status doesn't have to be mine just yet.

Tadiwa is 18 and has just finished her A-level examinations. We sipped water and talked about the grades she will need to be able to go to university to study social sciences. Her four half sisters all had babies by the time they were 18. Tadiwa wants to do something different.

There was no chingwa, but I made us sweet-corn fritters with spring onions from my husband's vegetable garden. Tadiwa told me that when I next go to visit her mother, we will eat okra. She showed me how I must make a hole in a bowl of imaginary stiff maize porridge to eat the okra. And I told her I would look forward to it.

We picked at dried bananas and talked about respect, the way Zimbabweans never call women by their first names once they have children. A woman here is called mai and then the name of her eldest child. Tadiwa's mother is Mai Tadiwa. My mother would be Mai Kate.

In Zimbabwe, even a husband would never call his wife by her first name.

I was fascinated, but I couldn't stop that nagging feeling. I might be a mai myself, but I'm not even double Tadiwa's age. I can remember my days in the university language laboratories learning French and Italian as though it was yesterday.

Finally, I plucked up my courage and asked, "Tadiwa, do I look very old to you?"

"Old?" I could see her considering it. She didn't look me in the eye because she's younger than I, and that would show disrespect.

"Because," I added – and it came out in a rush – "in the shops, they call me grandma!"

Tadiwa started to laugh. "It's a term of respect. Ambuya doesn't just mean grandma, it also means mother-in-law. The shop assistants say that to anyone who's older than they are. They're being polite, that's all."

"Really?" I asked, feeling relief. "They don't think I look ancient?"

"No," she said. "I promise you."

That night, as I rested my bare feet on the cool stone floor, I told my husband that he nearly had a grandma for a wife and ended up with a mother-in-law instead. I also told him that I'm glad our child is growing up in a place where he will learn respect.

And I told him that I'm happy to be learning new things every day, despite my gray hairs.

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