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Tuesday, 13 October 2015 00:00

Kenya's Sacred Valley

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Subukia Valley is a valley within the great wonder that is the Great Rift Valley. It is quite fascinating. The steep curves and meanders of the valley are magic to the eyes and the hilly landscape abundant with a cocktail of indigenous trees and vegetation reminds you of Mother Nature.

The sky above is a dome of azure. Birds spiral high up in the sky oblivious of the abundant beauty below. Located 210 kilometers West of Nairobi, Subukia is geographically at the centre of the country. The Equator also runs through Subukia, a meeting point of the northern and southern hemispheres. Places on the equator experience the quickest sunrises and sunsets.

No matter the time of day, the beauty of Subukia is timeless. The Subukia Valley was the Maasai’s beautiful place (Ol Momoi Sidai). Subukia is a Maasai word pronounced “isupuku”, meaning “higher grounds”. After the Maasai were evicted in 1911, other settlers came here. It is not hard to see why they preferred this valley. It has a serene, utopian beauty removed from the windy plateaus above it and the hot surface of the Rift Valley floor below.

In the years 1980 and 1985, the late Pope John Paul II came to Kenya for the Eucharistic Congress. After the holy encounter with His Holiness the Pope, the Kenya Episcopal Conference decided that a shrine to the Virgin Mary should be put up in the country. A request to the Nakuru Diocese was made. It was to facilitate the project.

Being in the middle of the country and therefore reachable from all parts of the country, it was very accessible. The shrine was then built on a 12-acre piece of land. In 1989, a special committee was selected to manage the affairs of the shrine. It was agreed that the original site of the shrine was too small, and an idea was proposed to have a larger site.

Within two days, an offer of 50 acres of free land was made. However, 200 acres would have to be bought for further development. The eve of 8th December 1991 was rather special and monumental. The 8th of December is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. The previous day, the headman of the workers Mr. Henry Muthuku was very busy. It was an ordinary day for him. What he did not know though, was that something extraordinary was about to happen.

The thick bush atop the hill was proving to be very cumbersome. He spent most of the day clearing it. On deciding to take a short break, Henry happened to see a wet patch of ground, which had a small spring of clear water in it. The greatest discoveries are made when people are taking breaks. Isaac Newton was sitting under an apple tree when he saw a falling apple while he thought about the forces of nature .He discovered gravity.

On opening a small gully down the slope, the water started flowing beautifully. This water makes visitors to make pilgrim visits to the shrine. It is said to be holy water, miraculous water. All you have to do is carry empty bottles and fill them to the brim.

Not everyone who visits the site is a pilgrim however. On 19th April 1998, religious fanaticism was at its highest. Some people believe that Catholics worship idols as per the statue of the Virgin Mary that is found in the site.

Goons raided the shrine and burned down the shelter for the statue, the shelter over the altar area and the altar itself. An overzealous, turbaned religious fanatic descended on the shrine unleashing his anger on the statue. Mary’s head was later found in the bush .Hundreds of people continue with their pilgrimage to the site nonetheless.

It was the year 2007, around three months to the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education Examinations in November. My primary school was a day and boarding. In the final year, class eight, everybody enrolled in boarding. On one Saturday evening, the matron, a Catholic, called for a meeting of all Catholic class eight girls. She told us that we would visit the Subukia Shrine named Village of Mary Shrine by the late Cardinal Maurice Otunga. I am not overly religious but I was rather happy to be Catholic because I would get to leave school for the better part of the day.

Most Sundays in boarding were spent doing assignments, washing huge mountains of clothes or for those who valued relaxation like me, in the entertainment room watching repeats of the Australian television series, Neighbors. We left school at 11.00 a.m. It was going to be a spiritual drive so our matron made sure we sang Catholic hymns practically the whole way. This was hardly what my friends and I had anticipated but it was better than spending the day indoors.

