A visit to Kenya

Our Congregation Archivist made a visit to Kenya while she was in South Africa doing archival work. Here is a recount of her visit:

My time in Kenya from 10 to 26 April 2024 was one of the most interesting and enriching fortnights of my life. I thoroughly enjoyed the African style of living, loved their cooking and the liturgies and of course the kindly Franciscan community who welcomed me as one of their own.

This Franciscan congregation was founded by an Arklow woman, Teresa Kearney, and they have the house Mount Oliver that a good many of us know. There were five in the community here in Nairobi, two from Uganda, one from India, but born in Uganda, one from Kenya and one Irish woman from Limerick. She headed her congregation for two terms and is now back in Kenya in her eighties and as busy as ever. She is a doctor and lived through the wars in Uganda, an amazing woman.

The house in Nairobi was situated in a very poor area in the city. There was a scrapyard beside it where cars were dismantled and spare parts sold. The poverty was much worse than anything I have ever seen. I do not know how people drive on the roads, encountering potholes, piles of rubbish at intervals near the footpath and drains that to me seemed as if some of the contents of Old Curiosity Shop were just flung into them. Then too, vehicles of all descriptions and contraptions on wheels pass by, bearing a rider with any number of crates of contents on the carrier. I am thinking that some of the people who have stalls bring all their goods home at night to keep them safe and ride back to their “spot” with them next day and set up again. I saw one fellow lighting a fire on a pile of stones very early in the morning. The third morning I saw he was roasting corn on the cob and selling it to the passers by for breakfast. The sisters told me he sent his children to University on the proceeds of these sales.

The community timetable was demanding enough, Morning Prayer at 6 a.m. Mass at 6.45 a.m. and Evening Prayer at 6 p.m. During the short time I was there I cannot say that I got the full view of everything the sisters do. Many of them were involved in a social programme for all ages devised by themselves called “Hands of Care and Hope” beginning at kindergarten right up to young people, preparation for marriage and parenting. They are also responsible for two primary schools and a secondary school. One of the schools was flooded with the recent rains and the new books all water damaged. I have heard that school opening has been postponed for a week. Then children will be back after holidays, floods permitting, but most likely,no books.

The parish church was quite a big building, with projector screens at intervals down the side so that everyone could see the altar clearly and also read the words of hymns. Halfway up the church there was kind of podium for the conductor of the choir. The liturgy at Sunday Mass was wonderful, crowds of altar boys all dancing in procession and most reverend all the time. There was great singing and harmony. At some Masses there was a different conductor for each hymn. They conducted with hands, feet, head and eyes, all in time to the music. At one Mass while they were bringing up the Book of the Gospel from the back of the church to be incensed, there were pauses and a woman yodelled. She did the same when the book reached its destination near the lectern, one lovely yodel all in time to the music. One of the most thrilling sounds I have ever heard, a marvellous greeting for Word of God which was just about to be proclaimed. One Sunday I noticed that all the people were going out one big door to the left. Since I was on my own, I could not ask anyone what was going on. I thought I might be missing refreshments or something. Then it dawned on me. The people were going out one door, on order to leave the other door free for those crowding in to the following Mass. I had been told of this, but I hardly believed it until I saw it happening.

On another day, it was Saturday morning, I came to the church for Mass and found the front benches of the church occupied with children and a few catechists. It took me a while to work out what they were doing. They were saying the Rosary, all two hundred and fifty of them, and very prayerfully. The children were quite at their ease, no restlessness or fidgeting. A very pleasant surprise.

The parish was run by the Comboni Fathers and Sisters. I had never heard of Daniel Comboni until quite recently. He was an Italian who certainly did great evangelisation mostly in Central Africa in the 19th century. He was only fifty when he died, but had already founded missionary fathers and sisters. These have given wonderful life to this Holy Trinity Parish in Kariobangi. People are active in the parish and love what they are doing. There are many groups and all have some duty or task, including being responsible for some part of the Mass liturgy. I was told that in Ireland people were not actively involved enough in their parishes. Maybe one could put it the other way too, The Church did not give enough tasks to the people. Mass-going was the only contact most would have had with the Church. The experience of a lively vibrant church is so energising that we would want to keep going at whatever task we have in hand. The liturgies in community were in African style too with the tom-tom being played always for the Magnificat and very often for the Benedictus.

Thanks to all of you for making this visit to Nairobi possible. I am certainly very grateful as it was a visit that gave me great hope for our Church which in Ireland is being so discredited. Mary O’Byrne OP