I had avoided it for long enough, but I knew that eventually I would have to go. My friend, David, had invited me to join him as he went to be with his youth group, organized through his church. Don’t get me wrong, I have no real problem with religion. My only hesitation came from my previous experiences with church activities in Kenya: long sermons (the record so far being 4 hours); heavy scripture reading, endless singing (which I actually love) – to an agnostic/anti-theist person like myself they can tend to be long, dry, boring events. However, I saw that this youth group meeting would be a bit different, more of a meet and greet, and I figured what the hell, lets check it out.
Churches in Kenya are always quite pleasant to experience, as they tend to be an oasis in the middle of the controlled chaos that is the city streets of Kakamega. We walked through some back alleyways to arrive in a beautifully kept inner courtyard connected to the main church. The gardens were beautifully kept, the structures were well maintained, and there in the middle of the freshly cut grass was a circle of young church-goers sitting in the shade of a gigantic ancient tree. You can imagine that as soon as I entered the courtyard with David all eyes were upon this unexpected muzungu, an experience that I am all too familiar with. I have come to learn that it is often best to acknowledge the elephant in the room, so to break the silence that had befallen the group I greeted everyone fondly, described what it is like to have 40 eyes upon me, and after a good laugh all around they continue their group session.
It would seem that I had joined the weekly Friday afternoon youth group session, where approximately 19 young persons, 8 women and 11 men, meet and discuss their lives as a Christian in Kenyan society. The group leader is a young man named Tom. He is a very humbly looking person, small in build with a shaven head but a noticeably receding hairline. He is wearing a loose fitting pair of blue dress pants and has on a faded green sweater sporting the Scouts Canada logo on the left breast. What he lacks in physical presence he more than makes up with his verbal dominance, possessing the strong orator skills that pastors have usually developed. I am not sure whether Tom is actually a pastor, but I would suspect that he might be vying for that job one day.
For the first half hour Tom invites all of those present to share some of their experiences from the last week. The group was shy to say the least, but there were a few brave individuals that were willing to speak to the crowd. With the help of David to translate for me, I heard stories from them that describe what it is like to be an evangelical Christian in this town. Some people described how God had instilled in them strength on a daily basis to do what it is they wish to do. Others described how certain friends or family had recently moved away, and that with God’s help they will one day see them again. They were beautiful stories, told with sincerity and humbleness, exposing their love of God for all those to hear.
There was then a bout of scripture reading and preaching from one of the members, where they read a passage from the book of Jeremiah that had something to do with showing caution when living in Babylon, but to not stay away from it in fear. I can’t be certain exactly what the lesson was supposed to be, as David had stopped translating for me, but whatever it was it most defiantly had the group captivated and inspired.
The group then broke off to have some time to meet and greet their fellow group members. It was at this point that Tom approached me while I was talking to David to ask me if I was a born again Christian. Christ (no pun intended), I knew this moment would come, and I had to explain to Tom that in fact I have no religion, that I don’t believe in God.
There was a noticeable change in his face as I explained this, shifting from that of neutral pleasentness to that of confused curiosity. This isn’t the first time that I have had to discuss my position to a full-fledged believer, and I must say that I actually enjoy these conversations when I have a chance to have them. Tom questioned me on the usual topics: How do I think that things were created? Do I not think that there is a spirit in everything? Do I not agree that Jesus sacrificed himself for the salvation of others? What I think happens when we die? He used many of the typical examples to make his point, my favorite being that of how we know that the watch on our wrist had a creator, and thus the same applies to the natural world we see around us; that there must be a creator as well. I have pondered these questions for a long time now and explained to him my position on the myriad of topics. However, it is safe to assume that a person who looks to supernatural religion will not see eye to eye with those who ascribe to natural materialism, so in the end we had to agree to disagree. Tom was very polite about the whole thing, but I could tell that his comfort was waning.
It was at this time that I got a text from my Canadian friend Alinda, who is currently living in Kakamega. The message was simple and to the point, saying only “your passport has been found.”
You might have had the experience while watching a scary movie or something in which it is as though your brain has exploded in your head, but I can tell you I had an experience very similar to that. All I can muster up to text back is a message saying “What?”
