Love is a wonderful, powerful force.
There are certain people who carry love as if they had a larger capacity than most. One I get to see almost every weekday is Betty Kiboko.
Knowing is Loving
One of the simplest but most profound ways Betty knows you care for her on a deeper level is knowing how to pronounce her name.
It is Betty (Beh-TEE), not Betty.
“If you call me BEH-tee, you just read my name. But if somebody calls me Beh-TEE, then they really know who I am,” she said.
Betty currently runs the front desk at the nonprofit Matthew 25 in Cedar Rapids, where I had my first encounter with her.
She is a beautiful Black woman with a smile that lights up her corner of the room. Her outward happiness is enough to make anyone’s day brighter. As I interview her, her laughter winds and weaves throughout our conversation.
“My joy is mine. I don’t wait for somebody else to make my joy. I have to make my own.”
To understand Betty’s joy, you have to hear her story.
It is one of love, trials, patience, and perseverance.
Growing Up In Africa
Betty grew up in the Congo. For those who have not been, she says there is often a misunderstanding of what Africa is like. She explains her neighborhood as not much different than any other in Cedar Rapids.
“I tell them, lions were not my cousins. They were not just roaming around on the streets. I was raised in the city.”
Likasi, Congo is a town of around a half million people. It sits in the southern part of Congo, closest to Zambia.
Her parents were both teachers, and eventually, her mom stayed home to raise three children. Betty was the middle between an older brother and a younger sister.
“It takes a village to raise a child. We have a neighborhood. We knew the people in the neighborhood. The parents were watching us, all of us. So if you were in trouble, your friend’s parents could discipline you, and it would be okay.”
Not that Betty got in trouble. She says she was a very quiet kid. She holds fond memories of Congo—the family bonds, culture, and marketplace.
“When we say family, we count everybody. We count cousins, next-door neighbors, everybody that we get in contact with,” Betty said. “I have many people in my life that I can go to.”
Community in Congo takes on a life of its own. Betty’s parents did not save up a retirement fund, for instance. It is ingrained in each person’s heart to care for their neighbor after they have put in their dues. She describes the peace foundational to life in the Congo:
“Every morning, you go to the market and buy fresh vegetables, fresh produce. Farmers bring their chickens and meats. Then, you go home and cook. At noon, everything is closed. Schools, stores, even hospitals. We take a break. We have a siesta.”
The Beginnings Of A Love Story
As Betty grew older, she still kept to herself. She was an introvert with a lot to offer. Betty admits to a growing desire in her high school years to find a companion.
“You get to the age where the boys start looking more interesting—So my friend says, ‘You know, I would really love you to meet my cousin.’”
Her friend told her all about a man named Kiboko. Kiboko had a good reputation. He was a very caring Christian, quiet and polite.
“The more people talked about him, the more I started to think, ‘Hmm, it might be a good thing to meet this guy,” she laughs, blushing at the memory.
But like any love story worth pursuing, the heroes face obstacles, and Betty had hit hers:
Betty had fallen in love with a man who she had never met or even seen in a picture; still, her heart was his. She carried a vision of a life with him.
Kiboko, a few years ahead of her, had gone off to college and was no longer in Likasi. Betty was fresh out of high school, wondering what to do next.
There she was, degree in hand, balancing love and career.
“I thought, where is this guy? Will I ever meet this guy?”
Betty concluded, “No.”
She heard Kiboko had gone to the capital city of Kinshasa—a city of more than 11 million people. The odds of meeting him were less than zero. So she prayed and ultimately, surrendered.
“I was praying, ‘Oh God, I heard about this guy. He’s very nice, but he’s not close to be found.’ So I said to God, ‘Could you just give me someone like him? Somebody who has the same values. Whose faith will be stronger than mine.’”
The Move To Kinshasa
With her hopes suspended, Betty pursued her undergraduate education. She attended college in Kinshasa for education to become an elementary teacher, much like her parents.
She will say the decision was strictly for school, but I couldn’t help but sense a thread of hope in her one in 11 million odds.
Two years passed.
