A man who began life as the son of a poor peasant farmer in Kenya is now being hailed in his home country as the first African to become president of a U.S. college. He's using his position to try to bring badly needed help to people back home and a new awareness to people in his new home.
On a recent Sunday evening at a large church just outside Atlanta, about 200 students of Beulah Heights Bible College and their families are attending the graduation ceremony. Benson Karanja, the school president, steps up to the podium and leads them in a prayer. "Please repeat this with me," he intones, "by God's grace I am here, and let the people say 'amen' to that."
It's something Karanja says to himself every day as he thinks of the journey that brought him here. He was born in the small town of Nakuru, the capital of Kenya's Rift Valley Province, almost a half-century ago. That was during the country's colonial period, when only whites could own land. Karanja's father was a peasant farmer, working for a white family. "Most of the time when the master had gone to the city, I had an opportunity for my father to sneak me in the house and expose me to the Western civilization." He recalls that was the first time he saw a radio, and an indoor flushing toilet. "So it was amazing to be there."
Kenya's independence in the early 1960s brought change. Black Africans were now allowed to own land. Young Benson Karanja grew up to become a hardworking farmer and a wealthy businessman. In 1987, he was invited to Atlanta, to attend an economic summit of international black leaders. It changed his life. "For some reason I was sitting in my hotel room and I thought I should go back to college," he recalls. "For what? I didn't know for what I was supposed to go. But I felt the urge that maybe I just need to go to a bible college."
Benson Karanja was a Christian, but never dreamed of being a minister. Still, he followed his urge, and while in Atlanta, picked up a brochure about Beulah Heights Bible College. It's one of the oldest bible colleges in the south, with a substantial African-American as well as international student body.
A few months later, with his acceptance letter in hand, Benson Karanja packed up his shocked wife and three children and moved to the United States. That's when he began a second rags-to-riches story.
"If I wanted to sustain myself for the next four or five years I had to do something," he explains. "The only job I could work was on campus, and the only job they could give me was to be a janitor." So he began scrubbing toilets at this small school in Atlanta. "It trained me to be more sensitive and to be more human and to be a leader -- understanding that it is an opportunity that I have been given in times such as this to lead, but I'm not better."
After graduating with a degree in Biblical Studies, Karanja kept working at Beulah Heights. He eventually became a faculty member, and two years ago, president.
In that position, he has organized a number of efforts to help the poor in Africa. These include visits to Kenya, where American business leaders and students from the college saw extreme poverty first-hand. "We took them to the hospitals. And they saw the devastating conditions that the patients are. You find three patients sharing one bed. Patients came - one came with malaria, one came with AIDS, another one came with a different disease - and they're all sharing one bed."
The visitors are not asked to get involved or give money. But, Karanja says, they do. "That's the time you understand when you see them just cry. And you know now it is going to be their decision. It's not Benson just sitting there telling them there is this hospital, why can't you support? They make that decision."
Karanja also leads trips to needy areas in other countries. He says the students return with a new perspective on life. "Counting [themselves] wealthy and lucky. It helps them to be the leaders that we're preparing them [to be]."
One of those future leaders is new graduate Tara King, who says her college president "always brought to our attention things that are going on. To actually have somebody say I've been there, I used to walk these streets, I've seen poverty. Poverty in the U.S. is different from poverty in Kenya, Nairobi, and South Africa. He actually brings it to life. He puts a face with the issue." Now, she wants to make documentary films about world issues.
A Kenyan newspaper, The Standard, recently praised Karanja as the first African immigrant to become president of a U.S. college. He says the distinction humbles him. "It's an honor and I don't take it for granted, I take it very serious. And I pray that I'm going to be an example that people are going to say he did it and he did it well."
Back at the graduation, Benson Karanja looks out at the room full of students from about 40 different countries, including many Africans he helped attract to the small college in Atlanta. He tells them that today, seeing their success, he is the happiest man.