Lake Nakuru was in view; the picturesque and enchanting lake with the pink flamingoes. We also saw the Great Rift Valley. Nyahururu Town is not far from Subukia. There is a viewpoint situated about 2,500 meters above sea level from where the expansive escarpments can be viewed. Below the rugged and hilly landscape, overlooking the fertile lands of Subukia stands a magnificent white cross that ushers you to the sacred grounds of the Village of Mary.

The shrine is eerily enchanting and fascinating. It makes you feel at one with nature and all things divine. There is a rock from the Grotto at Lourdes in France buried at the foot of the cross. There is also a stone from the Marian Shrine at Medjugorge, Bosnia-Herzegovina and another holy stone from the River Jordan in Israel.

The shrine, serene and tranquil, provided the right aura for prayer. We needed lots of prayers to pass our KCPE. Other than last-minute revision and Mr.Oduor’s traumatizing “brainstorming” where we were asked quick-fire questions, which we were to answer correctly, if, wrong, “kiboko”, lashes, we really needed prayers. We had already eaten lunch in the school bus. We ate fries, which was a rare treat in boarding. We set off for the hill, reciting the holy rosary.

We walked ten kilometers from the Subukia-Nyahururu road, before climbing a footpath, which meanders leading to a spring, our journey being marked by the Mysteries of the Way of the cross. We took the 12 steps- a symbol of Christ’s suffering before his crucifixion. Surely, we were not physically prepared for all that slimpossible exercise.

On top of the hill, we were greeted by a wellspring of cool waters and yet another shrine. We had carried empty bottles to fetch this holy water. Some had even donated their juice the previous night so that they would have empty bottles. We also saw a beautiful statue of the virgin.

The wooded rocky hill, where the statue of Mary is housed in a tiny hut, has a rich biodiversity- with more than 250 species of insects and over 200 grass species. There are also numerous indigenous trees, which are home to playful monkeys.

As the monkeys hopped from tree to tree whooping in delight, I was amazed at their agility. The tall trees with the chattering monkeys were African olea. Perched on one of the branches of the tree was the most fascinating bird. It aroused my interest with its rich color. On further enquiry, I was told it was an amethyst sunbird, a male. As I stood there watching it, it flew away.

With almost cat-like curiosity, I followed it through the thick maze of hardy cedar trees. It perched on a leafy Dombea tree, another one of the indigenous trees in the area. From where I stood, I could see the charming statue of the virgin. She seemed aware of her surroundings. No, it was just my imagination. The sun would set soon and the colorful birds would retire to their intricately designed nests. Just then, I heard someone calling me. It was time to go. Oh well, I knew I would go back to the shrine soon. By the time we went back to the sun, the sun was disappearing beneath the valley, the sacred valley.

Sunday, 04 October 2015 00:00

Riding on the Gentle Ripples of Life

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Life. What makes it great and what makes it suck? Why do we do so much to keep it and equally much to lose it? We spend a fortune to remain alive through a cocktail of curative and preventive measures and spend a fortune to chase away that very health through our lifestyles.

Life. Reminds of my grandmas. Both of them lived to a ripe old age yet they never tasted a pizza. Not that pizza is the magical pill of life but it is a treat for most of us in the cities. That’s why even I, on the wrong of end of my thirties, know about terrific Tuesday when I can buy one pizza and get one free. I am not aware of any awesome Thursday when I can buy a yummy ripe mango and get another one free.

Life. My grandma, the one on my mama’s side, was a gentle soul who rode the gentle ripples of life with humility. I think my gentle nature comes from her and papa. She had a fiercely calm look that seemed to ooze clouds of comfort. Was this a God-given gift or did she nurture it in the course of her long life? I once asked mama this question and her answer was telling, ‘she believed in the Fatherhood of God and that affected every step she took in life.’

Hmmm... The Fatherhood of God.

The more I pondered over those words, the more I realized that most people believe in the Supremacy of God but not really in His Fatherhood. They essentially believe in the waves of religion as opposed to the ripples of spirituality. Applying the intimacy of Fatherhood to ones relationship with God takes both courage and authenticity.

