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CURRENT ISSUE:  January 21, 2008
VOL. 46, NO. 2   •   Oakland, CA
Other front page stories
Bishop gives OK for assessment of John Paul II HS
Diocese commended for sex abuse program
Christianity, tribalism clash in Kenya

(Related story below: Kenyan priest sees tribalism at core of homeland’s violence)

Kenyans displaced by violence take refuge on the grounds of the Burnt Forest Church near Eldoret, Kenya, Jan. 6. Aid agencies estimate that 250,000 people have been uprooted by ethnic clashes following the country’s late-December presidential election.

Politics and tribalism have overpowered Christianity in Kenya, asserts Father James Kimani Kairu, a native Kenyan currently studying in Berkeley.

Commenting on the widespread violence that erupted earlier this month after a disputed national election, Father Kimani Kairu said he saw tensions building when he was living there, but it was after the Dec. 27 election that the violence exploded.

Challenger Raila Odinga alleged that President Mwai Kibaki rigged the election in his favor. Mobs began burning and looting homes, businesses and churches in several cities and towns. Father Kairu’s mother, Margaret Muthoni, is among those forced to flee.

“People are scared all over Kenya,” said the priest who lives at St. David Parish in Richmond while studying at the Jesuit School of Theology at the Graduate Theological Union.

Thousands of ethnic Kikuyus, who have dominated Kenya’s political and economic life since independence from Britain in 1963, have been forced to flee rampaging gangs. The thugs have taken advantage of the disputed results to drive people from their land. President Kibaki is a Kikuyu as is Father Kairu. Odinga belongs to the Luo tribe.

Father Kairu said the ongoing rancor has resulted in stereotyping among different tribes and this is causing people to act violently. “When I was back home, neighbors who sat together in church would organize to kill members of another tribe,” he said.
A man looks at a burned-out church in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, Jan. 4.
CNS photo/Noor Khamis, Reuters

How could this happen? “Because Catholic Christian Kenyans think mainly in terms of a tribal context, and that defeats the whole message of Christianity.”

Father Kairu, 37, said he experienced some of the animosity first hand. Once, during an episode of tribal fighting in the 1990s, he had to sleep in the forest. Now he is writing his master’s thesis on the need for Biblical conversion, and what that might look like in Kenya.

Before coming to the East Bay, Father Kairu served a parish in the Eldoret Diocese for four years. He has also worked as vocations director and was in charge of diocesan youth ministry for seven years.

Kenya’s upheaval has adversely affected not only his mother, but other family members as well. Father Kairu appealed to Mass-goers at St. David’s the weekend of Jan. 4-5 for financial help in getting his mother, an aunt, nine other family members, and a group of neighbors away from Eldoret, where the violence has been especially vicious.

Muthoni and her group spent several days in an Eldoret church without food, water or sanitary facilities along with others uprooted from their homes. The priest wanted to get her and as many other as possible out of town.

Mobs had already torched a nearby Assemblies of God church, burning 50 people alive.

How to help
St. David Parish has established an ongoing fund to help victims of the crisis. Checks should be made out to St. David of Wales Catholic Church with “for Kenya” in the memo line and sent to St. David Church, 5641 Esmond Avenue, Richmond, CA 94805-1112.
Catholic Relief Services is also collecting funds. Checks can be sent to:
Catholic Relief Services
Attn: Kenya Relief
228 W. Lexington Street
Baltimore, MD 21201-3413
Several of those who perished were the parishioners of his brother, Father Frederick Njorge Kairu. In an emergency situation, churches are the first places people go to seek sanctuary, no matter whether they are Catholic or Protestant, explained Father Kairu.

St. David’s parishioners responded to Father Kairu’s plea by giving $2500

Part of the money paid to get the 40 individuals to the local airport in a covered flatbed truck and several busses. Muthoni had to wait at the airport for 12 hours to catch a flight to Nairobi, where another son lives.

“At the moment she is alive and safe,” the priest said in a Jan. 13 phone interview. But he fears she will never be able to return to Eldoret. Father Kairu is spending many hours on his cell phone talking to his brother about finding another home for their mother in a safer area. “She has nothing — no clothes or furniture. She left everything behind.”

Catholic Relief Services reports than more than 200,000 Kenyans have fled their homes, seeking refuge in churches, schools, and police compounds. CRS helped fund an immediate half-month ration for approximately 6,000 displaced people by enabling the Diocese of Eldoret to purchase food. But, according to Father Kairu, Eldoret’s Bishop Cornelius Arap Korir “has 80,000 people depending on him.”

CRS has also provided $250,000 worth of emergency supplies to aid 37,500 people in the worst-affected regions near Eldoret.

Ken MacLean, CRS Kenya’s country representative, said the political crisis in Kenya is far from resolved, “and unfortunately, we fear that the humanitarian challenges are just beginning.”

He said a critical concern is the upcoming planting season. “Families must prepare fields and plant seeds soon to have sufficient food, but until people feel safe from the threat of violence, they will not take action to secure their future.”

Besides the $2500 from St. David’s, Father Kairu has received $500 from a women’s group at St. Cornelius Parish in Richmond for his mother. “I sent it to her to help her buy clothes, as she didn’t get anything from home when she fled,” he said.

The Jesuit School of Theology contributed $125 and forwarded it to the Red Cross.

Kenyan priest sees tribalism at core of homeland’s violence

By Sharon Abercrombie
Staff writer

If the current violence in Kenya continues indefinitely, Father James Kimani Kairu, a resident priest at St. David Parish in Richmond, won’t be able to go home again to the ancestral land his mother acquired legally “and from hard work.”
Kenyans displaced by violence take refuge at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Eldoret, Jan. 5.

“We are refugees in our own country,” the priest said on Jan.15, just two weeks after the results of a Dec. 27 national election set off looting, burning and killing in his homeland.

His mother, Margaret Muthoni, 58, has been displaced from the home and little farm she bought in the 1980s from her “small salary as a primary school teacher,” after the death of her husband. “She built a small two bedroom house where we were all brought up,” said the priest.

Besides teaching, Muthoni literally cultivated the land with her hands and a hoe every day and then sold the harvest “so all six of us children could go to the university.”

Although press reports attribute the violence to a dishonest election process, Father Kairu has a different view of the situation. In an e-mail interview with The Voice, he wrote: “Even a fool will see that it is something deeper than election rigging. Hundreds of warriors have descended on our village as they flatten all the homes of Kikuyus (the priest’s tribe).”

Friends and relatives have told him that “neighbors pointed to the homes to be burned.” People believe that “politicians and the rich have funded the violence in the name of democracy,” he said.

Rival tribes claim that the ancestral land belonging to the priest’s family is actually their own land – “so we must move, together with all those who belong to my tribe, who like my mother got the properties legally and from hard work.”

Father Kairu said the accusers’ belief that President Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, stole votes has meant that “our sentence is to have our homes burnt down and displaced.”

In a phone conversation with The Voice, Father Kairu said he was extremely worried about the ongoing suffering. ‘There is a cold rain falling. I don’t know what people are going to do, having to sleep outside.”
Father Kairu said he wonders where the marauders’ consciences are, when they have caused so much misery. “Kenya is not about numbers,” he said. “Kenya is about people with feelings, pains and emotions.”

He believes the time has come for Kenyans to come together under the banner of their homeland instead of their tribal identities. “I don’t want my people to be referred to as Kikuyus, but as Kenyans. Those who voted for either of the candidates are Kenyans. The candidates are Kenyans too, and should not be made to suffer because of the corrupt electoral process created by politicians.”

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