I spent my Wednesday morning waiting at Kenya’s Department of Immigration, in a narrow chair crammed a little too closely to the chair in front of it. I was there to renew my long expired alien-resident ID card—one I renewed just months ago but never received. It was lost, undoubtedly, in some cubicle buried deep within the maze of the building. Or perhaps it slipped into one of those overstuffed file folders stacked floor to ceiling in front of me. I wondered how far they would reach—the endless, leaning, towers of bureaucratic paperwork in this room and throughout the building—if you stacked them all together. Would they rise higher than the 27 stories of Nairobi’s famed Nyayo House? And in such haystack, would my wayward ID card ever have a chance of being found? Likely not, and so here I was to re-apply, have my hands lathered in black ink and be fingerprinted again, and wait. Again.
In the dreary hall of alien affairs, dreary foreigners shuffle about from window to window in search of a coveted signature or a rubber stamp for their passport. The place has a tendency to cast a gloomy cloud over the spirit, and I grumbled at the thought of how many times in the past 15 years I had sat there, of time that seemed to me wasted, and of places I’d rather be. I looked around and wondered why all those other people were there—not only in line, but in Kenya.
While I sat and pondered this, a small, kindly old Indian man came and gestured to sit next to me, apologizing as he took his seat and for causing me to scoot over a bit. He smiled and waited in silence for a while. Then he leaned over.
“Excuse me,” he asked. He was wondering if he was in the right place. I nodded. And then he asked what brought me to Kenya. I talked a little about our mission work, and how I’d been here a while. I don’t easily strike up conversations with strangers (an aspect of my personality I will undoubtedly regret some day if I ever get old and look back on it all). But he was persistent in a gentle way, and so I talked some more and then asked him the very same questions. He told me about his little family-run business on a side street downtown. “Plumbing and various other sanitation supplies,” he stated proudly. And he invited me to come by sometime.
Then he rolled back the clock and began to recount how he came to Kenya when he was only two years old—how his parents sailed from India on a dhow in search of a better life. A woman in the next row leaned over and apologized for eavesdropping, then commented on what a great story it was. “Those where the days when they were torpedoing the boats,” she added. My head turned from the old man to the unrelated old woman, back and forth, as I listened in wonderment.
The man dotted a shaky finger in the air in front of him as if to teach an important point and said, “In those days, when they got on the boats to cross over, they did not know if they would make it.” And after a long pause, “But God is so good.”
Suddenly I felt very young, and somewhat ungrateful.
The man talked about the sacrifices his parents had made, and how blessed he was to have been raised in Kenya, blessed to be able to build a business here and give his kids a better life, just like his parents did for him. I imagined the man a child in the arms of his mother as she braved a rickety dhow, seas and torpedoes, and a strange new land, all because she loved him and could see a better future.
He continued about how much he loved Kenya and how he thought the country, and the people, were beautiful. We talked a little about Kenya’s future—hanging in the balance now as the country approaches another general election—and he saw, not surprisingly, a better future.
I had to smile at how God put this humble optimist next to me to soften my heart. After listening to his story, I recalled the sacrifices in my own family line—my parents and their parents—and I reflected on what a blessing it was for us to be here in Kenya, despite the ups and downs. I looked out the windows onto the streets of the city center and saw a beautiful country, and beautiful people.
Then my name was called and I said a hurried goodbye before being ushered away to another part of the building. There I sat and waited again, strangely thankful now for my lost ID card. And in my head I could hear over and over, in a kindly old Indian accent, “God is so good. God is so good.”
On March 4th, Kenyans go to the polls to elect a new president among many other posts. Five years ago the same elections led to riots, chaos, violence, and the death of hundreds. Those wounds have not completely healed, and now Kenya is poised at a crossroads once again. One path leads to a better future. And another to a bitter past. Pray for peace. Pray for Kenyans to put their country before their own interests—to care as much as an old Indian immigrant who has never been more than a guest in this land, but loves it nonetheless.
Thanks for your prayers!