I believe in a transcendent human kindness that deserves my daily attention.
I came into this belief as a teenager almost thirty years ago — two days after my discharge from Kenyatta Hospital in Nairobi where I had been hospitalized with amoebic dysentery. I was tired, weak and desperate to get back to my host family in Kitui, over 100 kilometers from my boarding school outside the capitol.
Messages were botched. My ride never came. I hitched into Nairobi and spent the night in a small hotel. The next morning I tried and failed to find a bus to Machakos, instead settling on a noisy, cramped taxi with a broken door latch. Each time the woman next to me exhaled, the door flew open. Each time I reached past her to pull the door shut, she elbowed me as if to fend off an unwelcome advance. Somehow, we managed to stay in the vehicle.
When I arrived in Machakos later that afternoon, it had been a day since I’d eaten. The money I had with me covered only the bus fare to Kitui. As I walked past a row of corrugated iron kiosks, a man called out, introduced himself as Mutua – an Mkamba name – and asked me if I was ill. I told him I was fine. Mutua insisted that I was not fine and told me to sit. “You must drink some milk.” He disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a carton of milk. Today I am still struck by the image of his giant hands opening the pyramidal carton in the dappled light of the kiosk. That he chose not simply to give me the carton, but to open it for me, deliberately folding back the opening with care – the care taken with food in places that have known want – was clearly to identify this as a gift.
And this stranger’s gift had the immediate effect upon me of piercing the loneliness and fear that one feels when ill and so far away from family and home. Instead of wondering how, whether, I would get back to Kitui, now I thought of how I would find the words to explain Mutua’s kindness and the comfort brought through his gift. It has taken me thirty years.
Kindness such as Mutua’s is not random. It is purposeful. That with his gift he transcended those divisions of race, ethnicity and religion that we commonly think of as barriers speaks to me of both power and responsibility: The power of individual action to transform lives, and the responsibility in my life to be receptive to those moments when I am called upon to practice the gift of kindness that will bring all of us nearer to peace.
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