The Fatherhood of God doesn’t ride on the waves of religious ritual that often leave us swimming in pretence and feel-good religiosity. Pardon me if this last sentence has made you raise your eyebrow, wondering what I mean.

What am simply saying is that in believing in the Fatherhood of God, my grandma allowed herself to be a trusting child of God who had utter certainty that whatever life threw at her, her heavenly Father was in control. A few years ago, I met another old woman who was also riding on those gentle, refreshing, rejuvenating, re-energizing ripples that come from a strong sense of God’s Fatherhood.

I had spent a week in the chilly, refreshing hills of Sagalla, home to the WaSagalla people whose Kisagalla language shares similarities to the Taita language. For seven glorious days, I had wandered the chilly hills and visited my many friends; mostly attracted by the ever present beautiful ladies and the hot delicious chicken they would often serve me. 

‘Jooneee,’ the way they pronounced my name during those delicious meals made me realize that I in fact had a sweet name only that people in Nairobi didn’t pronounce it right.

One freezing Saturday morning, I woke up with the birds, downed hot tea that Florence the nurse had graciously prepared for me and walked downhill to catch a matatu at the gravel road that snaked its way downhill to Voi town. As I approached a stream, I saw an old lady washing sweet potatoes in the cold, clear water. She looked up at me with big brown eyes and flashed a warm, lingering smile. Her kinky all-white hair swayed ever so gently in the icy early morning breeze.

Waukamana,’ goodmorning, I greeted her.

Mana to..’ very fine, her voice, though weak had the same warmth of her smile.

She quickly scooped five huge sweet potatoes from the water, wrapped them in her old weary scarf and handed them to me.

Had a total stranger just offered me five massive sweet potatoes?! I could hardly believe it as I took them, thanking her profusely.

Usinishukuru mimi,’ don’t thank me, she said in that friendly, cracking voice.

 Mshukuru baba wetu wa mbinguni aloziumba hizi viazi tamu,’ thank our heavenly Father who created these sweet potatoes.

She said these words even as she washed two more potatoes in the tender ripples of the mountain spring.  Her wrinkled fingers glistened in the water as sunrise rays bounced off them.

She looked up towards the orange sunrise and smiled, leaving me wondering whether she had just locked eyes with the creator of that sunrise, the Heavenly Father.

Friday, 21 August 2015 00:00

Boots of Glory

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Eighty five years ago, a heroine of love was laid to rest. As her remains lay at the Mathari Church in Nyeri, she never knew her journey to sainthood would later on begin. Sister Irene Stefani, (Aurelia Giacomina Mercede) was born in 1891 in Italy. Her Christian family formed the foundation of her extraordinary heart.

She had worn many hats, being a nurse during the First World War, a lead cook and most importantly, a missionary.  With her worn out boots she would make speedy apostolic runs to wherever she was needed. These boots at times gave her pain with every step, but she walked on. They were her boots of Glory.

When she was sent to the Gikondi Mission in Kenya from Italy, her love continued blooming and her thirst to save souls increased.  By the time of her death, she had already baptized 4,000 people.

She fervently served God and her humility and mercy was pronounced. The Kikuyu community in Gikondi nicknamed her ‘Nyaatha’, meaning one of mercy. She was even willing to sacrifice her own life to save the souls of many.

“She is love personified.” These were the words of Doctor Tibsone, a protestant at Voi Hospital where Irene served as a nurse. Her love was exceptional; the kind of love that killed her.

Sister Stefani died after contracting pneumonia from Julius Ngare, a teacher. She had provided comfort to Julius, compromising her own health. She had totally lost herself in her love for mankind.

It is because of this and many other deeds that Pope Francis approved the promulgation for the Beatification of Sister Irene on 12th June 2014 after thorough research was done to determine whether she qualified for sainthood. The Beatification was then set for 22nd May in Nyeri. I couldn’t miss.

