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A great example of spontaneous giving

My fellow “Kalasingas” are not renowned for their social activity. In Kenya, the primary image of the Sikh male is of a hard-drinking, cranky, rumbustious, self-absorbed individual. There are indeed enough Sikh males of this ilk around to feed the stereotype, but the stereotype does not define the species.

At London’s Heathrow International Airport a most interesting phenomenon has been observed in recent days. Iceland’s volcanic ash cloud continues to cause unprecedented travel misery. Due to the huge number of cancelled flights, swarms of frustrated travellers throng Heathrow.

Now it is easy to imagine that a cancelled flight is no big deal. You just go back home and wait for the next one, don’t you? Or check into a hotel until your plane finally flies. But those options are only available to people local to the affected airport, or to those with the money to spend unexpectedly on hotels. Many people in airports simply do not have those options: they come from far away, and are financially challenged.

Heathrow, which handles 75 planes every hour, was therefore filled to bursting with thwarted passengers from far-off lands and dwindling funds, being forced to spend days and nights sleeping on hard seats and floors. And one thing they, and their chidren, sorely lacked was hot food.

Now there are many Sikhs, many of them former Kenyan residents, who live around Heathrow and work in the airport. Noticing this phenomenon of hungry and frustrated passengers in their midst, a group of Sikh women swung into action. They cooked hot meals in their homes in large quantities, chipped in to buy water and snacks, set up a station at the airport, and distributed it all free of charge to those most in need. The operation has grown from there, with many other people stepping forward to provide hot meals until the crisis subsides.

The female of the species is invariably the more formidable, and Sikhs are no exception. In fact there is a long-standing tradition of giving out free food to the needy. Makindu Sikh Temple on Mombasa Road has been doing it for decades. And at the famous Golden Temple in Amritsar, food is prepared and served on a twenty-four-hour basis, sometimes feeding 100,000 people in a single day, through a 300-strong army of volunteers.

My aim here is not to extol “my” people. It is to ask: how many of us are conducting these acts of spontaneous kindness, like the Sikh women of Heathrow? I fear that in Kenya our idea of charity is altogether different. Here, Kenyans of all shades and colours are indeed very charitable, but in a very different way. We join clubs and community organisations where we rub shoulders with well-clothed peers and plan ostentatious events where we are “seen to be giving.”

This is, by and large, fake giving. We pretend to give when we are in reality taking more: taking status, taking opportunities for business networking, taking the satisfaction of mingling with notables and worthies. Yes, organised charities, clubs, philanthropic institutions, faith-based groups all have their uses, and I do not wish to question their utility. Indeed, organisation-based giving can be more powerful and productive than the random and fragmented efforts of individuals.

But that is not the point. We all need to recapture that part of our beings that is focused on unexpected, spontaneous and uncalculated acts of kindness to strangers – people with whom we have no connection, who are not of our own communities, and who can do nothing for us in return. Like airport passengers.

In Kenya we spend way too much time making “donations” and too little giving succour. We raise toasts rather than uplift the spirits of the fatigued and the defeated. We prefer the fancy charitable event to the quieter process of continuous kindness. We are faking it, people, faking it for the cameras and the applause and for our own gain.

There is so much more to be gained from nurturing a personal awareness and willingness to be of help. In a talk I gave once I stated: “Giving through an organisation…is neither the beginning nor the end of giving. We must make a habit of giving in our daily lives. We must give a smile to every person who seems unhappy. We must give an ear to those who need to talk. We must give an eye to the plight of those who are trapped at the bottom of the pyramid. We must give our mind to the problems of the world. These are not platitudes; they are things to do, every single day of our lives.”

No matter how grand or how modest your station in life, there are things you can give out. Give out a smile, give a chat, give a helpful thought, give a kind word, give a thank you, give a word of advice, give a hand of help. If you do it without forethought, a bigger you will emerge.

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