Mama Leena

by Lucille Dobbs

Lucille Dobbs, originally from northern Minnesota, spent a total of 38 years in Congo as a missionary beginning in January 1961. The fictional short story here is loosely based on her experiences, and was written in 1964, while war prevented her return and prompted her own reflections on how a retiring missionary might view the meaning of “home.”

Leena laid the glass candle holders on the table pondering if she should give them away or sell them. She sat down to watch the tiny red ants that had discovered half a cookie under the table. They formed two flowing lines coming to and going from the cookie, across the brown woven grass rug, over the cement floor where the rug didn’t quite cover it, up the white-washed wall to the window sill and out through a tiny opening under the screen. Each tiny worker took what he could carry of the cookie and followed the ant ahead. The train seemed endless. They came, and they went, unaware of her presence.

When Leena first came to Congo with her husband thirty years ago, the ants had annoyed her. They were everywhere. They were of every size from a sixteenth of an inch to an inch long. Tiny red ones got into her sugar and into her freshly baked bread as soon as it was cool. Little black ones that gave off a peculiar, unpleasant odor crawled up the brick wall of the outdoor shower and onto her soap. At night, driver ants came in droves six feet wide through the house, and she and Will had to move out and let them march through, plundering as they pleased. Then she had remembered for several days to encircle the house with ashes before nightfall. If the ashes were thick the ants would not venture through them. White ants built mud tunnels up the outside and down into her metal trunks and barrels and destroyed her linens and books and marred her pots and pans. Now she was fascinated by the steady, untiring work of these tiny creatures.

Congo with its sunshine and flowers, its happy, carefree people, its sick and sorrowing people, as well as its undesirable ants, snakes, cockroaches and malaria had become her home. Friends wrote that they were glad that she was coming home. Leena smiled at the thought. They meant well, but they didn’t understand that here was “home.” Here she had fought and conquered loneliness, fear, discouragement. Here she had experienced joy, peace, love and usefulness. She had rejoiced in life and sorrowed in death with these people. Congo was her home.

The years in the ever-constant tropical climate had taken their toll of her strength and the Mission thought it best that she return to America. Leena had been to America on furloughs of a year at a time every four or five years. Although she had kept herself informed of the changes through letters, magazines and the radio, there were unfilled gaps in the years that had slipped by. Children had grown and become parents. Inventions had changed people’s way of life. It would be strange to settle down there and live. What would she do? How would she spend her days? Friends would be kind and helpful even as they had always been during furloughs, but it would take time to fill in the gaps.

She imagined the conversations around the coffee cups when the other women would be telling of their children, their clubs, and their newest recipes. She would be interested, but her mind would wander to how old Malia was getting along or how the Congolese nurses were doing at the dispensary. Her thoughts wouldn’t fit into the conversation and she’d feel a wall encircle her. Would she ever find her place and become useful now that she was older?

“It’s nice of my brother to find me a place to live,” thought Leena as she walked to the window and let her gaze wander over the yard.

There on the other side of the red dirt road stood the orange trees that Will had planted thirty years ago. There was fruit on them in every stage of development from the small, white, wax-like blossoms to the large, orange balls already invaded by the ants and gnats. To one side of the yard, between the house and the road, stood the tall, wide-spreading mango tree loaded with tiny mangos that in a few months would break the huge branches by their combined weight. Three grade school girls sat in its shade pounding corn for their supper. The rhythmic beat of their mortar sticks hitting the corn seemed to join the drumming of Leena’s thoughts. Out of reach of the mango’s shade stood the frangipani tree covered like a cloud with its small lily-shaped, yellow-white blossoms. In the far corner of the yard, the bougainvillea bush, with its long drooping branches, poured its rich purple blossoms like a waterfall down to the ground. Will had planted the lawn with the large-leaf clover that would be thick and green like a half inch plush carpet as soon as the rainy season set in. Today, patches of brown still covered the greater area in spite of last week’s refreshing shower.

On the edge of the afternoon shadow cast by the house, Daniele sat pulling weeds that would like to choke out the clover. How the boy had grown! It seemed such a short time ago that he was the tiny premature child that the Congolese nurse had laid aside in a banana leaf.

