Now that Dr. Gerald L. Miller’s memoir, A Hundred Camels: A Mission Doctor’s Sojourn & Murder Trial in Somalia, has been published, and you can buy it at Amazon.com, I will share with you the foreword I contributed to the book which I hope can do double duty as a book review.
This book contains an equal measure of travelogue, mystery story, medical diary, and cultural history. Underneath the excitement of the courtroom drama, murder trial, and many escapades in a new culture, lies the story of how one man’s spirit grew, first in his own country and his own faith and then in a new country with a different faith. Welcome to spiritual autobiography as only a Mennonite medical missionary could write it.
The number 100 plays a significant role in Dr. Miller’s story because it is an important number in both Muslim religion and Somali culture. A crucial piece of information, explaining the title, is that the blood price for a murdered male in this culture in 1972 was one hundred camels.
But the number 100 plays another, more subtle, role. Somali prayer necklaces contain thirty-three beads that are fingered three times each during which time the ninety-nine names of Allah are uttered. One name for Allah exists, not in the mind of human beings but in the mind of another creature, a nearly sacred animal in Somalia-the camel. The camel contemplates what humans cannot know-the one hundredth, unmentionable, name for God.
Throughout this book the careful reader can find many clues about the mysterious nature of God as the young, humble, resourceful Midwestern American doctor attempts to share his faith in action. Curiosity is one of his gifts. Even though he has an incredible number of medical and language challenges, he does not focus just on work. In his youth Dr. Miller thought he would become a veterinarian. He grew up on a small farm and continues to be fascinated by animals. Africa opened great opportunities to explore the animal kingdom, and he shares this amazing world with the reader. He is alert to the signs of the holy, connecting all of nature to its Creator and recognizes the central role of the resilient desert animal, the camel.
Because Dr. Miller deeply respects the Muslim culture in which he finds himself as an emergency replacement on a one-year assignment, he does not question either the ninety-nine names for God or the unknown hundredth one. Having asked God at the very beginning of the time in Somalia for help “that we might show through our actions Jesus’ love,” Dr. Miller’s prayer is answered. He sees God in other people.
These people have names like Martha, Pauline, Elsie, Chester, Catherine, Harold, Barbara, Neil, Margaret, Velma, Anna, Mary, Shari, Marlis, Stephen, Perry, and Lucille. They also have names such as Hussein Sadad Hassan, Fatuma Abdulle Mohamed, Hassen Nur, Mariam Mohammed Hassen, Lul Abdurahman Hussein, Mohamed Aden, Omar, Ibrahim, Uglo, Akim,Hawa, Lul,and Abdi.
He sees God in the Southern Cross constellation in the night sky and goes to sleep to the “circular beat” of drums. He sees God in the “bright orange flowers of the flamboyant trees” and the “fragrance of white frangipani blossoms.” He sees God in all the presenting problems of his patients-cataracts (he teaches himself how to do surgeries and provides sight to scores of people), worms, wounds, Rabies, leprosy. If the patient needs his rare blood type, he gives his own. If a baby loses his mother in childbirth, he brings the child into his own home. He recognizes the wisdom in the ancient proverbs he hears and incorporates many more into the written version of his story more than thirty years later.
Because he looks for God, finding new names for God in a Muslim, African, country, Dr. Miller is prepared to pass his greatest test: trial for murder. What is most amazing to me about this story is not how big a role it played in his life, but how small. When one lives within a community in which Jesus and his willingness to suffer for the sake of love is one’s true north-or Southern Cross-false accusations with potential felony, or even capital, consequences lose their ability to shake the ground upon which one walks.
Dr. Miller tells us that a chance encounter on an airplane prompted him to think about writing his story. We can imagine that an unmentionable name for God passed between these two men sitting side-by-side. And we can imagine a camel lumbering along in Jamama, Somalia, smiling.