I remember the day she first walked through our gates. My family had newly arrived in the Congolese rainforest, ready to make a new home. Her head scarf modestly framed a face quivering with nervousness. She curtsied and introduced herself as “Bernadette”. Bernadette was established as cook for the main meal of the day. As days passed and timidity eased into familiarity, she became “Mama Deti”.
Mama Deti wore a gold and blue apron. She possessed it as if it were her royal garments: the back porch of our old brick house furnished her with a kingdom. There she stoked charcoal fires, tossed rice and swept away the husks with white ash.
A well-known African proverb says it takes a whole village to raise a child. I don’t know what Mama Deti thought of the villages that had shaped us. My sisters and I needed instruction in the most basic things of life.
She taught us how to twist tufts of hair into braids, weaving in fake strands to add bulk. Under her supervision I collected peels of cooking bananas and made soap from their ashes.
Her weathered hands deftly coached us in pounding forest foods in a mortar that was a hollowed out log. We splashed ourselves with the juice of the cherry-size tomatoes: she laughed.
She taught us how to singe hair off a smoked monkey; how to gut and clean large forest grubs; how to dry flying termites in the sun; and how to drown snails in preparation for cooking.
At midday we sat in a rough circle: my family, Mama Deti, and whoever else happened by. Mama Deti would reach for the Lingala Bible and the water-stained pages crackled as they fell into position. She would push it far away from her eyes to read. Proverbs often made her laugh. “That Solomon,” she would wheeze, “he knows how to speak!”
The many Proverbs slipped through my mind like a string of multi-coloured beads. My rumbling stomach cared more for what waited in the cooking pots. But one day, Mama Deti introduced me to a proverb that I have never found in the Bible. It changed my life.
I was mopping the living room floor. Bats resided in our ceiling under a leaky tin roof. When it rained, black rivers of bat poop washed down our walls. That, combined with dirt tracked in from outside, required continual sweeping and mopping.
As I slid the dark, stringy hair of our mop across the tiles with a frown, Mama Deti came up behind me. “Mama Deti,” I exploded, “I don’t know what to do!” She rested her hands over the blue and gold apron to listen.
Out came my frustration. I was trying to organize a drama group for our church. But the girls didn’t come to practice. Some were sick, some stayed home to wash clothes. It was too hot to come to practice. It was raining, or going to rain, or had just rained. Our plans were like a log chewed out by termites. It looks fine, but the lightest touch reduces it to dust.
Mama Deti’s big brown eyes listened. When I had finished, there was a moment of silence.
Then, she spoke.
“God eats His food cold.” She tossed it out and turned back to the kitchen, as if there was nothing else to say.
Am I supposed to know what that means? I was groping. What did God’s diet have to do with my drama group?
“Mama Deti…” I was following her, speaking to her back, “Mama Deti, what does that mean?”
Her hands, now flitting over the long stalks of green onions, paused. “We humans are so eager to eat. We want our food the moment it is off the fire. God is not like that. He can let His food grow cold before He eats it.”
With that, she returned to the slender green shoots.
My culture has trained me to look for words that instantly solve my problems. Mama Deti taught me to cook rice properly.
The water must come to a rolling boil while you clean stones and dirt from the rice, toss it, and wash it. Then the rice is thrown into the pot where it slowly soaks up all the water.
She tossed grains of truth to me; they swelled over the next years in the water of experience. They took on a beautiful shape and a nourishing texture.
God is never in a hurry. God is never late.
A Congolese friend and I teamed up to lead a discipleship group. For the next two years we faced unpredictable setbacks. During a leaders’ training I spent almost every day of two months pouring into a group of girls. I yearned for burning heat. Instead, I watched over half of them walk away. The few who stayed needed more encouragement than I could have anticipated.
Then, my family returned to our passport country of Canada and to a cold that could kill. I threw myself into a Drop-In ministry, met with a Congolese refugee, and started flute lessons. Surely now I can have hot food, God? But the freezing winter seemed to permeate everything. I struggled with feeling stuck and unproductive.
I planned to intern in Congo and looked for a job that would cover my costs. I need this dish hot, please, God? I couldn’t find anything beyond temporary jobs and entrepreneurial adventures. After many foiled attempts, God provided in unexpected ways, right to the day that I walked out of the house with a plane ticket in my hand. Cold food.
For two years I worked towards applying to Moody and pleaded with God to give me a decisive answer as to what to do with the next years of my life. He gave the answer cold. In the waiting I learned trust.
God does not need me to feed Him. Instead, I bow to His self-sufficiency and sovereignty and accept whatever He chooses to give, in whatever season, at whatever temperature.
When I look back, it is marvellously strange that in one short phrase Mama Deti passed on to me more wisdom than I have acquired from thick books where words have no end. I think of the Proverb that speaks of a word fitly spoken being as apples of gold in settings of silver.
Of course, if Mama Deti read that Proverb, she would erupt into laughter. “That Solomon,” she would say, rocking back and forth on her stool, dabbing her eyes on the blue and gold apron, “he knows how to speak!”