She had been called to the dispensary that morning when his mother became very sick, but when she arrived, the baby had already come, three months premature. No one would expect such a tiny child to live, and so the nurse had discarded him. Finding him still breathing, Leena had laid him in a ball of cotton in a large woven basket and taken him home with her.

Then there were the days and the nights, the weeks and the months of sitting beside his basket to see that he kept breathing. Other missionaries had taken turns sitting with him while Leena snatched a few hours of sleep. How many times she had almost given up the artificial respiration, and then he’d gasp and begin again to breathe on his own. The dry season’s nights were cold, and she had worried whether the hot water bottles around him were too hot or too cold. She tube fed him because he was too weak to swallow and still breathe. She had watched him gain by grams, from his initial one and a half pounds to two pounds. Then, when he was two months old, she had started feeding him from an eye dropper and then a small doll bottle with a rubber nipple. Eventually he was using a small baby bottle. At three months he was over four pounds, and she had to let the parents take him home. He had been so tiny, yet so perfect in form. His tiny hand and thinner-than-match-stick fingers had just covered the end of her thumb. He was just a miniature baby. She wondered what Dr. Ward, her brother’s doctor in America, would say about caring for such a tiny one without the use of oxygen. Yes, it was impossible, and yet, here he was eight years old, pulling weeds to earn money for his books, slate, paper, pencils and clothes for school.

Leena turned back to her sorting and packing. She must finish this barrel before Antoine went home from work. He could take a load down to the capita, the village headman, who was going to sell them in the village.

Here in Congo one seldom saw more than one or two trucks at a time, and they went single file down the narrow, one-track stretch of clearing through the jungle. Here and there a village of mud huts with grass roofs widened the clearing. On through the jungle they would bounce in and out of the holes, not daring to leave the middle of the track for fear that the swamp or the sand on the sides should prove more difficult to get out of than the water-filled holes. Somewhere below the water one knew there was solid ground. Soon Leena would have to adjust to the traffic whizzing by her at lightning speed. She shuddered and reached into the barrel.

“This sweater would be nice for Mama Antoinette,” murmured Leena as she picked a green Orlon cardigan out of the big metal barrel and laid it in the “give away” pile. She hadn’t used it much except on a few night trips to the hospital with patients when it was chilly in the windowless cab. Mama Antoinette had become very close to her over the years since they had both lost a child about the same time. That was another reason America was no longer really her home.

She and Will had looked forward so to their first child. Leena had wanted to win the confidence of the women. She had wanted to show them, by means of her own child, how to care for their children, to keep them from the dreaded malaria and the many tropical diseases that brought death to so many. She had trained a young girl in house work with the hope of letting her help care for the baby. She had planned to carry the baby on her back to work at the dispensary just as the Congolese women did.

Then the day came. Doctor John came from his hospital six hours drive away for the delivery. The baby boy looked so plump and healthy, but there was no life. She was unable to attend the small graveside funeral held the same day, but Will had described the little wooden box that the other missionaries had made and lined with a pretty blanket and lace. Antoinette had lost her little year old girl from malaria just a month earlier, so she came in sympathy and stayed with Leena during the funeral.

The loss of her child had really been the turning point in her work with the women. She was accepted as one of them. They had something in common. Every mother wanted children, and yet, every mother had lost one or more. They all assured her that God would give her other children. But, God had different plans. Two years later, her husband was also taken through a fall from the roof he was putting on the church. Through those twenty-five years the people she served had become as her children. They called her “Mama Leena.” They looked to her for help and advice both in their physical and in their spiritual lives. Yes, God had indeed blessed her abundantly with “other children.” All her carefully sewed baby clothes had been given to the little Congolese babies to keep them warm on cool rainy days.

Return to America to stay – how final that word sounded, so harsh, tearing her from the land that claimed her husband and her child, the land of her friends, her work. On furlough it had been different. She enjoyed visiting friends and her brother and his family, but she had always been coming back to “home” and “her people”.

“Mama,” Antoine’s low voice broke into her thoughts, “Malia wants to know if she can see you a minute.”

“Of course,” answered Leena as she laid down the dress she was holding, wondering who could best use it. She went out to meet Malia on the veranda.

