e-mail us

Inside NCR:

Plaintive letter asks help for suffering Kenya

A sad letter came in from Fr. Michael Luke in Kenya, quaintly written in often unfamiliar English, a voice in the wilderness if ever there was one. Luke ministers in Embu, not far from Nairobi. The letter is short on detail but full of pain.

Luke mentions Tharaka, described by the Kenyan Embassy as a village near Embu, though the descriptions in the letter suggest a wider catastrophe. The conflict is primarily tribal. Scarce food and water are the great bones of contention. Cattle rustling is central to it, usually leading to violence.

This unedited letter is a small window on Africa.

My loving,

I greet you in Jesus' name. May you have a good moment with the Lord. ... Let me brief you on amount of suffering meant coming face to face with dying and starving on the extensive tour of Tharaka. I was staggered out there. I came across fresh graves of victims taken away by famine as their loved ones watched helplessly and we saw abject children, mothers and old folks in the throes of starvation. In one location a man hanged himself rather than wait to die from hunger. Stories of children, women who died after consuming wild poisonous fruits. I also found people plucking baobab fruits from the powdery pith that is stirred with water into a thin consumable paste and so tasteless.

Under the harsh sun hung grief, thick and real, children with rib cages as dry as the yawning granaries that have not known grains for seasons tottered listless in the enervating heat, unsure of the next morsel as thirsty, famished folks literally mine water. The vital liquid can hardly be reached in some places. Starving women hunt frantically for water even as they should be looking for food. I could not hold emotions after an old man drank water I had carried, a young man picked the jerrycan and began licking it for a single drop, which was not there.

The children have bellies distended, limbs wizened and brown hair, a soft silky mop, living through the critical stage of malnutrition that has claimed a number of them ... bones hanging on scanty flesh. Women look for a manual labor at the plantations nearby. ... Entire families will be gone if no quick help comes from UNICEF. Hungry, many people are easily knocked down by diseases that otherwise would be treated. ...

Please, if you can, help my parish with your old and new religious magazines, stationary, story books and any other material you see sound for us. Hope to hear from you, in memory of God's love, I say, bye. Please let me extend my invitation to you, to come to Kenya and please come with your family; we will wait for you. Bye for now.

Yours loving,

Fr. Michael N. Luke, PO Box 993, Embu, Kenya

Here's a nice insight into the law of unintended consequences -- and an inkling of what a Catholic education really is about.

Two years ago, a Los Angeles priest, Fr. Loren Riebe was summarily kicked out of Chiapas, Mexico, on trumped-up charges after 23 years of service there (NCR, July 14, 1995). Riebe, incardinated into the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, was accused of offering protection from rebels to a wealthy rancher in exchange for cash. (This sounds unlikely: Anyone who serves in Chiapas for 23 years has long since given up any interest in cash!)

Anyway, ousted he was. In his determination to return to the people he served and still loves, Riebe did the American thing and took to the road around this nation, urging people to write letters on his behalf insisting he be readmitted to his diocese.

Along the way, he stopped in at De Matha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md., to talk to the students. Among those listening was James Inzeo, who, he admitted to NCR, previously hadn't a clue where Chiapas was. But Inzeo and De Matha students are a tough breed. Not only did they find out about Chiapas, they wrote hundreds of letters of support. And just to be sure their voice wasn't lost, they went out and recruited other schools to do likewise -- so the hundreds became thousands.

Result -- that Riebe still is not allowed back? Sure that's the case, but it's not the result. The result is that hundreds of students learned about the struggles of others in faraway places in a way that touched them. The unintended consequence of Riebe's ouster is that they learned what Catholic social teaching -- what a truly Catholic education -- is all about: identifying oneself, in the footsteps of Jesus, on behalf of others less fortunate. Don't give up now, Fr. Riebe. And a tip of NCR's hat to James Inzeo and his fellow De Matha-ites.

Congratulations to Leslie Wirpsa, of NCR's West Coast Bureau in Los Angeles, who on May 9 was awarded a master's degree in international journalism by the University of Southern California. As part of both student and journalistic commitments, Wirpsa will be visiting Mexico and Cuba later this summer.

-- Michael Farrell

National Catholic Reporter, May 16, 1997