Africa, June 2019, Vol. 84 No. 5
Out of the ashes, a church of beauty arises…
Every time I spot one of those enormous JCB demolition excavators heading in the direction of poor neighbourhoods my heart flutters and a cold sweat breaks out even on the hottest of days. Those powerful machines may represent development and progress for some but for those of us who have witnessed evictions and destruction of homes and livelihoods, they are enemy number one.
Mombasa city, Kenya, has a population of one million, but 55% of that figure lives in slums or informal settlements if you want to be politically correct. They occupy land that is owned by government, absentee landlords and private developers – the polite title for land grabbers. When St Patrick’s Missionaries first went to the coastal city in 2007 we were given the opportunity by the late Archbishop Boniface Lele to open the first slum parish in the city. We negotiated with the residents and were given one third of an acre to set up a parish base and immerse ourselves in the lives of the forgotten and abandoned.
The threat of eviction has remained constant. In 2010 we were tipped off that hundreds of homes were to be demolished at the parish centre in Bangala in the dark of the night. The community kept vigil and the youth mobilised resistance while the rest of us lobbied politicians. The joint effort averted eviction.
However, in 2012 without legal notice or warning, forced evictions took place at the other end of the parish in the outstation known as Kibarani. This settlement had developed alongside a huge dumpsite that provided a living to the poorest of the city’s residents. On that fateful morning two enormous excavators, a contingent of over one hundred police and a group of hired vigilantes descended on the village and levelled the homes of hundreds of people. Nothing was spared even as parents tried desperately to salvage their few possessions and family photographs.
The invaders attempted to come back and finish the job the following day but the youth repulsed them. The destruction was heartbreaking. But the community decided to stay put because after all they had nowhere else to run to. Our human rights organisation, Haki Yetu (Our Rights) filed a compensation case in the High Court and the grabbers also took more cases against the community to which we got enjoined in their defence.
Since the people had shown such courage and tenacity, as a church we had to remain in solidarity and restore their hopes. Thanks to the generosity of our benefactors in Co Kerry, Ireland, we began a primary school appropriately named St Francis of Assisi. The school is now complete with nursery and classes 1 to 8 and each year the hardy young pupils perform well in the national examinations.
Yet, the church community still worshipped in a semi-permanent mud building. The hesitancy to build a permanent church that might be demolished was understandable. However, in 2017 the current parish priest, Nicky Hennity, discussed with his church council and they jointly decided to take the risk of construction as an act of faith. After all the court had not ruled against us and the grabbers seemed to be tiring. We worked on the principle that justice always goes to those who are willing to endure the most.
As always Nicky wanted local involvement since even the poorest of people have something to give towards their own development. A fundraising event in September of last year raised 15,000, an amazing figure for such a poor area. This was boosted by donations from St Patrick’s, Kiltegan, and from the Apostolic Work Society of the Archdiocese of Armagh, and of the diocese of Down and Connor. The building started taking shape and while Nicky was abroad the very senior Peter Finegan supervised the construction undertaken by the very capable contractor, Harrison Mugo.
After consultation with Archbishop Martin Kivuva, Saturday March 16th was set as the opening date. The energy and excitement around the beautiful, new church motivated six couples to announce that they would like to have their marriages blessed on the same day. These couples varied from those in their thirties to grandparents all of whom could not afford to have their own special day but were happy to share their joy and important moment with the whole parish community.
The church was overflowing and the four hour ceremony seemed to pass in minutes. Everyone was fed and watered on an extremely hot day. The beautiful new church remains the focal point in the community. Rising out of the ashes of destruction, demolition and despair the church gives life, energy, community and hope to a tortured and forgotten community. For the Kiltegan family it is a response to our mission to the least, the last and the lost.
Fr Gabriel Dolan was ordained in 1982. He combines a passionate concern for Human Rights with youth and parish ministry in Kenya.
©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine