The Sikh Temple at Makindu

We started early last Sunday. Just before dawn. We were hoping to get a clear head start on all those many who we assumed would be sleeping off the hangovers of their Saturday nights out, or even their Friday office parties, before joining the Christmas exodus to the Coast.

But even before it was time to turn the lights off the car, the Mombasa Road was surprisingly busy. Both ways. So many slow trucks. With the blinding sun rising in the East, and the blown dust of the diversions, it was a hellish drive along the Athi River bypass that seems to be taking a painfully long time to finish.

So we were glad of the smooth tarmac after Sultan Hamud – and even gladder for the breakdrive and breakfast in the Sikh Temple at Makindu. And now I am kicking myself for missing this in over twenty years of driving the long Mombasa Road.

The temple grounds are a peaceful oasis after the noise and hustle of the road. There are green lawns, flowering shrubs and shading trees. Any traveller is welcome to take a meal in the dining hall. You are requested to cover your head, and a basket of cotton headscarves is placed at the entrance. And you are invited to make a donation, for which there is a box near the exit.

The food was excellent that Sunday morning: a mild curry of potatoes and lentils, chapattis, hot spices, warming tea – and those sweetest of Indian sweets.

I was intrigued by the temple, so the following day at the cottage we were renting at Vipingo I went online and looked it up. I already knew a little about the Sikh religion – how it originated more than 500 years ago in the Punjab and how it shares some of the tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism.

I assumed that the temple, or Gurudwara, at Makindu had been built by Indian workers on the railroad at the turn of the twentieth century – because many of the artisans and train drivers were Sikhs. And so it was – then only a wooden shack with a tin roof. When the railway moved on, the Gurudwara eventually fell into disrepair. But it had become a place of pilgrimage, and in 1926 it was lavishly rebuilt by the Kenyan Sikh community.

I gathered that there are a number of strange stories associated with the Gurudwara. Like the one told by an African worker there that one night he saw a figure on a white horse. The horseman approached him and spoke to him, warning him not to tell anyone. But the man was so scared that he told the first person he saw the following morning. Asked who the man on the horse was, the worker pointed to a painting of Guru Gobind Singh which was hanging in the Gurudwara. ‘That was him!’ he said. ‘And it was his white horse!’

I learnt, too, that Sikhs have three main duties in life: to keep God in mind at all times; to earn an honest living; to care for others. The free kitchen food and accommodation – the langar – relates to the third of these, and it is a community act of service in Sikh temples.

I am not a religious person, but you don’t have to be to know that there is a good spirit in a place such as the Sikh Temple at Makindu….

But when we moved on that day, whatever little of that good spirit had rubbed off on me was soon dissipated when, a few kilometres down the road, I nearly drove into the back of a lorry that had been waved to stop at a police checkpoint right on the blind crest of a hill. Later on, I was yet again pulled over for speeding – for doing 70 kph along a very safe stretch of road that nevertheless has a 50 kph limit.

The officers who caught me seemed more inclined to extort some cash rather than properly charge me – but they were not happy about being asked to produce a receipt. When I eventually told them I wrote for the Nation, they couldn’t get rid of me quickly enough. ‘We pardon you!’ one of them said.

Perhaps they should go back down the road to read what was written that day on a blackboard in the courtyard of the Sikh Temple at Makindu:

‘I am blind, totally blind, entangled in corruption and poison.

How can I walk on the Guru’s path?’

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation