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Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Wajir, Kenya

Wen I asked a cardiologist friend to help me get medicines to take to a clinic in northeast Kenya, he said, “Of course. But Africa is off my mental map. We hardly hear about it in the U.S.” His comment resonated with my feelings. After all, I was going to Africa to visit a sister in my community who was feeling isolated in her desert town, a plane ride away from Nairobi and only 60 miles from Somalia. Were it not for Sr. Teresanne, on an average day I might not think about or pray for Africa.

Wajir, a lonely dot on the map of Kenya at the end of a thin line stretching from Nairobi, gets mention in the guidebooks for its Martian landscape, bandits and AK-47s. The guidebook does not suggest travel there. The Kenyan air force has an outpost there, but civilians who can afford it fly in on an unscheduled, hired missionary shuttle and leave on the plane that brings in the town’s supply of mira or qat, a twiggy drug chewed for its intoxicating effect.

Wajir is home to Somali pastoral people, who have with their camels and goats survived in the red desert for many generations. The town and the entire northeast district of the country were included by the British in Kenya instead of Somalia when they redrew the map of East Africa early last century. As a result of the British-drawn borders, a predominantly Somali population has had visited upon it a predominantly “down Kenyan” civil service, police force and military. Overwhelmingly, those from “down Kenya” (anywhere not the northeast) are Christian; the Somalis are Muslim. These differences generate only a few of the tensions in Wajir.

In May, Virginia Azcueta and I, members of the Sisters For Christian Community, embarked on a five-week visit to Wajir to spend time with Sr. Teresanne Fornasero, who has worked there for 25 years. Teresanne founded a village for tuberculosis patients, has established programs for women and the aged and destitute, runs a small clinic, and is helping to build a school.

She has lived through famine, war, repression and the devastating floods of El Niño that killed the animals on which the Somali depend for survival. We think of Teresanne as a woman of steel, so when she expressed the need for companionship, we went, carrying several hundred pounds of medicine and the hope of getting her set up for e-mail.

In Nairobi, we got an old Mac laptop fitted up for e-mail by several young computer experts at the Missionary Aviation Fellowship, a Christian group that provides airplanes and other technical support for missionaries in East Africa. Their four-seater plane carried us, the computer, and about half of our medicines on a two-and-a-half hour flight to Wajir. Our young Dutch pilot led us in prayer after he had carefully weighed us, distributed our baggage and belted us into the seats of our “toy” plane. Aloft, we watched as paved roads and the lush landscape of Nairobi gave way to sandy desert tracks, fewer and fewer as we approached Wajir.

When we landed at the military airport, we were met by the pastor at the Catholic Mission, Capuchin Fr. Francis Jabedo, and also by a German missionary for the Protestant African Inland Church in Wajir. At the mission, we had tea and a tour of the church and rectory, which were vandalized in 1998 on the same day (some say the same hour) as the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi. Some say the embassy was bombed because a Christian minister, put on trial for defacing a mosque, was spirited out of the country, presumably by the U.S. government, before he could be punished.

Desecration in Wajir

In the attack on the mission, a mob of Muslims desecrated the Blessed Sacrament, battered the crucifix and statues, and knocked through rectory walls in an attempt to kill the pastor. Providentially, he was not home. After the incident, Fr. Francis was sent to Wajir to assess the situation. A young “down Kenyan,” he is both brave and judicious.

As we started out for Sr. Teresanne’s house and clinic across town, a young Somali man came running to tell us a mob had gathered there. The men were battering the gate and demanding biscuits they said UNICEF had left with Sister after the El Niño emergency. The young man’s breathless intrusion reminded us that the last time Teresanne had been scheduled to return to Wajir from Nairobi, she carried money from a Health Age International grant that provides seed and food for destitute “grannies.” The local police had thwarted a plot to take her money and steal the Catholic Mission’s old Land Rover. Half a dozen Somali men with a cache of automatic weapons were apprehended.

In light of that memory, we left our boxes of medicine at the mission and drove to Teresanne’s house, where we found that the mob had been dispersed. The women who live and work there were shaken, however, and after the distraction of travel, Virginia and I were reminded that we had come to Wajir to accompany our sister in a place of violence. We were afraid, but we remembered the prayers of friends and community members who had supported our coming.

Every day in Wajir held reminders of the violence engendered by poverty and frustration. As we drove in Teresanne’s old Suzuki jeep through the early morning market, skirting goats and donkey carts, we saw the Zafannanna Express, the rainbow-painted bus that crosses the desert daily. Taking on passengers with bundles and small animals, it sat between two big trucks full of police armed with automatic weapons. Each week we heard of police and passengers killed by shiftas, bandits who have gone into the bush and rob for money, weapons and food. Nearly everyone we met in Wajir has a story of an encounter with shiftas, who sometimes storm boldly into towns to pillage.