The story that she told me went like this. Her other Canadian friend, Rod, had been approached by the security staff at the sports club he frequents to tell him that a man outside has a passport that belongs to someone named Tom Conant. Apparently the man wanted to get it back to its owner, and figured that there would be muzungus at this rather posh health club, so he went there to see if anyone knew me. As luck would have it, I had met Rod only a week ago, who then called Alinda to inquire about be, who had then called me to let me know. All I was told was that the man was waiting for me at his workplace across the street. I was to walk there and look for the gate that had the words UMU printed in giant letters on the outside and to meet with the man there.
I tell you, I have traveled to many countries by this point, and this was the FIRST time I have ever lost my passport like this, so you can imagine how slightly panicked I was to hear this news. Hell, I wasn’t even aware that it was missing! Sure, I had had it with me today as I needed to do some things, but I had been confident that it was packed safely in my bag. Nope.
IT was probably a good thing that I took my leave from this church group anyways, as apparently they were about to gear up and hit the streets togeth to preach the name of god. I was pretty sure that I would inevitably blaspheme if I were to join them, so I said my goodbyes and was walking fast to get my passport.
As I was walking there I started to get more and more worried about my position. Yes, it is a good thing that this person was at least looking to get it back to me, but how willing would they be to return it? Knowing how shrewd some of the people can be in this town, I started to consider what the finders fee could potentially be. I had been told to give the person 2000KSh ($23CAD) as a reward, but what was stopping this man from demanding 50,000Ksh? Why not 100,000KSh? This person obviously knew how important this document is to an international traveler, that I had absolutely no power in negotiating its return, and that essentially they could demand whatever they want. I was slightly sweaty as I arrived at UMU, alight with anticipation on how this deal would go.
Then the gate opened, and in front of me was the kindest looking old man I have ever seen. He must have been in his mid 40s, as time was written all over his face. I also knew that he must work there, as he was dawning the classic security uniform that you see everywhere. He welcomed me kindly, obviously knowing who I was right away, and invited me to sit with him in front of his security booth.
His name is Kefa Shisia Andala, and yes, he is a security guard at this compound. He explained to me that he had simply been walking along the main road, on his way to work, when he noticed the passport laying on the ground. He picked it up, saw where I was from, and explained that he knew right away how important this document was. He explained how he knew that the best was to get in touch with a muzungu was to inquire at the health club, and as you would say, the rest is history. Keep in mind that that there were a number of other options for what to do with my passport that Mr. Andala had, none of which would have returned it to me buy likely would have made him considerably more wealthy.
After thanking him profusely I asked him about himself, wanting to how a man such as him could embody such kindness and consideration. He explained to me that he is a father of 13 children, yes, 13, and currently has two jobs. By day he is a stone mason, working on the construction projects currently underway at the local university. By about 4:00pm each day he leaves his work at the construction site to walk the 1KM to arrive here at this compound, where he acts as the night watchman. He spends all night outside in his chair, fighting off the cold Kakamegan nights, until about 6:00am, when he has to take his leave and head back to the construction. He does this 6 days a week. Sundays are his only day of rest, when he is able to return home. It should be noted that he has to walk 11km just to get home. When he arrives there he spends a good part of his morning at church, him being a devout believer, and then has a part of the afternoon to be with his two kids. He cannot spend the night, and must be back on his way to arrive at his security job by Sunday night. Rinse and repeat.
He explained that having 13 kids means that money is always tight for him. His two eldest children are in the middle of their post-secondary education, attending two separate teachers colleges, while his next two eldest are just about to finish highschool. His other children are still very young and won’t be leaving school for a while. I can tell just by looking at this man that he is the real deal. His hands have the cracks and breaks that can only be developed after years and years of hard labor. All of his clothes are comfortable but old and worn, showing tears and rips all over. Despite his obvious harships in life, he does have the warmest face I have ever seen, with big expressive brown eyes that are surrounded by an myriad of wrinkles that seem to snake their way around every inch of his face.
I tell you, if I had the means to send all of his children to the finest University in Kenya, I most definitely would; Not just because this man most definitely deserves such support, not just because his love for his family seems to fill him with the endless energy that is needed to live the life that he does, but because despite all of these financial troubles he still had the kindness in his heart to search out the owner of this passport and to return it to him. Me. Tom Conant, the fool that is dropping it on the streets of Kakamega and walking away. I hand Mr. Andala 3000KSh, which I explained does not at all begin to pay back my debt to him, and promise him that I will return whenever I can to keep him company while he is sitting in that chair – promise I intend to keep.
While I might not be religious, I can say that it is most definitely a miracle that there there are the Mr. Andala’s in the world to make it a better place.