Ettlinger’s Women and Family Centre: Where Food Becomes a Vehicle for Learning Cultures

Victuals Market, München, Germany. Illustration photo by Mohammad Saifullah.

Frustrated by the conflict that started at lunchtime with their children when school ended in Germany, Helga Hinse and four other mothers took matters into to their own hands, and founded Ettlinger’s Women and Family Centre in 1995.

Ettlinger’s Women and Family Centre was started as a low threshold to welcome everyone to have a good lunch together to ease the afternoon for working mothers. Hinse had spent 12 years as the Head of Ettlinger’s Women and Family Centre on a voluntary basis. She is now a board member of Müetterforum, an umbrella organisation for independent mother and family centres in Baden-Württemberg, and a retired secondary school teacher.

What concerned Hinse was that many of the immigrant mothers who came to the centre did not speak German, so they offered German language courses while their children were being taken care of under the same roof. Hinse believed that it is important for immigrants to understand the culture and language when they move to Germany.

“The main thing is that all mothers want to do the best for their children and if you do it as early as possible, as early as they are here, then it is a way to get them involved. And they find it is important to learn the language,” said Hinse.

The centre has about 350 members and located in the town, Ettlinger of 40 000 inhabitants. They started with a primary focus on language acquisition as the main activity, “But language is not the most important thing,” explained Hinse. “Language, for my idea, is just a vehicle. The main thing is the culture behind [it]. So, we have to find out about their culture and our cultures, so we can compare and combine etc. This is how we started.”

Food as Vehicle for Cultural Bridging and Language Acquisition

In the beginning, Hinse has had to communicate with immigrant mothers through using hand gestures and a dictionary, but eventually she found another ‘vehicle’ to bridge and exchange cultures and attitudes.

“It starts with something that all women do – cooking, eating and wanting to have good food, healthy food. So, we started the vehicle with food. With food, there is such a variety. It’s not just food to keep us full. Food has something to do with nutrition. So, we show them the different products whether it is good or bad.”

Some immigrant mothers were observed to have fed their children with fruit juices, cakes and crisps, as they thought this was what Western people do. But these were unhealthy, junk food so the centre started a new project to educate the mothers through grocery shopping about food nutrition.

“The next step was showing the mothers the products and different kinds of foods in Germany. So, we took them shopping and educated them about seasonal and local food. As the mothers wanted to buy their food; the food from their home country was expensive. But what substitute can you find?”

Hinse continued, “Let’s suppose you have different kinds of roots – for example beetroots instead of tomato. Because it is too expensive to buy tomatoes in the winter in Germany as we don’t grow here. So, finding a substitute was the next step as this has also something to do with the economy.”

Language was secondary for Hinse in the new project that offers food and nutrition education. What was important was that it opened up other topics connected to food such as hygiene and economy.

While language may be reduced during such education, but on the other hand she said, “I always used to say make yourself understood as this is the main thing. And there are people who can work with 40 words of language, and they are quite good at it.”

Language Tests Cannot Measure Self-confidence

Having seen traumatised mothers visit the centre, she believed that it is important to allow them the space and time to both feel safe and rested. To press these mothers to learn something new, such as a new language, while they are suffering would be a bad idea. Hinse explained that there are steps to fulfil so that mothers can feel fully confidence in their integration process.

“I can measure language. I can give them a language test, and then say whether you speak German or not. But I cannot measure self-confidence,” she added.

For Hinse, integration is about accepting people at the same level rather than imposing our own values on others who are different. “[…] They have their culture and knowledge, and experiences which are just as important as mine.” By picking up the language that the immigrant mothers spoke, she considered it can be a way to ease the cultural exchanges.

Empowering Mothers for the Labour Market

The centre is now highly respected and recognised for their work for mothers and families, debunking any prejudices they had once faced and the notion that they were only “frustrated” mothers. The centre is often called upon to contribute to new family policies.

The centre has also enabled mothers and the next generation to gain work experiences through tasks such as taking care of children, cooking food and doing secretarial work. References are then given to the volunteers when they apply for jobs.

Although Hinse no longer works as the Head of Ettlinger’s Women and Family Centre, she is happy with her successor, “I have a younger mother who is really good at this job and I am glad we manage to get the next generation into jobs.”

When it came to language learning, she said it was the politicians who fixed a two-year limit for immigrants to understand German and “know everything”, but what is important is to understand that immigrants need to settle first before they start the next steps to learn German and build a career. This is an individual journey.

“There are women who take longer, and there are some who are very fast but it is an individual thing. It has got nothing to do with nationality. Same as children. Some children need a longer time for their development, and some are fast, so you have to wait.”

Must Have Strength to Say “No”

Germany, like many European countries, are facing a rise of anti-immigration sentiment from right-wing parties. Hinse explained that people affiliated with the right-wing parties have tried to gain power as board members of mothers and family centres.  

“In the beginning, they are very nice and friendly, but then they turn around. And they show you that they are against women working, against abortion, and of course, why we spend a lot of money on integration.” This worried her a lot and this also meant that funding might become limited.

The solutions then have to rely on rejecting harmful policies and sentiments towards immigrants, “We have a very very good constitution but we have to practice the constitution. There should be a big sign to tell people that we are not willing to or allow people to discriminate any people in the house.”

She continued, “We have to be strict about it and not be silent about it. If you do not have the strength to say no, ask a friend to help you or ask three or four friends to help you. And then you say it together in a team.”

Despite the current disturbing political climate and the resurface of unsettling feelings from Germany’s once violent past, Hinse is not pessimistic and see hope in the future. First by her unwavering faith in the constitution and then her confidence in the next generation to carry on making changes in the world.

“We live so globalized already, although we don’t believe it but there is hardly anything in our households that is purely German,” said Hinse.

“I am confident about the next generation, our children, and my daughter and so on, they have seen a mother and father who took part in changing a bit of the world. I hope it will go on like this in the future. They have role models.”

Erasmus FAMILY+

Helga Hinse was supposed to attend the three-day conference to learn about the different initiatives for an inclusive society, as part of exchanging knowledge and practices under the project, Family+ which is partly funded by Erasmus Plus program of the European Union.

Instead, she was interviewed by The Oslo Desk during September, marking the final episode of the podcast season 2 on different inclusive practices for immigrants in collaboration with the adult learning centre, Oslo VO Rosenhof.  The podcast can be listened to here.

The Family+ project aims at overcoming the social exclusion of families through family education and empowerment activities, adapted to the needs of disadvantaged and migrant families.

In collaboration with Oslo VO Rosenhof and co-funded by Erasmus+ programme of the European Union

Disclaimer: The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Ka Man Mak

Ka Man is an investigative journalist, documentary photographer, and social entrepreneur, as well as the founder of The Oslo Desk. She is a British-born Hong Konger residing in Oslo, Norway. She holds a Master in Environmental Geoscience and have taken numerous diplomas including child psychology, and a course in big data analytics at OsloMet. Made numerous publications in newsletters, magazines and Norwegian newspapers. Interested in edtech, constructive journalism, women in migration, Cantonese language, alternatives to capitalism and asylum policy.