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Fr. Kieron in Mivumoni, Kenya

Father Kieron's annual pastoral journeys have recently taken him on a sponsored climb to the peak of Kilimanjaro; by bike to Lourdes (also a sponsored fund raising venture) – and, during our hot summer of 2006, to stay with Father Joe Kengah in Mivumoni, Kenya. This was in return for Fr Joe's annual visits to St Richard's that stimulate support for his remarkable mission in southern Kenya, centred on a clinic for the relief of epilepsy, a very common disease in Kenya.

Fr Kieron looked at community life with a fresh eye and a camera. Now he records for us the realities of life for our zestful Catholic colleagues and their priest, four thousand miles away. St Richard's supports Mivumoni – particularly through fund raising at Our Lady of the Assumption at Bosham, and now St Peter's in the Witterings. St Richard's parish website "Missions" carries reports from Fr Joe – and those who support him, so please read these as background.

Village life in the parish of Mivumoni

"Mivumoni isn’t marked on most tourist maps but the village is on the borders of the beautiful, if small, Shimba Hills wildlife reserve, about 50 miles south of Mombasa, but off the main highway. The village is reached miles down a dirt track country road. Fr Joe gets out and about to meet parishioners and patients.

"I found conditions in the village as I expected – houses built with mud walls, a bit like New Forest cob cottages, but in Africa they use palm leaf roofs.

"A row of shops, built of similar materials, serves the community.

"Most villagers farm on smallholdings - shambas. These are each a few acres with perhaps eight families living from them. The crops are exotic to us: maize, coconuts, sweet potatoes, cashew nuts, bananas, mangoes, citrus fruits etc. They may keep goats, chickens and other farm animals. The people are very poor by UK standards but this district is thought by them to be 'good to live in'.

"There are eight churches in the parish - the early ones were built by the Holy Ghost fathers, but in the Shimba Hills Fr Joe built the eighth with money from the Bosham sale - it's dedicated to Our Lady. The farthest is more than an hour's drive by the off-roader needed on country tracks, often flooded in the monsoon rains. (And he needs a new vehicle!)

"I visited each church – except one, cut off by mud after heavy monsoon rain. They are centres, not only for worship, but for a vigorous and joyful Catholic community life.

"I was present at two Confirmation Masses held by Archbishop Boniface Lele, enthroned only a year ago. He confirmed a large number of candidates - who came from far and wide, one set at Msulwa - an outstation, and the second at Mivumoni.

"Alongside the archbishop was Father Joe, who is Dean of the Kwale pastoral zone, and is regarded by the archbishop as someone he can 'lean on'. He’s respected as a man of integrity in a country where corruption has clouded public life.

"Kenya is regarded as the "cradle of civilisation" from archeological traces of man’s earliest existence in the Great Rift Valley. It is now considered a politically stable country, with 32 million people: two thirds are Christians and almost a third are Catholics. Mombasa on the south east coast gives its name to a growing diocese which has expanded rapidly since being founded in 1955, during the Mau Mau rebellion. In 1990 it became an Archdiocese with almost a quarter of a million Catholics and 70 priests (that's one priest to more than 3000 Catholics).

" For centuries Arabs have used the port, and their Islamic culture is still strong in this region, so there are fewer Catholics – 13% - in this diocese compared with 26% elsewhere in Kenya.

Father Joe’s Mission

"Fr Joe is dedicated to parish life. Most of his parishioners came into the Shimba hills in the 60’s when the government moved a whole lot of people from an arid and farmed-out district into an area of jungle - very fertile but had to be cleared and is now productive.

"It's not only fertile – a Canadian corporation discovered titanium and other valuable ores on three sites near the coast, and after a long battle the community must cope for the next sixteen years with opencast mining nearby, which will strip the soil down to the mineral bearing sands to extract the elements – used for whitening our paint or for metal. But 3000 people have to leave their homes for a new site. There will be some compensation, and a few hundred jobs created. The Kwale pilot plant (company picture l.) will be followed by the extraction machinery (company picture r.) on what the company claims is the largest mining operation in Kenya set to produce "at the lowest cost". The other sites could go into production over a larger area.

Good community health is the key objective

"Early on, Fr Joe realised that the wellbeing of his people was undermined by disease, with little state medicine available. Infant mortality is high, with many women giving birth at home without medical backup. For survivors, the traditional childhood illnesses are still common – measles was once a killer but they’ve started an inoculation campaign. There's the newer menace of Aids, but Kifafa – Epilepsy - is the real scourge of South East Kenya and Fr Joe is fighting it with his highly successful clinic.

