It was my first visit to Africa. I was working at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya in Casualty, which is what they call the ER there. I had only been there a couple weeks when I got the chance to care for an eight year old boy who had come in for appendicitis a week prior. His wound was infected and his parents had brought him to be evaluated. After assessing his abdomen, his old chart was brought from Records and I saw the bill for his surgery and hospitalization. But before I could make sense of a bill for several thousand Kenyan shillings, I needed to know something about the cost of living in the region, so I asked a nurse.

“How much does it cost to feed a family of four for a month here?”

It was a question that only made sense in the West and she corrected me immediately.

“A family of four? You mean a family of ten.”

“Yes, [laughing], a family of ten.”

“Well, that’s easy. You have your maize, your vegetable and your milk.”

“OK. How much does the maize cost?”

“Oh no, that comes from your fields. That is free.”

“What about the vegetable then?”

“What you don’t grow in your garden may cost a few hundred shillings a month.”

“Alright, then what about the milk? How much does that cost?”

“No no, you don’t understand. That comes from your cow or cows. That also is free.”

Frustrated but undeterred I pressed, “How much does a cow cost then?”

She quoted me a price precipitously close to the cost of that boy’s surgery. The logical conclusion came immediately to my lips, “Then this family, to pay for their son’s surgery, will have to sell their one cow?”

“Yes, or part of their land.”

I thought of how much I had brought with me on that trip. Could I survive for the next couple weeks five thousand shillings poorer. We had to do something so as to not break the financial back of this family.

She continued, “But don’t worry. Everyone in the family and the village will contribute something so that they don’t have to sell their cow or their land.”

I was appropriately humbled. I had such a short grasp of the way life worked in Kenya, and, as it turned out, worldwide. It seems to me that the Lord had a special lesson in for me and our team in that moment. We exist in relationship. We belong to each other.

We work so hard to insure against disaster and loss. We hedge our funds and diversify portfolios and stock our fridges and pantries. We erect better walls, build better fences, affix better locks and install better safes. And though I don’t want to speak against prudence and planning, I note in my own heart that in doing so, I often neglect the more difficult task of knowing and meeting the needs of my neighbor. Those relationships take time, take effort. And even less do I make myself really vulnerable, speaking my true needs to my community.

I impoverish myself of relationship when I live as if God has not deliberately placed me in a community with strengths that serve me in my need (and which needs me to volunteer my resource for their needs). That is the lesson that Kenyan family and village taught me way back then. They enriched my soul without knowing and without trying.

That must be some kind of wealth — to benefit others without at all diminishing one’s self.

By Carlan Wendler, M.D.