Though the shiftas steal food, they cannot be hungrier than many Somalis living in town or its surrounding bolas, villages of circular thatched huts. Sr. Teresanne estimates that 80 percent of the patients at her clinic have diseases caused or exacerbated by lack of food. TB and malaria are rampant, and AIDS is not uncommon. The Somalis are not farmers, so any food other than camel, goat or chicken has to be brought across the dangerous desert. It is consequently expensive. We tried to feed a banana to a 10-year-old Somali girl, dying of hunger and the effects of rheumatic fever, and she didn’t know how to eat it. A boy, 3 or 4 years old, was the size of a 10-month-old, all jawbone and wrinkled skin. He hadn’t eaten in so long that he no longer could swallow. His eyes stared at us like the eyes of a reproving old man. The violence of hunger permeates northeast Kenya.

Ideological violence

Other violence there stems from ideology. Some Christians in Wajir understand that fundamentalist Islam has designs on large parts of Africa, especially the Horn. At least one scholar, Ali A. Mazrui, has written about Africa as potentially the “first Islamic continent.” Somalis in northeast Kenya have always been Muslim, but not fundamentalist. In recent decades, however, crises in Somalia have brought many refugees across the Kenyan border. Arab oil money has funded young Somali men’s studies abroad; some return to Wajir committed to fundamentalism. Also, Kenya’s neighbor, Sudan, is governed in the North by Muslims aspiring to regional, perhaps even global, leadership. Christianity, viewed by many as a religion of the West, is a logical target for fundamentalist Islam, which sees itself in protest against the current social order.

How the tensions manifest themselves in Wajir can be subtle. More women are wearing chadors to cover their faces, and public school uniforms for girls increasingly include the chador. Some Muslims wrap their hand with part of their veil or sleeve before shaking a Christian’s hand. One night at the hospital, where I accompanied Teresanne, a nurse refused to shake our hands despite his obvious appreciation of our visit to the destitute there. A “pagan” fool rushing in, I couldn’t resist saying “Salaam” as our farewell, adding, “There is only one God.” He smiled. An active Catholic “down Kenyan,” whom I met at a basic Christian community, teaches at a public high school with mostly Somali teachers. When I saw him again at the school, he barely acknowledged me and curtly directed me to the headmaster for assistance. I think he may not have wanted to call attention to his Christian associations.

Not all the tensions manifest themselves so subtly. Several times children stoned our jeep, shouting “pagan” in Somali. An Italian lay missioner advised me to take them off guard by waving at them first. Although I felt like Pope John Paul II in his popemobile or the Queen of England gesturing from side to side with my wave, the tactic worked. One day, though, Teresanne was walking from her clinic when a teenage Quran school student hit her with a rock. She chased him to the mosque. “Come out,” she cried, “Allah doesn’t want this behavior.” Faces appeared at windows, but no one came out.

A stone-throwing crowd

One Sunday afternoon, Teresanne’s basic Christian community, a few men, a dozen women and as many children, all “down Kenyans” walking to her house, were followed by a jeering Somali crowd throwing stones. A gang of older boys gathered at the gate to continue their harassment, and only the intervention of a Somali woman neighbor who threatened to call the police dispersed them.

Not all the violence in Wajir comes from the Somali and Muslim side. Fifteen years ago, the Kenyan administration, tired of Somali interclan conflict, took a few thousand Somali men to an airstrip in the desert, tortured some and left them all to die. A few missionaries with vehicles broke the curfew to bring victims from the airstrip to a hospital. One missionary was caught. She was arrested and declared persona non grata in Kenya. The wives and children of the murdered Somali men now live as squatters in a bola surrounding the Catholic Mission, a lively reminder to the Somali majority that they live at the mercy of the Kenyan government.

Much violence perpetrated by the Kenyan government does not involve guns, however. Colonized by British tea and coffee planters who took over tribal lands (weep if you loved “Out of Africa”), Kenya declared independence after the Mau-Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Critics complain that the country slid quickly into a neo-colonial pattern. Foreign companies continued as the major investors in the country, sharing profits with a new native Kenyan bourgeoisie. With politics seen as an avenue to personal profit, corruption took hold at all levels. One day I found Teresanne near tears because she had gotten only one-tenth of the rice ration allotted to her destitute “grannies.” Nine-tenths had been skimmed off as the rice passed through many hands and way stations on the way to her clinic.

Another day, local prison wardens came to request from Teresanne a long list of medications, which the government had not supplied them. When Teresanne agreed only to fill specific prescriptions for one prisoner at a time, the wardens continued to press her until she gave them an open box of syringes, which, as she said, “They will only sell.” When I spoke to her and to Kenyans about supporting Jubilee 2000, the churches’ effort toward debt forgiveness for the poorest countries, they cautioned that debt alleviation would be a mistake for Kenya unless tied to profound political and economic changes in the country.

Sign of underlying disorder

A Comboni missionary in Nairobi, Fr. Renato Kizito Sesana, writes a column for The Sunday Nation of Kenya and supports debt forgiveness for Africa and other Third World countries, with similar stipulations. He concludes, “Foreign debt is the most apparent sign of an underlying disorder. Unless the deeper causes are addressed, any solution will be temporary and the debt trap will be set again.”

