In 1982, a young Irish priest arrived in Kenya to take up his first missionary posting in the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar in Turkana. FATHER GABRIEL DOLAN couldn’t have come to the country at a more challenging time; President Daniel arap Moi was tightening the screws on all forms of opposition to his rule, and the country was rapidly descending into authoritarian rule. But the Catholic priest was not daunted by the many obstacles his missionary work in Kenya would likely face. Instead, he saw them as an opportunity to carry out Christ’s vision of a just, compassionate society. Father Dolan’s human rights work in Kenya (which almost got him killed) has been captured in his book Undaunted: Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society – a scathing indictment of Kenyan society and its political leaders. RASNA WARAH spoke to the priest/human rights activist about what living and working in Kenya for more than forty years has taught him. 

Q. The church in Kenya has in recent years been criticised for not calling out injustices and being too cosy with the state and its officials. Yet, as a Catholic priest, you have been very vocal in speaking truth to power. Why do you think the Church has been so compromised by politicians?

I can’t confirm that the church has been compromised but there are many factors that might explain the apparent inconsistency in church responses to oppression, poverty and human rights abuses over the decades. The period up until 2002 was a glorious time for the mainstream churches when they were the only voice of opposition to the Moi dictatorship, kleptocracy, ethnic clashes and oppression. The church heads were bold and consistent in speaking truth to power. They were also fortunate in having strong, articulate and courageous leaders at that time. 

However, they took the foot of the pedal in 2002 when Mwai Kibaki came to power. They fell for the mantra “yote yawezakana bila Moi”. Confrontation was replaced by dialogue as church leaders were welcome and frequently invited to State House. It should also be noted that Kibaki was Catholic and Kikuyu – like many of the church leaders at the time. There was a feeling of ‘’mtu yetu”. Opportunities were missed and the cosy relationship made it difficult to speak in public. 

Again, when Uhuru Kenyatta ascended to office, access was possible but nothing had changed. The arrogance displayed in leadership between 2013 till now meant that you could say pretty much what you wanted but it didn’t really matter, no one was listening. 

Another factor, of course, is that the quality of leadership in the mainstream churches is pretty average at the moment and they have no backup research or think tank to keep them updated and informed. What is noticeable also is that churches have become pretty much middle-class institutions, focused on their own private development projects, such as hospitals and schools, and in the process, they are losing touch with the poor who alone know how difficult and harsh life has become. Put another way, these churches are pretty much part of the status quo and as such find it difficult to be the defenders of those who suffer most from tyrannical leadership. There is still room for individual voices but they are crying in the wilderness as they are frequently isolated. 

Q. Some members of the clergy recently came out and spoke against state repression and police brutality. Some even described the current government as arrogant and lacking in compassion. What do you think brought about this change in heart?

Archbishop Anthony Muheria of Nyeri as well as the former Provost of All Saints, Rev. Sammy Wainaina, have been the most vocal and articulate in challenging the excesses of the Kenya Kwanza regime. They have been frank, clear and consistent in their criticism. The Head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop Jackson Ole Sapit, has recently found his voice but he still lacks gravitas as many found his role in the Bomas-IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) farce both wanting and partisan. There are many opportunities for engagement as the suffering that citizens have endured in the past 12 months due to the escalating cost of living is at an all-time high. The honeymoon period for Kenya Kwanza is over and the 2022 campaign promises are being broken by the day. They may have projected themselves as the party of hustlers and mama mbogas, but the curtains have been pulled back and their true identity and values have been exposed in the recent past. There is a real opportunity then for churches to be the voice of the poor, but are they up to the task?

Q. You came to Kenya more than four decades ago to work at a mission in Turkana. But your work extended beyond the mission. Tell us a bit about those early days, and why you felt compelled to help the country’s marginalised and downtrodden communities.

I came to Kenya in September 1982, just after the attempted coup of the previous month. Turkana then was an isolated, impoverished and neglected district, just like the rest of the Northern Frontier Districts, as it was still known after independence. The church was pretty much the government then, providing over 60 percent of all educational and health facilities.  Due to frequent famines and indifference from Nairobi, Turkanas did not feel like Kenyans. 

