Nairobi, Kenya

Africa Journal

Part One

Editor’s note: Catholic  Communications correspondent Father  Bill Pomerleau, pastor of Our Lady of Sacred Heart Parish in Springfield,  recently spent a “working vacation” in East Africa. The following is the first of  a series of three reports on places and people with ties to the Diocese of Springfield.

 Kenyan capital a center of cultural, religious diversity

By Father Bill Pomerleau

NAIROBI,Kenya– Wednesday, June 22

The phone call from Sister Pat Smith was a pleasant surprise.

She had heard from another Sister of St. Joseph in Springfield that I was in Kenya, and called me to see if we could get together.

“How are things in Springfield? Was your parish badly hurt by the tornado?” she asked when we met at the Mwangaza Jesuit Retreat Centre here.

Jesuit Retreat Center

Sister Pat, a native of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Springfield, habitually inquires about the welfare of others.  Usually, her care and concern extends to East Africans, whom she has served for many years.

Today, her primary ministry is individual spiritual direction and retreat work, especially  for women religious.  Based in the southwestern Kenyan town of Kisii, she helps in the spiritual direction of the ever-growing number of church ministers in Kenya and neighboring countries.

“Isn’t this place incredible?” she said, giving me a tour of the extensive complex in the leafy Karen neighborhood on the western edge of Nairobi that serves as a retreat house and residence for retired Jesuits.

“During the day, you have a panoramic view of the Ngong Hills, where they filmed “Out of Africa,” she added.

But Sister Pat’s lifestyle in East Africa hasn’t always been so placid.  Earlier in her time in Africa, she worked with refugees in southernSudan, in the notorious Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, and in still another refugee encampment in northwestern Tanzania that housed Burundians for many years.

All three of the refugee camps where Sister Pat worked were so massive, with hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from various civil conflicts, that she cannot recall ever personally meeting any former refugees now living inSpringfield.

But her knowledge of the history of the region – along with the experiences of fellow Sister of St. Joseph Dorothy Pilkington  (now working inTanzania) has been invaluable to me in my refugee ministry in Springfield.

In January 2008, Sister Pat again found herself in the middle of a humanitarian crisis when civil unrest broke out in Kenya, until then widely considered to be the most stable nation in the region.

A hotly contested presidential and parliamentary election between incumbent President Mwai Kibaki and challenger Raila Odinga enflamed buried passions about tribal favoritism in Kenyan society.

Post-election violence broke out across the country as disaffected members of minority ethnic groups rose up against the Kikuyus, Kenya’s largest ethnic group. The violence killed an estimated  600 Kenyans, and at its height displaced  250,000 people.

Sister Pat was among several church leaders who helped shelter displaced Kikuyus and others at the cathedral in the southwestern Kenyan city ofKisumu.

Fortunately, Kenya’s political elite was able to form a coalition government with  Kibaki serving another five-year term as president, and Odinga serving as prime minister.  The violence abated, and the nation avoided a full-fledged Rwandan-style genocidal conflict.

East Africa’s most influential nation still has political problems, but journalists and ordinary Catholics I met here describe them more as political cronyism by leaders who hand out favors and jobs to kinsmen and friends, rather than ethnic conflict per se.

A new constitution creating county government and various government campaigns to combat corruption may, many hope, help Kenya to have a more placid general election in 2012.

A stable Kenyan civil society is good for the church throughout the region, since Nairobi is a major regional center of Catholic intellectual life. Priests, women religious and lay people from several nations are enrolled in the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi.  The Anglican Church in East Africa is also centered in the city.

Downtown Nairobi

Nairobi is also a major trading center for goods destined for large parts of the continent, and the home of many African and non-African foreigners. Inexpensive bus lines serve points in Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the soon-to-be independent southern Sudan.

Kibira, Africa’s largest slum, is located here. But so are international banks in its modern, clean and bustling business district. Somali women in full Islamic garb mingle with business suit-clad Kenyan professionals. Unlike other African capitals, Nairobi also has a noticeable Caucasian and Asian population.

Catholic and Anglican churches compete with numerous Evangelical congregations, some of which were begun by U.S.-based groups. Other Protestant groups directly founded by Kenyans are independent of what Americans call mainline Protestant churches.

View of Nairobi

The city also has prominent mosques and prayer spaces for other religious groups.

The successes and challenges of Nairobi’s diversity mirror the successes and challenges of East Africa.