I had never seen Nyeri town so lit up and beautiful. In fact, it was the first time I walked home from town at 7.30 PM, feeling all courageous. There were so many people on the streets, taking advantage of the new developments. The town was so clean! After and interval of roughly two meters, a streetlight glowing so bright had been put up. “Nyaatha City,” I thought to myself.

There were also banners posted all over the town with photos of a pretty white lady with a pronounced hat. They were all about the much anticipated for beatification. I actually had to forego my Friday afternoon class, so as to catch a matatu to Nyeri. Fortunately, the fare had not hiked by the time I was leaving Karatina town, forty five minutes away from Nyeri.

When I got home, my mum was equally excited about the event. She had even visited Gikondi, where Sister Irene used to stay while in Kenya. Not only that, but she had bought two scarves which had a picture of Irene at the back. Of course we would wear them to the event.

The scarves and the many t-shirts I had seen people wearing in the past few days got me thinking. There are people who had really found a great business opportunity out of this. Everyone wanted to have something with Sister Irene on it. Talk of scarves, t-shirts, caps, umbrellas and even mugs. Every business wanted to pocket something, while every believer wanted to identify with something.

“We leave at 4.00 AM,” mum said sipping her cup of coffee. I almost chocked on mine!

“We leave, or wake up at 4.00AM?” I asked. I had heard her the first time but wanted to confirm. The last time I woke up that early was three years earlier in high school! Mum gave me a plain look and immediately I knew she meant what she said. I dashed to bed since I knew waking up that early would be a tale.

Just when I was taking a turn in my warm blankets, the door flew open.  “Wake up. It’s 3.00AM,” mum called. But I had just slept! I thought to myself. Lazily, I got out of bed and took my shower with my eyes half open.

After getting ready, we met other members of our church at the meeting point. Everyone was in warm clothing and of course none lacked a mark of Sister Irene. Those who did not have it physically had it in their hearts.

We began our journey on foot to the Dedan Kimathi University grounds. I still couldn’t believe I was on the road at 4.00am. But all through, Sister Irene’s theme had been repeating itself in my mind… “All for Jesus, nothing for me.”  With this, I felt the urge to forge on.

With our rosaries in our hands, we said our prayers as we walked, in the bid to increase our faith. The women, my mother included, led from the front with my two friends and I trailed at the back.

After walking for about an hour, we arrived at the grounds. I was surprised by the number of vehicles and people who had already lined up for screening. And here I was complaining we woke up too early. We stood behind the last person in the queue, hardly talking to each other due to the fatigue and cold we had just battled with. Everyone had really high expectations for the day. Whenever they arrived and saw the queue, most would recite Irene’s theme. So it did not work for me only. I was impressed.

In every market, there never lacks a mad man. Just when we were about to get to the gate, around 7.00AM, (yes, from 5.00 AM) some five huge men and one lady came and fixed themselves between my friend and I, and pushed those who were in front. In between this commotion, those who were at the back ran to the front, and there was a state of total mayhem. The police who were at the gate watched and just threw heavy tantrums, doing nothing helpful.

From this point I could tell security had really been compromised from the beginning. Sister Irene had to protect us since the police didn’t seem up to the task. After being stepped on, pushed and some even losing their weaves, we finally made it in. It was survival for the fittest, but later I came to realize it was pointless since everyone got a chance to get in.

When we got to the grounds, I was astonished. I had never seen so many people in my entire 21 years! I held on to my mother’s scarf, knowing once I let it go we would meet each other again in the house since I had no phone.

We took our plastic seats and positioned them strategically. There was one big screen in front of us, so we would catch all the action. The sun had already started rising, and we were prepared for it. Most of us had umbrellas, so the scorching sun was the least of our worries.

At 9.00AM, arrivals of important dignitaries began. Nyeri County Member of parliament Esther Murugi among other MPs and senators were present.  The former president, Vice President and the President accompanied by the first lady crowned the arrivals. I was seeing His Excellency President Uhuru for the first time ever. My mind started battling between politics and religion but I had to focus on the purpose of the day.

Pope Francis’ representative Cardinal Polycarp Pengo was as well present to ensure the Beatification of Sister Irene, which was done is a span of less than five minutes.  Bishops and priests from Italy, Mozambique, India, Liberia and Colombia were not left behind. When he made this declaration, my heart skipped a beat. I felt excited, challenged and blessed. She had been so young yet had given her all to Christ and service.

A canvas with Irene’s picture was propelled and shouts of joy could be heard from all over. She was now officially “Blessed Irene Stefani.”

People had travelled from all over the country to witness this. Some had also travelled from abroad, but they were countable. They had been overestimated to arrive in huge numbers. Actually, this was a huge disappointment to the hotel owners who had expected a total bloom from these visitors.

Why ‘Blessed’. Some asked. Quoting from a writing by Reuben Kigame, a Kenyan gospel artist and evangelist, even Mary, mother of Jesus, shouldn’t be called ‘Blessed.’  From my own knowledge, Mary gave birth to Jesus, the son of God. The same Jesus who died and resurrected. Why wouldn’t she be blessed?

All Sister Irene went through was out of the normal. Declaring her a saint is out of the recognition that she had followed the ways of Jesus. Giving her all, out of love. It is in no way blasphemous. Anyone who understands her story understands she was indeed special. An angel in human flesh.

 

At the end of the day, I was feeling exhausted but fulfilled. It had been a success. There is nothing impossible under the sun. Being good and kind even to those who do the opposite is quite possible. I was ready to follow Blessed Irene’s footsteps with taking every challenge as my boot of Glory. All for Jesus, Nothing for me.

Thursday, 20 August 2015 00:00

Is God Green?

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Since those joyous days of my childhood when every game unlocked the gates of heaven for me, I have been to church many, many, many times. I can remember sermons on repentance when I was reminded to repent or face damnation. I repented. Or sermons on prosperity when I was told by smiling pastors in sparkling suits to plant seeds of offering if I wanted to reap new cars and great jobs. I planted.

But I don’t recall ever listening to sermons on the environment and how I should adhere to the principles of sustainability. I therefore didn’t wake up in the morning thinking about the earth and how I should play a role in replenishing it. Neither did I go to sleep at night wondering if I had spent the day in a way that was good for the earth.

It wasn’t until my mid twenties when I started working at the United Nations Environment Programme that the green gospel finally hit me so hard that I fell hopelessly in love with the environment. I suddenly started looking at trees and rivers differently. I started wondering why Nairobi River was so dirty yet it was no less of a river than River Firatsi, the crystal clear river in my village. This river had been the centre of my childhood.

During holidays, I bathed in this river every single day and unsuccessfully tried to swim in it. The singing, whistling river was such a big part of my life that I didn’t regard it as an external entity needing my conservation touch. If anyone had polluted it, it would have felt like pollution of my very life.  

I thought about this precious river when I was writing the introduction of UNEP’s Africa Environment Outlook for Youth book. River Firatsi’s memories caused me to write the following, “Africa is big and beautiful. It is the second largest region in the world, accounting for 20 per cent of the world's landmass. This vast land is clothed in rich biodiversity, colossal forests, beautiful climates, and amazing coasts, ravishing rivers, green land and a host of other environmental beauties.”

River Firatsi was indeed a ravishing river.

Later that Sunday when I sat in Church at the International Christian Centre, I found myself wondering about Africa’s ravishing rivers, colossal forests and amazing coasts.

Ron Sommers was the pastor of the International Christian Centre Church where I was a member. He had a kind face and an extensive white beard that made him look like a younger brother to Father Christmas. His son Jon was just a year older than me and a friend, as was Amy his older sister. Because I knew the family, Pastor Ron’s sermons always had a personal touch to them and I usually enjoyed them immensely.

But this particularly Sunday, I was distracted. Those words from the introduction that I had written kept dancing in my mind, “colossal forests, beautiful climates, and amazing coasts, ravishing rivers, green land…”

If God created this beautiful environment, then why is it that we talk about it so little in Church?

