Opened Without a Key

The first time Debbie, our children Karsten and Misha, and I were poised to cross the Kenya/Uganda border, we were brimming with hope and expectation. We were about to step over the threshold of the venture for which we had prepared, uprooted ourselves and traveled to this continent. As we started this new chapter, we had no idea that ahead of us lay not only exciting adventures, but also sobering, sometimes dangerous, challenges. I believe that God revealed Himself to us from the beginning in a powerful way with an enduring assurance of His presence to steel us for what lay ahead.

We had been cleared by immigration, customs, and the police on the Kenya side of the border and were eager to cross into Uganda. This place was hot, dusty and smelly, and noisy from the many trucks that brought goods from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Zaire, now Congo. But there was a more serious concern: Danger lurked in Ugandan streets after dark. Starting early in the evening, thugs, including even soldiers and policemen, would break into houses with their AK-47s, often murdering for nothing more than a radio cassette player, bedding, or for the possibility of finding wads of Ugandan Shillings stashed between mattresses. Sometimes they finished a meal still warm on the plates of their hapless victims. Cars would be hijacked even in broad daylight. One of our acquaintances, John Wilson, the distinguished and respected Ugandan leader of the African Evangelistic Enterprise, was killed when he tried to talk hijackers out of taking his car. A German woman was shot in such an attempt when she refused to surrender her vehicle. But she survived and drove herself to one of the mission hospitals. (The large government hospital, Mulago, was little more than a morgue in those days.) Given those realities, we were anxious to reach Kampala, if not Mbarara, before dusk.

It was about noon. There was a double-drive chain-link gate across the road leading to the bridge that separated the Kenyan and Ugandan border posts. We were ready to enter the land of our calling, but the gate was padlocked with a heavy chain. I asked one of the officials to unlock it so we could travel on. He informed me that the man with the key had gone to lunch.

Now, to get the full flavor of this situation one must understand this about 1980s Uganda, if not most of Africa: Lunch can take anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours, and a government worker is likely to be gone longer rather than shorter. An upper-level official may hang his coat over the back of his chair and leave for the afternoon, sometimes coming back only to retrieve it at the end of the workday. That was unlikely in this case with a border guard and the pressure of heavy truck traffic, but time was passing, and we wanted to be sure not to get stuck for the night somewhere before reaching Kampala, where we could stay at the fenced and secured Church of Uganda guesthouse. Chained and padlocked gates are common in East Africa, and often the locks look shut when they aren’t. I inspected this one – it was snapped shut.

“Well, can you go find the man with the key?”

“I don’t know where he went.”

“Isn’t there another key somewhere?”

“No. We have only that key.”

He was stabbing with his finger into the air as he was making his point, and I thought, One key? What if it got lost? Would you shoot the lock off? I was not surprised. The first time I visited Uganda, the immigration officer at Uganda’s international airport at Entebbe didn’t even have a pen to make an entry into my passport, let alone a stamp. My first good deed in Uganda – I gave him my BiC.

So, here we were with our two children – one a toddler, the other a baby – facing the prospect of spending the night. We weren’t even sure there was a hotel with the promise of some comfort. And even if there had been one, there was no way our car with our “personal effects,” two words that were part of border jargon, would have survived the night untouched. A night watchman would happily lose his job if he could walk off with a couple of our suitcases full of our duds. Sleeping in the car wouldn’t be safe either, so that the only escape from our predicament would have been a return to the nearest Kenyan town, Eldoret, some sixty miles back on a road fit for a tank. Clearly that guardian of the gate, possessor of the key to our deliverance from major inconvenience, had better get back here, and soon.

Suddenly, just as I was expressing under my breath my disbelief at this situation, my first negative thoughts of this mission, I heard a clanging sound from the direction of the gate some thirty feet away. The lock was still locked, but the chain had separated from the lock, and the two loose ends were dangling and rubbing against the metal of the gate. Nobody was near the gate. There was no wind, let alone an earthquake. The chain – at about three inches per link, the size commonly used on gates – had been loosely wrapped. I don’t know that it had broken, because I didn’t see a broken link on the ground. Nevertheless, it was quite the event and encouraged our deflated spirits. Chastened, I uttered a quiet “Praise God” and turned to the officer:

“Sir, God has broken the chain. (Technically that might not have been the proper description, but I wasn’t worried about the details then. Nor was he.) Would you please open the gate?”

That hot afternoon reinforced a lesson: God’s timetable, not unlike that of Africans in their more relaxed culture, is unpredictable. He is sovereign above all speculation, unfathomable in His wisdom and abundantly merciful in the revelation of His power.

Coming back down to earth, we still didn’t make it to Mbarara that day. But we got beyond Kampala and spent the night in a secure compound with the Bishop of Masaka, the Right Reverend Christopher Senjonjo, eighty-five miles from our goal.

This is an excerpt from Eb’s book Piercing the Night, A Life on the Edge in post-Amin Uganda. Eb offers his book free of charge and will ship it within the U.S. for the media mail price of $3.17. You can reach him at or 303-530-7962

Original 1984 snapshot provided by: Eb Roell