M’Bote began each day with a search for meaning. Before the sun rose above the horizon, in the false-light of early dawn, she climbed this small rise of land so that she could look around the landscape and consider her day. Just as there was a monotony to the landscape, there was a sameness to her day. The sameness was wearying, yet in a curious way, comforting. To know what was coming was to be able to go through the motions without concentration. This freed her to engage in endless mental divagations as she searched for a way to make her future different than it was appearing it would be. So far, she had not been able to see a different path.
As the dawn began to break, she murmured a little prayer that the missionaries had taught her in grade school, reflecting on a God who loved everyone. “Even the men who take the boys to fight?” a girl had asked. “Even them,” the white missionary woman had answered. M’Bote remembered that young woman. Her hair was the color of spun straw and her eyes the color of sky. “Kim-ba-lee,” she had told them to call her. M’Bote mouthed those syllables, foreign to her pattern of speech. Kim-ba-lee had taught M’Bote about caring for people, their illnesses and their broken hearts. M’Bote had loved studying how the different medicines helped people’s coughs, and itches and even more serious diseases. But when the soldiers took her father, all of that had ended. She wondered where the missionary was now. She wondered whether the missionary wondered what had happened to M’Bote. “Does she miss me?” M’Bote asked herself.
The bleating of the she-goat wanting to be milked broke her reverie. She turned to go back to the kraal, winding her way through the senticous plants that covered the terrain. It wouldn’t do to be caught by one on her bare skin. The missionaries and their medicines were many kilometers away, and any wound could become very bad, very fast. M’Bote had seen too many deaths already in her fifteen years of life.
As she approached the goat, M’Bote heard her mother call, “leave the goat! Your brother will take care of it. You must come to be washed so you will be ready.”
“Ready for what?” M’Bote asked.
“For your husband to come,” her mother replied.
“I do not want a husband,” M’Bote responded.
“You are foolish. You need a husband. If you do not have one you will have no one to take care of you and you will die alone. Now come get ready,” came the answer from M’Bote’s mother.
After the goat was milked and the morning milk drunk, there was a call from the space outside their hut. “I see you,” called a male voice. M’Bote’s mother answered, “we see you also. Please come.” M’Bote hung back as a tall man entered the hut. He was not too old. He had only the wrinkles of working in the sun, but not of age. He spoke with M’Bote’s mother and as he smiled showed strong teeth. Her mother called her over. “This worthless girl is M’Bote. I have told you about her.” M’Bote looked at the floor. The man said, “oh no, this is not a worthless girl. She is worth very much! She is costing me two goats and three chickens!” his laughter boomed out. M’Bote was astonished. That was an unheard of price for a girl from a poor family whose father had disappeared with the soldiers earlier in the year. She risked a glance up at the man. He was smiling and looking straight into her eyes! She looked down again, confused. “Get your things,” her mother said.
As M’Bote walked away from the hut with the man, her younger brother looked at her from behind the goat. He raised his fingers in a small wave. So many had already left this boy. He no longer questioned that this was the way of his world.
M’Bote and the man walked until the sun was straight overhead. Neither spoke. When they got to a place where there was a tree, the man sat down under it. “We will rest here until the sun is lower,” he said. She sat, saying nothing. “Do you speak?” the man asked. “Yes,” she responded. “ Tell me something about you,” he said. “What do you want to know?” she said. “Tell me something that you are curious about.” M’Bote thought for a few minutes. No one had ever asked her a question like that. “I wonder . . .” she trailed off. “Yes?” he demanded. “I wonder whether the missionary Kim-ba-lee ever thinks of me,” M’Bote finished in a quiet voice.
The man’s laughter caught M’Bote by surprise. It rang out with an infectious joy. M’Bote began laughing with him, unsure of why she did so. When he calmed down he said, “young girl, that missionary is why I have just paid two goats and three chickens for you!” “I don’t understand,” the girl responded. “Miss Kimberly remembers you. She remembers that you have a very good mind. She remembers that you have very clever hands. She remembers that you have no father to care for your family. She remembers that you want to be a nurse.” The man paused for a breath. “Miss Kimberly wants you to come to live in Nairobi and study to be a nurse.” M’Bote was confused. “You are not buying me for a wife?” she asked, suddenly ashamed that she was not what he wanted after all. “No child, my wife would not want me to buy another wife. She is a Christian and I am a Christian and we have only one wife for each husband,” he said. “I am taking you to Miss Kimberly. Would you like to go there and help work in her clinic?” M’Bote’s heart began dancing. The man saw it reflected in her eyes and laughed again. “But my mother believes I am going to get a husband!” the girl suddenly remembered. The man looked a little bit troubled, “we let her believe what she wants to believe. I told her that you would be taken care of, and that was enough for her to let you go. Come now, we must resume our journey.”
The next few days were a wonderful homecoming for M’Bote at the mission clinic in Nairobi. Miss Kimberly immediately put her in charge of assessing the young children who came for health care. Some were very sick. One morning M’Bote saw a baby who had died, but whose young mother would not or could not let him go. With compassion, M’Bote went to sit with the young woman. “May I see your beautiful child?” M’Bote asked. Wordlessly, the young girl pulled back the scarf that covered the baby’s face. Even in death the baby was exquisitely formed, a miracle. M’Bote held out her arms, and the young girl fell into them, sobbing. “Sh-h-h-,” soothed M’Bote as she rocked the girl back and forth. After a few minutes, the young mother allowed Miss Kimberly to come and take the baby away to prepare him for burial.
Later that afternoon, Miss Kimberly sat with M’Bote to take a little break. M’Bote noticed that Miss Kimberly’s hair was not so blonde as before, and her eyes were not so merry. “This is hard work, M’Bote,” Miss Kimberly confessed. “I feel so powerless. I want to help all of them, but there are so many. And there are so few that I have the medicine to really help. Even those who have serious illnesses. I can give only cough drops for tuberculosis. I am limited to broth for people suffering from HIV-AIDS. I can give only a rubifacient for deep muscle injuries. “Yes”, M’Bote agreed, “but the people love the medicine that makes their skin red, and they think they feel better!” Miss Kimberly flashed a tired smile.
“But why…” M’Bote began, but stopped. “Go on,” Miss Kimberly encouraged her. “Then why, Miss Kimberly, do you come to Africa to help us?” Miss Kimberly began to speak again of this God who loves everyone, rich or poor, African or not. M’Bote listened carefully, waiting to hear the exceptions, the things that would apply to her and exclude her from this big love. When Miss Kimberly paused she asked, “do you understand, M’Bote?” “I understand your words, Miss Kimberly, but I do not understand a love this big,” M’Bote responded. “This is such a big love, I cannot understand how many goats and cattle it takes to equal this love.” Miss Kimberly smiled, “that is just the thing, M’Bote. There were never enough goats or cattle that could do it. Only God’s son’s death was enough to satisfy it.” M’Bote marveled at such a love.
Soon it was time to begin the evening clinic. M’Bote handed out colored slips of paper to the mothers that indicated in which order their children would be seen. As she worked her mind started its peregrinations again. She reflected on a worthless girl from a poor family being worth 2 goats and 3 chickens. If this was part of the big love, it was very big indeed. Suddenly, M’Bote stopped what she was doing and asked another girl to stand in for her. She went outside the clinic compound and walked among the people waiting for the evening clinic, searching for a particular face. Finally, in a dark corner, she found the young mother whose arms were empty, whose breasts ached with milk that her baby would never drink again. M’Bote sat down with her, and began to tell the young woman about such a big love.