Is God green? I wondered.

In other words, is the environment rooted in God, just as holiness is? As is my habit, I pushed this question to the back of my mind until later.

With this issue of God and the environment safely tucked away to the back-room of my mind, I launched myself even deeper into environmental activism. When my UNEP project on African youth was wrapped up, my final act was to launch the Africa Youth Environment Network, that I hoped would unify African youth in taking care of the environment and empowering themselves economically in the process.

I also played a key role in the founding and launching of the Africa Youth Initiative on Climate Change (AYICC) in Nairobi, in 2006. At about the same time, I founded the Solid Waste Action by Youth (SWAY). As if not content with these initiatives, I went ahead and teamed up with Akpezi, my charismatic mentor at UNEP to birth the Solar Generation which we hoped would be an umbrella for green youth initiatives not just in Africa but globally.

What was pushing me into all this green activism was not the Bible but just a strong ethical belief that a better world was only possible through a greener world.

But one morning when I was feeding birds outside my balcony thanks to my girlfriend’s passion for birds, that question that I had pushed to the back of my mind stormed back to the front, “Is God green?”

Is God the ultimate environmentalist and does He require us all to follow suit?

Who is an environmentalist? Wangari Maathai, who was catapulted to global fame by her Nobel Peace Prize, is arguably Africa’s best known environmentalist.

The Oxford dictionary defines an environmentalist as “a person who is concerned about protecting the environment.”

However, the problem with seeking to define the environment and by extension an environmentalist through narrow scientific lens is that it reduces the environment to a thematic pursuit in the same league with say, actuarial science or banking.

For me, the environment is everything that is made by God as opposed to man. Which actually answers my question of whether God is green. He cannot create the environment and not be concerned for that very environment. Along this vein, an environmentalist is simply someone who keeps both nature and humanity alive. For example, conserving rivers should go hand in hand with empowering communities that live alongside these rivers.

Further to this, even those things that are made by man like cars and clothes can be made through the sustainable blueprint that underpins the environment. Sustainability is therefore not just the right thing to do, it is the godly thing to do.

Back to the stuff that is made by God, the list is endless – forests, oceans, crops, rivers, clouds, fish, lions, elephants plus of course, humanity itself. This means then, that you and I as human beings are part of the environment and should not treat it as just another academic or fringe pursuit.

Is God green? Yes. But don’t just take my word for it. Read for yourself.

‘Genesis 2:15 – And the Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to tend and guard and keep it.’ God requires us to tend, guard and keep nature. Not to exploit and mess it up.

‘Numbers 33:34 – And you shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell..’ That pretty much speaks for itself.

‘Deuteronomy7 22:6 – If a bird’s nest should chance to be before you in the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother bird is sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother bird with the young.’ Again, this speaks for itself.

Jesus taught the golden commandment, ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself.’ One holistic way of doing this is to take care of the very earth upon which your neighbour depends on for sustenance.

The Holy Qur’an is also totally clear on environmentalism. Since I am no expert on the Holy Qur’an, I dug up a book known as ‘The Holy Qur’an and the Environment.’ It is published by the Jordan-based Institute for Islamic Thought. As I sipped Rwandan coffee and read the book, some words jumped out of it like a Maasai Mara gazelle and lodged themselves into my mind:

“Unto God belong the East and the West. So wherever ye turn, there if the face of God. (Al-Baqara, 2:15).

The book went on to further explain this verse, ‘This natural world was created by Him, for His purpose and that in itself confers upon the natural environment a sacredness which must be recognised by all believers. This, then, means that all believers must have the utmost care and respect towards nature.” In 96 pages, the book does a beautiful job of explaining to Muslims why taking care of the environment is a divine duty.

Most of the world’s seven billion people are either Christians or Muslims. If they all listen to the unquestionable words in their respective Holy Books, this world would be a much greener and better place. 

Is God green? He created green and made it clear to us that we should keep it green.