Issues of governance, corruption, oppression and insecurity motivated me and many others to delve into the world of human rights, governance, accountability and democracy. This was quite a challenge as Turkana remained a KANU zone right up until 1997, when the youth, after intensive education and organisation, broke through the walls of lies, deception and control. It was an exciting and very dangerous time as police and the administration were the KANU weapons used to break up our meetings and to intimidate participants. 

But then the joy and pleasure we got when people protested theft of relief food and public resources made the challenges and frustrations all so worthwhile. Turkana was a wonderful place to be in the 80s and 90s. I then moved to Kitale in 1998 and that too had its challenges and joys. 

Q. You are the Executive Director of Haki Yetu, an organisation that gives a voice to people living in the Coast region. What issues do you think are most pressing in this region?

Land and historical land injustices remain the biggest threat towards the realisation of the Constitution and the development of the coastal region. The National Land Commission (NLC) recently revealed that 65 percent of all the historical land cases that they have been requested to investigate by the public come from the coastal region. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) recently admitted that land conflicts accounted for 75 percent of all the so-called terror attacks in Lamu County. 

Recent research that Haki Yetu conducted in Lamu entitled “Excluded and Displaced in Your Own Homeland” revealed the extent of the historical and current land injustices. Interestingly, the Lamu County government and the national government both boycotted the launch. Disappointing, but not surprising as the NCIC also revealed that the whole political and administrative class in Lamu have questions to answer with regards to the violence, allocation of land and their relationships with Al Shabaab remnants and local militia. 

We are also heavily involved in the issue of defending the elderly who are accused of witchcraft and this is also very closely related to the issue of land and land inheritance. Other matters are forced evictions and land demarcated for mega development projects. We are also the foremost organisation addressing the housing programme in Mombasa and elsewhere and we have defended the rights of the Buxton Estate tenants to resettlement and ownership. We are committed to safeguarding children and women and also have a large governance programme in four counties that is committed to the full implementation of devolution and the total participation of the public in everything from budgeting to oversight of development projects. 

Q. In your decades of living in Kenya, what have you learned and appreciated about the country? What has elated you or made you sad? 

It has been an immense blessing and joy to have been living and working in Kenya for the past four decades. I don’t regret a single moment. There is a great energy and zest for life among Kenyans everywhere. They bring joy and happiness to everything they do. That comes from a very deep spirituality and culture that recognises that life is good, a gift from God and that life and humanity always wins out despite the many hardships. There is a beauty and richness about that and I feel privileged to have been enriched in my humanity and faith through my work and relationships here.  

I have seen tremendous change in Kenya since 1982. The country now has a wonderful infrastructure that can be the basis for development and poverty reduction. There is a huge young population full of energy, education and open to new possibilities. Services have improved radically and access to justice is becoming a reality for many. These are the bright spots and must be noted.

However, what disappoints and saddens me is the failure to seriously implement the 2010 Constitution. For years, we struggled from the grassroots level to have the rights of the poor enshrined and protected in the Constitution. The document is inspiring and progressive but generally ignored and frequently trampled on by the leadership of the country, the majority of whom played little or no role in the constitution-making process. 

Kenya is still one of the most unequal societies on the planet. The minimum wage is slave labour; free primary education has not impacted the millions at the bottom; police still torture and kill citizens like wild animals; life is cheap and very raw for millions. The political class are destroying democracy by their greed and corruption and the public are losing confidence in the ability of the ballot to bring about change. 

Of course, there is no going back. The current regime may have its roots in the Moi era, but Kenyans will and must resist the move towards authoritarianism and dictatorship. The poor are angry and that anger should not be taken for granted. The youth bulge is a reality, but what a potential if channelled creatively. But what a threat if ignored and lied to.

But I am really hopeful. 

Kenyans deserve better leadership than what they are currently receiving, but first of all they must demand it. As the previous generation rose up in the 80s and 90s, so must this one unite and fight for the rights that they deserve. 

Author

  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.