Epilepsy – the dread disease

"The causes are not fully understood, but families see young people suffering the fits which many non Christian locals still think are the work of the devil (and witch doctors still have influence with non Christians). In fact it's likely that the mosquito and malaria are at the root of the disease – high body temperatures may cause brain damage which can lead to the distressing and disabling fits – scores of episodes a month in the unfortunate victims. Older people can’t hold down jobs.

The parish main church becomes Fr Joe's Clinic

"The churches have set up and pay for parish dispensaries, with Clinic Officers coming once a month to make first diagnoses and dispense some modern and effective treatments available to Catholics and others alike. (They are not qualified medical practitioners, but are more knowledgeable than nurses in Kenya).

"For victims there are still social prejudices – if children have epilepsy they won’t be sent to school - they are denied education and socialisation. so they’re doubly handicapped.

"But the government and Fr Joe's parish campaign is slowly breaking prejudice down. Also educated people know you need continuing care so you can’t come in for a quick fix. Treatment works wonders but often after many attendances at clinic over a long period.

"I saw the baby, Muthoka, who was first seen as an epilepsy patient, but didn't appear for a while because his mother was pregnant with another child. On a follow-up visit to his home they found Muthoka to be very ill. They suspected a brain tumour and the parish sent him to hospital where they found he had TB of the brain. He was operated on and continues to recover at home - though there is some concern about his nutrition.

"Fr Joe has set out his aims – first to conquer prejudice, encourage people to attend clinic when they have symptoms, and continue treatment long term. (See also the first piece on our Missions website, and updates).

Educating the community

"I attended an annual get together for the community to discuss progress over Kifafa - called a Baraza. It was addressed by Fr Joe, together with the Clinic Officer. It's encouraging that Muslim representatives from a large town are also helping spread the word in a mixed faith cooperation with Catholics and evangelicals.

The school – investment for the future

"I visited the Catholic school in the parish of Shanzu, north of Mombasa and near Fr Joe's family. People really struggle with education - they all get primary, but secondary has to be paid for – not everybody can afford this, and even after secondary education the chance of college is remote for many. There is not yet enough money from England to provide bursaries or some sponsorship.

"As a guest at the school I was made an Elder, and required to be clad in appropriate garments (not unusual for a priest – but these were - unfamiliar!)

"Fr Joe has fostered informal links with St Richard's school and pupils are in touch by correspondence - this could lead to a "twinning"! At present there are no Catholic schools in Mivumoni, but Fr Joe keeps a good relationship with the state schools.

Life for the Parish priest - Fr Joe at home

"The most modern home in the village is the priest’s house – a meeting place for everyone.

"Fr Joe lives alone – he can cook on bottled gas, but it's very expensive and, like many of his parishioners, he mostly uses local charcoal. There is no mains electricity nor telephone. He works with a battery operated laptop, and has to drive 25 miles to a town to get on the internet. Lighting is a daily need – it gets dark at about 6.30 or so all year round.

He has company locally from members of the church council including local Sisters of St Joseph – there's no other priest.

Here, Archbishop Boniface joined us after a memorable Confirmation Mass: he and I had a special cake made in our honour - and by custom we had to cut this and be fed by our donors! "

Vocations: new priests – or informed citizens

"With a strong church they have a good number of vocations – 38 seminarians in Mombasa – low by Kenya standards! Even if some don’t make it to the priesthood, they serve their community the better with the education they’ve had.

"The parishioners have a voice - each of the outstations has its own committee and the parish council has reps from each station. They talk a lot, are big into making speeches – definitely a vigorous structure! Archbishop Boniface is trying to attract more outside help. CAFOD have visited and led a day with the clergy about Aids.

The inspiring vigour of Catholic life in Mivumoni

"I attended Masses in packed churches, celebrated for two hours or more – and that after many people had walked a long way to their church. When they come they give it their best shot - even outstations bang the drums! Fr Joe gets round regularly to each of his churches, but the main church always has Sunday Mass.

Social action – with goats!

"One of his innovations came from Fr Joe's association with St Peter's at Hove, who suggested he imported Swiss goats which breed well, yield milk and eventually meat – and these were given to families who had access to a siring billy. The condition was that they should give their first born kid to another family – and so on.

"So I share my enthusiasm with parishioners. What's plain is that Mivumoni is a first class project for us to support. Read Fr Joe's accounts in our “Missions” website features and see how efficiently he uses funding from the churches in our parish. I came back impressed that any money we raise is going straight to where it’s needed!”

Fr Kieron O'Brien, September 2006