Malia was very thin and wrinkled. Scarred by leprosy, she looked much older than her forty some years. She wore a very faded old cloth wrapped around her, and a small cloth bundle sat precariously on her head. The woman held out her gnarled, leprosy-eaten hands and clasping Leena’s hand in both of hers, she said sorrowfully, “My heart is very sad to know that you are going to leave us. Are you not our Mama? I don’t know how we shall live without you, but I hope you don’t forget us in your heart. You will remember us and pray for us?”

“How could I forget you, Malia?” answered Leena. “Do not I belong to your people? Will not part of me always remain with you?”

Malia smiled, and dropping Leena’s hand she removed the bundle from her head and carefully untied the cloth. From the cloth she took one small chicken egg and laid it in Leena’s cupped hands. “This is not a big present,” she said sadly, “but I wanted to give you something before you went away forever.”

After Malia had disappeared down the road, Leena went in and carefully laid the little egg in a dish on the table. She brushed the tears from her eyes as she realized how big this gift really was. Malia, crippled by leprosy before medicine had been able to arrest it, could no longer work a big garden. Her husband had died several years before. Now she had only a very few chickens and a tiny patch of corn that some school girls worked for her. She was dependent upon friends to clear her garden and to get her water from the spring at the bottom of the steep hill. The villagers brought her their palm nuts after cooking the oil out of the fleshy outer coating. She would sit in the shade of a palm tree and crack them with a stone and sell the small nut meats for use in making “dika” oil.

“I know who can best use this dress,” exclaimed Leena aloud, “Malia!” She laid the dress with the sweater.

There were few things she would take with her to America. Her clothes and household articles could be used better by her Congolese friends, rather then to pay the freight to ship them to America. She would, of course, take her souvenirs from Congo. She had the three black and white oil paintings of Congo village life that she bought from Kongba who had shown a strong interest in art as a student in the Mission school.

She must not forget the cruel-looking, curled spear that chief Mogungu had given her for saving the life of his son, bitten by a deadly green snake. Leena had come to his village that afternoon for a women’s Bible study. While she was speaking in the little mud church, a sudden sharp cry rent the air and a young man came running in calling, “Madamo, Madamo, come quickly; the chief’s son is dead!” They always said one was dead if he was badly hurt. She had followed the young man down the road to the chief’s house where a large crowd of people had already gathered, wailing around the small boy.

“Father Chief,” she said, addressing the father who was wailing louder than the others, “If you wish, I will send for medicine from the dispensary for your boy.”

The chief nodded his consent and continued his wailing to chase away the evil spirits that were trying to take his boy’s life. The young man who had summoned her was already holding her bicycle up for her. Leena wrote a quick note on a piece of paper that she found in her Bible and sent the young man with it on her bicycle to the Congolese nurse at the dispensary. She asked for a piece of cloth. Someone in the crowd handed her a sleeve torn from a shirt, and she tied it around the boy’s leg above the punctures made by the snake. It was only a mile to the dispensary and the man was soon back with the requested medicine and needle. Leena injected the serum into the boy’s leg, and two men carried him on a mat to the dispensary where he had wavered between life and death for several days. But he had lived, and the father later brought her this spear as a token of gratitude for her help.

Life in Congo had opened to her gradually with the years. One experience seemed to have prepared her for the next. In another week it would all be left behind. She would be facing another new experience, which at this moment seemed more horrifying than any in the past. America with its luxuries, its fast travel, its regular routine of everyday work. Where would she fit in, what could she do? Her failing health was taking her away from the people and the life she knew and loved.

Leena placed the lid on the empty barrel and put name tags on the clothes and kitchen utensils she was giving away. As she was picking up the paper and scrap that she had tossed aside while sorting through the barrel, Leena noticed that the trail of ants had dwindled to just a few ants picking up the last crumbs of the cookie. “Yes,” she mused, “each ant has done his part and the job is finished. They are all going home.” Each ant had carried away one tiny crumb at a time. She too must live one day at a time. Her work here in Congo was done, and now she must move on. Others would carry on the work until the Congolese themselves could staff the hospitals, the schools, and take full responsibility of the church.

As the Lord had given strength and wisdom to face the past experiences, so He would give strength and courage to make America her “home.”

Lucille Dobbs, originally from northern Minnesota, spent a total of 38 years in Congo as a missionary beginning in January 1961.

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