The Interview with Fr John Fortune Parish Priest Ewaso Kedong, on why missionaries should move away from towns into the remote areas
In December 2016, The Seed visited the Catholic Diocese of Ngong. As we moved towards the interior parts of the diocese, it slowly became clear that the region is still in the first stages of evangelization.
At Ewaso Kedong’ we met parish priest, Fr John Fortune, an Irish missionary and member of the Institute of Charity otherwise known as the Rosminians. As he shared his experience working among the Maasai, we couldn’t help wondering if perhaps the region needs more missionaries than are willing to go work there. We bring you excerpts from the interview.
Who are the Rosminians
The official name is the Institute of Charity but we are known as Rosminians. The congregation was founded in 1828 in Italy by Fr Antonio Rosminian and that’s how we got the name Rosminians.
Our charism is universal charity or universal love. Our vocation is open to any call: universal love, universal charity. That if God wanted to use us for any work he would let us know, he would call us to it. We have two parishes in Kenya: Kibiko and Ewaso Kedong’.
What is the population of Ewaso Kedong’ parish
It’s difficult to say because it’s nomadic-semi-nomadic community; people move. Right now our numbers have reduced enormously because of the drought.
Right now you’d get around 700. It’s a big area but very sparsely populated with small pockets of people.
The area is predominantly Maasai but with a mixed population of other minority tribe groups who come to our church probably because our services at the parish are in Swahili rather than in maa.
Have you learnt the maa language?
No I haven’t. I can understand a little as I have been here for 12 years.
The former Bishop Cornelius Schilder always insisted that people learn the maa language but when he gave me the mandate to come here, he wanted a parish to be built immediately.
He said he felt the maasai in this area had been told for so long, “ngoja kidogo, ngoja kidogo, tutakuja, tutakuja” (wait, wait, we will come, we will come) and nobody ever came.
I shared with him my experience of working in other places — since I joined the Rosminians in 1980 I had never spent more than three years in one place. I had worked in Tanzania, Kenya, India, Italy and it was always three years maximum. He said that if I spent a year learning the language, then there would be time wasted; he insisted that I continue building.
We however can never know what God has in mind because it’s been over 12 years later I am still here.
How do you see the faith of the Maasai people?
I would say they have a much more simply routed faith — they are naturally spiritual people, the Maasai. That is probably changing with the advent of mobile phone and internet for the younger generation. But certainly the ones you meet here because they haven’t been influenced very much by the cities.
Does the culture interfere with the faith?
Some of the negative parts of the culture like female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriages, and polygamy interfere with the faith.
Culture wise there are those elements which are slowly changing with development. Today FGM and early marriages are more common in the interior. I think it will slowly change.
How do you treat your Christians when it comes to culture, this person who has many wives and wants to become a Catholic?
There are the rules and then there’s reality. We have a chairman of one of the outstations in the interior who is polygamous. He’s baptized, he received the First Holy Communion but can’t receive the Eucharist because he’s got two wives.
The people still chose him as the chairman of the church and he is really involved in church activities but that’s it.
There was a mass wedding in 2004 just before I came here and notably all the men here who had a wedding in the church have never taken a second. They have gone on to the leaders of the church.
How influential is the Catholic faith in the area?
In my years here, I have encountered people who consider themselves Christian Catholics and they follow this religion but they have never been baptized.
This area wasn’t very well serviced by the Catholic Church for many years. The parish was carved from Ngong’ which means that they maybe got Mass at Christmas and at Easter depending on the availability of the priest, the weather and the conditions of the road. The predominant denomination here would be Presbyterian.
Fortunately, the Catholic faithful have increased and grown since the parish was handed over in 2004. Older people and children have been baptized.
While talking to Bishop Owaa Oballa it came out clearly that parts of the diocese are not self reliant and still need help, would you say your parish is self sustaining?
One of the things that have held back my congregation from sending anybody else to work here is the fact that this parish could not support a priest. He wouldn’t have enough to live on unless he has support from outside.
A lot of the work I have done here has been funded by people from outside. With the bishop and John Cardinal Njue — who was standing in before the bishop was appointed — the greater emphasis has been on kujitegemea (self reliance) for every parish and we are pushing for that here.
Last year the parish held a fundraising and raised 2.3 million that started off their effort at self sustainability.
As time goes on that they will have to become self sufficient and support their priest.
I have come up with some income generating activities like rearing dairy cows, dairy goats, producing honey, vegetables, tomatoes and things like that for sale. I think eventually will be source of income to let the parish run itself.
Do you think more missionaries should come to the interior regions rather than staying in towns such as Nairobi and its environs?
[laughs] I don’t want to be judgmental.
But do you see the need?
Some people when they get used to places like Karen, Nairobi find it difficult then to go out into the bush.
That was something that Bishop Cornelius foresaw, that’s why he absolutely insisted when we took over that parish, that nothing be built in Kibiko (from which this parish was carved) until there was a centre here in Ewaso Kedong’.
It’s very difficult, even our own priests find it difficult to come down here. They look at the road — which has greatly improved, it was recently murramed and graded by the county council because the Chinese needed to come in to build the Standard Gauge Railway.
Sometimes I think the bishop finds it difficult to get people to take interior. I think it’s still a problem because the congregations want to have their centers for education in town to be able to go to colleges such as the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA) and places like that.
However it’s important to note that there are Congregations that are still interested in taking interior parishes.
By Lourine Oluoch