Not many know that the late Sathya Sai Baba made only one foreign trip from India and that was to East Africa back in 1968. His first and sole trip was to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, where he was invited by his devotees.Since there was no direct flight to Kampala from Mumbai, he had to stop over in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. His devotees in Nairobi requested the biggest local newspaper The Nation to report his arrival, and that's how I went with a photographer to the then Embakasi Airport to cover his arrival early on a Sunday morning.
Unpretentiously, he walked from his plane to the VIP arrival lounge accompanied by two people, one of whom spoke English. He looked very fresh after an eight-hour flight and seemed to be in the late 20s. In fact, he was 42 years old then. After some photos, a brief interview was conducted through this interpreter. He said he had arrived with the message of peace and love.
"I have come to light the lamp of love in your hearts, to see that it shines day by day with added brightness," he said. When asked if he had come to preach Hinduism, he replied that this was not his mission. He promoted the oneness of all religions and said these should be allowed to flourish freely. He urged people to respect the differences between religions and recognise them as long as they did not disrupt unity. A very appropriate message for a country like Kenya with three races and scores of tribes enjoying freedom of worship for all major religions flourishing there.
The real news happened when he came out to get into his car. The old airport had a curved road to the single hangar for arrivals and departures. The cars arrived on this road curving around a large roundabout with grass in the centre. When Sathya Sai Baba came out, he found hundreds of Indians and Africans lined up all round this giant circle. Many were standing, others were sitting with their companions, some were lying down with their helpers and a few were in wheelchairs; all waiting patiently for the blessings of the holy man from India. They were hoping against hope for a miracle blessing to cure them.
What was surprising was the number of Africans who had turned up. How did they come to know in advance that this divine person could cure them? On asking, one of them said that his Indian friend told him about the arrival of a holy man from India who had powers to perform miracles.
Sathya Sai Baba went round the circle blessing each one of them before sitting in the big car. Before giving his blessings, he stopped many times to find out the problem of the person through his secretary and said a few words to him or her. As he drove away in a convoy, some started crying and others shouted in happiness.
When photographs of Sathya Sai Baba blessing people at the airport appeared in the newspaper the next morning, The Nation got many calls to find out when he would transit through Nairobi on his return trip. An African colleague in the newsroom looked at his photo showing his dark complexion and Afro hairstyle and commented, "He is one of us!" Lots of other African Kenyans had the same response.
His devotees invited me and my wife for a personal 'darshan' during his transit. This time, we went to a tiny Indian neighbourhood of Nairobi where scores of Indians were waiting for him. When we were ushered into his presence, he blessed us and produced holy ash and a mini deity of Sai Baba of Shirdi in silver for me and a baby Lord Krishna also in silver for my wife.
He was known for producing Swiss watches but this was different. Was it a miracle? The classic "Shri Sai Satcharitra" about the life and miracles of Sai Baba of Shirdi by Annasaheb Govind R. Babholkar published at the beginning of the last century has detailed stories of the miracles performed by this saint and I was requested to read it to decide for myself.
In Kampala and Nairobi, he blessed large congregations of his admirers and devotees and also met some Indian and national leaders. He had a very successful sole and soul safari.
(Kul Bhushan was a newspaper editor in Nairobi and a media consultant to a UN agency. He lives in New Delhi and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)