On the surface, Ma Kilman is just your average, mild-mannered shopkeeper. Seven Seas and Philoctete hang out in her store, and she provides compassionate sanctuary for the characters who are most in need of careful handling. When Philoctete can no longer bear the pain of his wound, Ma Kilman provides medicines in various forms, including liquor. She also takes Seven Seas and Philoctete in at Christmas, and offers kindness to Major Plunkett after he loses his wife.
But there's more to this motherly woman than just home and hearth. Like most of the characters on St. Lucia, she's living a divided life. We might call her both the post-colonial woman (wears wigs, goes to a Christian church) and the ancestral one (a healer, sybil, friend of West African deities). In particular, Ma Kilman's desire to heal Philoctete brings her need to tap into ancestral memory to the fore.
She knows that Philo's wound is something special—it's not your run-of-the-mill tetanus infection—and that it will require a remedy that she knows deep in her blood, but can't access right away. In this role, Ma Kilman lives out the consequences of the destruction of tribal and personal identities that we witness during the Middle Passage in Book III. She's trying to live in a world that is culturally dissonant from that of her ancestors, yet part of her genetically remembers who she's supposed be:
[…] so the deities swarmed in the thicket
of the grove, waiting to be known by name; but she
had never learnt them, though their sounds were within her,
subdued in the rivers of her blood. (XLVIII.i.242)
If this all sounds a bit mystical, that's because it is. Ma Kilman can't fully return to the practices of her great-grandmothers until she has a kind of conversion experience—one that turns her properly into an obeah woman who can heal Philoctete's wound at its root. As she moves away from the church and through the forest in search of the miraculous plant, Ma Kilman heads toward full transformation: "The wild, wire-haired, and generously featured/apotheosis of the caverned prophetess/began" (XLVIII.243). As she moves toward her roots, in other words, she moves toward her power.
As she ditches the trappings of white society (think: wig, hat, church) she becomes more in tune with the natural world. Her sense of smell becomes acute, which helps her find the stinking root that will help Philoctete, and her hearing tunes in to something wonderful. Ma Kilman finds that the ants in the forest are calling to her in a special way, urging her to a different kind of communion with them:
[…] and as her lips moved with the ants, her mossed skull heard
the ants talking the language of her great-grandmother (XLVIII.ii.243-44)
She becomes so much closer to the natural world that the ants are speaking her ancestral language. That said, while it's true that Ma Kilman becomes pretty freaking awesome as she moves through this transformation, there's an element of sorrow that surrounds her. First, it's because of the frustration she feels at being hampered in her search for a curative plant. Her memory is stymied because the lines of cultural knowledge transmission were cut by the violence of slavery.
But there's another feeling that causes her pain: shame. She feels she ought to have remembered her family's original spirituality and knowledge of the natural world and thinks that her inability to find a cure is punishment for her failure: "She foraged for some sign/of the stinging bush, and thrashed herself for the sin/of doubting their names before the cure could begin" (XLVIII.ii.243). There's a great deal of wailing and gnashing of teeth that has to be done before Ma Kilman is successful.
Suffering aside, Ma Kilman's character brings the two worlds of her existence together in ways not only beneficial for her own psychological well-being, but for the entire community—black and white—as well. When Major Plunkett loses Maud, he visits Ma Kilman as a last resort to calm his fears. He doesn't really believe in her supernatural abilities—but hey, he's lonely.
What he gets when he visits Ma Kilman is far greater than what he anticipates, though. Her sensitivity to his pain allows her to respond in a compassionate way (yes, Maud is in heaven) and it helps Major Plunkett heal in more than one way: "That moment bound him for good to another race" (LXI.i.307). Her compassion closes the distance that Plunkett feels between himself and the other islanders (for more on this, be sure to read up on Major Plunkett elsewhere in this section).
In the end, Ma Kilman is able to say with confidence and great authority "We shall all heal" (LXIII.ii.319). She's certainly healed herself and others plenty enough to be a bit of an authority on this possibility, but we're pretty sure we can hear Walcott's voice in that line, too.