As for what Kenya can do, Kizito quotes Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “[T]here should be a six-month moratorium on debt repayments just to ensure that this cancellation would benefit the people, not some new elite. The conditions should be: a) true democratization -- when it is clear that the people participate in decision-making; b) respect for human rights; c) demilitarization; d) redirecting money thus saved for the benefit of so-called ordinary people. If these conditions are met, then debt should be canceled.”

Meanwhile, even the richest parts of Kenya are sinking deep into poverty. The youth who have somehow managed to get an education, often with the help of the churches, find there are no jobs. They are too many to farm their parents’ small shambas or plots, so they go to Nairobi where, if they are lucky, they find housing in a shantytown on the perimeter and, if they are really lucky, a job. Each morning and evening, waves of people walk long distances across the city to their jobs or to look for work, since most lack the money to pay for a space on an overcrowded matatu, or bus.

The future of the youth will also be affected by the 1999 government decision to close all teacher-training colleges for two years, for lack of money. As it is, many public schools exist only because the local community, including the churches, come together to build and support them. In Wajir, Teresanne has used money donated by visiting European relief workers to help build a primary school, classroom by classroom, on the condition that half the students will be girls. One priest from the fertile Rift Valley predicts that Kenya will have a revolution because millions of its young people have no sustaining work to do.

Can the Kenyan government be blamed entirely for the poverty of the majority of Kenyans? It can surely be blamed for its human rights violations. Corruption has led to the need for repression. Arrests, detentions without trial and unexplained killings of outspoken citizens are not uncommon. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s most famous living novelist and playwright, more than once detained for writing about the corruption, has lived in exile for many years.

The president says …

Daniel arap Moi has been President of Kenya for the last 20 years, since the death of nationalist hero President Jomo Kenyatta. Moi has presided over the movement from a one-party system to a party-state. The KANU party functions almost seamlessly with the state apparatus. Parliament members also hold government ministry positions. The Kenyan Broadcasting Company, the main source of news in rural areas like Wajir, reports the news mainly as it relates to the president. Coverage of even major international events begins, “President Daniel arap Moi says ... “

President Moi also plays the “down Kenyan” tribes -- Kikuyu, Luo, Kalenjin, and others -- against each other, inflaming ethnic tensions as a means of retaining power. When he visited Wajir recently, all the phones were disconnected as a security measure.

Since independence, the churches in Kenya have moved from “semi-establishment” status (Anglican and Presbyterian under the colonial regime) to that of protesters against government authoritarianism. No other institutions exist outside the single-party state, so church leaders are the only ones who can challenge it. One outspoken Anglican bishop has died under suspicious circumstances.

The Roman Catholic bishops may be less vulnerable than other church leaders because they speak together as members of the Catholic Conference. Archbishop Raphael Ndingi of Nairobi has been pushing for a constitutional revision to allow movement toward a multiparty system. The Roman Catholic church has many young priests and sisters who serve the poor with spirit. Lively liturgies and some probing theology nourish active lay people. Especially near the cities, building on its heavy involvement in health care and education in a country that has too little of those commodities, the church can afford to be prophetic.

Kenya is not one of the 40 most impoverished countries the Jubilee 2000 debt forgiveness campaign is focusing on, though 28 of the 40 are in Africa. Like other African countries rich in resources, it has lost the ability to sustain itself because of both internal corruption and external pressures, such as the international debt structure. Like other African countries, Kenya ceased to play a role in geopolitical maneuverings after the end of the Cold War. The West no longer needs to buy Kenya’s friendship. Some observers predict that as Islamic fundamentalism progresses across the African continent, the West will begin again to take Kenya seriously. For now, however, Africa provides few consumers and markets for investment capital. Few who live there will buy computers and use them to speculate in Europe, Tokyo or New York. A used Mac will do quite well for e-mail in Wajir -- if the phone line is working.

My cardiologist friend got it right. Africa is outside our line of vision, off of our economic map. But it must remain on our moral map. We are profoundly connected. In his novel Petals of Blood, the exiled Ngugi wa Thiong’o has a character say, “I saw that we were serving the same monster-god as they were in America. ... [H]ow many Kimathis must die, how many motherless children must weep, how long shall our people continue to sweat so that a few, a given few, might keep a thousand dollars in the bank of the monster-god that for 400 years had ravished a continent?” The whole world is now organized around “economism,” the service of wealth or Mammon. The West, we might say, takes what is offered in tribute to its god. The Third World, in the United States as well as Africa, offers up as tribute its starving and futureless children.

I returned to the United States daunted by the experience of being in miserable grass huts where people are starving but guns are readily available. The same monster-god as in America. I’m looking for a group that works to make public the names of U.S. companies exporting weapons to Africa. Those names are not currently public information.

My body rejected the red desert dust of Wajir, but Virginia is preparing to join Teresanne for the long term. My prayers will be with both of them and with all who have the special vocation of laboring where the monster-god, Mammon, draws its tentacles so tight.

Sr. Evelyn Mattern is a member of Sisters for Christian Community. Her most recent book is Why Not Become Fire? Encounters with Women Mystics (Ave Maria Press).

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000