A church in Kinshasa hosted a Christmas program in her second year. The place was packed, bustling with conversation. Betty was there with her friends and classmates, when she heard someone shout:
Betty couldn’t believe her ears.
“Wait, what?! Where is he?” she thought. Kiboko came over to say hi to the group, including Betty.
“I’m looking at him, like, ‘This is the guy!’” she says in a whisper.
A friend of Betty’s invited Kiboko to come visit the house sometime. Kiboko promised he would when school was not so busy.
“I went to that house almost every day hoping that I might just be there when he’s there,” she says again, a smile lighting up her face.
Obstacle 2: “He never came!” she said.
She had been so close to him. She had seen him. Heard his voice. And now, he felt further away than ever. But Betty persisted on in hope.
One time, Betty’s cousin had a birthday, so a bunch of people came to celebrate. Betty was known for her birthday cakes, and she prepared one for the occasion.
She stopped at her cousin’s place to drop it off.
“Oh hi!” he said to Betty. “This is my friend Kiboko.”
Betty took a deep breath in what likely felt like the longest introduction ever.
“He’s a classmate of mine. And this is my cousin, Betty,” her cousin said.
“Everything he was saying, the way he moved his hands. I hoped he didn’t see how I was looking at him,” Betty confessed with a laugh.
Betty is still as smitten talking about it now as she was in that moment. She says it was love at first sight.
“This is Kiboko,” she thought to herself, over and over. She was beholding her love with such tenderness and awe. “This is Kiboko.”
The Move Home
The party happened toward the end of her schooling, and she was getting ready to move home to Likasi.
The night before Betty left, Kiboko came to her house. Since Likasi is home to both, Kiboko asked Betty if she would deliver some letters to his family.
“Say something,” Betty thought. “Kiboko, say something.”
But he stayed silent and left. The next day, Betty was on a one-way plane ride home.
When she returned, she got settled, delivered the letters, and went on with her life.
“I just thought it wasn’t meant to be.”
Months went by.
Betty happened to be at one of Kiboko’s cousin’s houses for the afternoon, and somebody came and said:
“Are you [Betty]?”
“Yes,” Betty replied.
“Did you just come from Kinshasa?”
“Yeah,” she replied.
“Do you know Kiboko?” the man asked persistently.
“Yeah,” she said, confusion setting in.
“Did you bring some letters?”
“Yes, yes,” Betty said.
The man gasped, “You’re going to be my sister-in-law!”
Betty offered a confounded glare.
“We have been looking for you all over,” the man said.
You see, in one of the letters Betty delivered, Kiboko wrote to his father, “The girl who is delivering these to you, my heart is beating for her.”
And since then, there had been a search for the woman who delivered the letters.
The Way To A Man’s Heart
Count on Betty to bring her strong will to the world. She fired a letter back to Kiboko, essentially saying, “Why didn’t you man up and say something?!”
But at the end of her rant, she penned these words:
“If this is really what you are thinking, I think I love you too.”
Five years of dating and engagement later, Betty married the man she had always prayed for.
She later learned that God had been working on Kiboko while she waited.
“When he went to see my cousin for the birthday, he didn’t know who made the cake. So he asked my cousin, ‘Who made the cake? I need to know who made this cake!’”
“Why?” her cousin asked.
“I have this voice that is telling me, the person who made this cake is my wife-to-be.”
A Life To Its Fullest
Betty told me story after story of her life after that. Her journey to America. Losing her plane ticket to Iowa in Chicago. Setting up life with her husband and starting a family.
You could fill books with her experiences. All her stories were characterized by a profound understanding of the world and a deep-rooted joy.
Betty is humble, slow to share, because to her, it’s not about her. I asked her then what she hopes you, the reader, will take to heart after all of this:
“I want people to love. Love, understanding is very important. We all come from different places. We have different backgrounds. But somewhere we have a history. So loving, talking, getting to know someone. I always think the troubles we have in life are because we don’t know each other. If you meet someone and have a good, friendly relationship with that person, it changes your life. Because you know them. You don’t just know about them. You know them.”
Story by Gabe Erickson. Photos by Sarah Bozaan and courtesy of Betty Kiboko.