The Kindness of a Stranger

Summer 2005 was an iconic bitter-sweet time. In May, I’d just returned from a 9 month adventure in Western Kenya and South East Asia. Three months later, in August, I was to enroll at Lafayette College and begin my engineering degree. Instead of joy, however, I anticipated my trip with much trepidation; with only two months left, my family was still unable to raise enough money for my one way ticket to the U.S.
*****
Between August 2004 and April 2005, I’d worked with a team of volunteers to extend educational opportunities to young people in Kigama, western Kenya, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Collaborating with 5 former schoolmates from the Singapore-based United World College of South East Asia, I’d helped implement an I.T. program at Kigama Friends’ Secondary School, an athletic competition for 3 primary schools in Vuyiya and Kisangula, as well as a course on basic literacy skills course at the Sok Sabay Children’s Foundation, Phnom Penh. Each of these projects was inspired by my, even then, growing suspicion that education is the best channel for social change. As a recipient of generous awards that had enabled me to attend the Aga Khan Academy and UWCSEA, both very prestigious institutions, to be in a position where I could give back was both humbling and exciting.
In the short term, postponing my university education for a year did not seem wholly strategic, professionally. And yet my instinct was that any experiences I got from working in public schools, designing and implementing literacy programs would be especially rewarding. I walked into the gap year confident that I would, eventually, profit from the skills I acquired. Lafayette College, with its twin strengths in the liberal arts and STEM, was where I intended to make this wish come true. So, imagine my dismay when I walked into a travel agency in the plush Barclays Plaza and asked for a one-way ticket to New York. The price was clearly out of reach.
*****
Aga Khan Academy, being an upwardly mobile school with the right kind of middle-class aspirations, fed its students a diet that included glossy catalogues from such eminent centers of higher learning as Leeds, London School of Economics, Harvard, and MIT. Among these slew of peddled dreams I had found one that fit my moldable mind: genetic engineering. From the nicely starched lab coats to the shiny googles, everything about being a genetic engineer sounded cool. And it certainly didn’t hurt that a certain young lady, whose mere presence made my heart flutter and skip beats erratically, also wanted to be a forensic scientist. I could already envision our future lab space, complete with deep stares into each other’s eyes as we worked late into the night to save the world: brilliant and in love.
As often happens, the budding genetic engineer inside me got sidetracked by something more novel: chemical engineering. ChemE, as the major was known at Lafayette, promised the lab coat and googles, and more. With a bachelor of science degree in Chemical Engineering, I envisioned myself at the forefront of Africa’s 21st century industrial revolution. As a Lafayette graduate, armed with both the latest in humanities education and a science degree, I would be assured of a role in the continent’s future, be it in drugs and chemical production, brewing, synthetic textiles, petroleum products, and many more.
In June 2005, however, all of these hopes were in jeopardy. Unable to finance my trip to college, I began reaching out to individuals and asking for assistance. I was in for a lot of disheartening conversations. Neither relatives nor family friends had anything to offer. They could all enumerate various other financial obligations they needed to fulfill. For some, it was the high school education of their own kids, others were in the midst of expensive construction projects, and yet some had hefty health bills to clear. In comparison, my own inadequacy seemed far less immediate.
My paternal grandfather, Amos Ng’ang’a Karugu, was one of the few who offered something solid. After my dad explained how much I needed to put together in order to secure my flight, he agreed to the proposal that I use his title deed as collateral. I remember going to his house, in Gikambura, to pick up the precious document. I don’t recall if he went into his bedroom to pick it up himself or if he sent one of my cousins. In any case, I can recall the reverence with which the document was handled. It had been professionally framed, and placed in a metal box together with his other personal effects. He unframed it himself, and handed it to me by placing it in a manila envelope I held open for him.
*****
The following week, armed with a land title that manifested my grandfather’s capacity to work hard, I returned to the travel agency. This was now less than a month before I was due to land in New York at JFK airport on Aug 23rd. I had spent about 2 or 3 weeks waiting for email responses from family friends who’d emigrated to the US, and who I hoped would offer some assistance. 2 and a half weeks later, with the emails unanswered, I had to accept the sad reality that no help was forthcoming.
I sat across the desk from Thomas Njuguna and explained that I still had not managed to raise the required amount of money for the one-way ticket. Instead, I added, I’d come with a title deed in hand. I hoped he’d be in a position to issue the ticket even though I could only pay about half the price. I’d make sure to get a student job as soon as I made it to Lafayette and would send him any arrears. As surety, I said while handing him the document, I’d leave behind the land title as collateral.
Njuguna listened to me before explaining that a land title was simply not adequate. Unlike in the past, he pointed out, rampant corruption at the ministry of lands in Nairobi meant that fake titles were in high circulation in the country. His travel agency did not have the means to verify the authenticity of a land document and so could not accept the document as surety. I was crestfallen. This was literally the end of the line for me and I immediately resolved myself to the fate of missing matriculating at Lafayette. The irony of it was that the school had actually awarded me a travel grant to help with my trip from Nairobi to Easton, Pa. As the genius of school administrators goes, I was unable to claim the money until I’d arrived at Lafayette. Argh!
After passing the title deed back to me, Njuguna kept talking. I barely listened as I carefully placed the envelope back into my backpack; the only thing worse than not making it to college on time would have been not making to college on time and destroying or losing my granddad’s coveted property deed. I eventually began to pay attention to what the travel agent was saying, and doing: mostly because I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.
Njuguna explained that he’d indeed issue a one-way ticket, even though I could only pay half the price at the time. He said he’d trust me to send him the balance. Through the kindness of a stranger, I would finally make it to college. Even now, years later, I’m still fascinated by the magnanimity with which Njuguna made this decision. Him and I had only met once or twice previously as my team and I purchased flights to Singapore. Certainly, that must have been a nice transaction but now, months later, he had no reason to trust that I’d keep my word. I could just as simply have nodded and paid lip service to his exhortations—that I wire him the remaining balance on the ticket as soon as I got my first paycheck—and proceeded to do the exact opposite.
*****
Njuguna’s generosity goes on to show that I’ve been extremely fortunate; that is to say, I have happened to be at the right place at the right time. Most importantly, however, it means that I’ve had the support, encouragement, feedback, and criticism from dissertation committee members, professors, fellow scholars and graduate students, family, friends, relatives, strangers, lovers, and also haters. Each has uniquely colored my experiences, and for that I shall be forever grateful.

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