Posted: September 17, 2004
Interview with Archbishop Ndingi Mwana aíNzeki
September 13, 2004
By John L. Allen, Jr.
NCR Rome Correspondent John L. Allen Jr. traveled to Africa in early
September. While there, he interviewed
Archbishop Ndingi Mwana aíNzeki in Nairobi. Allen's report on his
African trip can be found here:
A journey to Africa: confronting AIDS, relations among religions, and the
challenges of poverty .
NCR: What are the main challenges facing the church in Kenya?
Archbishop Ndingi Mwana aíNzeki:
I suppose like in other parts of Africa, ours is a young church. While we have
completed 100 years since the first missionaries came out here, until the end of
the Second Vatican Council, until the end of the 1970s, the church in this
country was a priest church, where the priest was everything. He did everything.
People were there, they listened to him, they followed him, but apart from
saying their prayers they did nothing else. From the 1970s, however, especially
with the Vatican Council, the situation changed, especially when we started
pastoral councils. In other words, involvement of the lay people in the work and
life of the church. In particular, instead of this idea of people travelling
five or ten miles to church, they started building their own small centers [in
the villages] where they meet every Sunday with or without a priest, and they
conduct their services, their prayers, the readings, the catechism Ö someone
explains it. Then they go home. When the priest is available, he comes and says
Mass for them. That for me is the greatest development in the church, involving
the lay people in the work and life of the church. So much so, that at the
moment they demand that they be involved. When you involve them, you do less
because they do more.
itís ďwin-win,Ē as we say.
they support you, they do a lot of work for you, but because you are guiding
them you are also involved. For me, that is the greatest. So the challenge is to
continue that. Then of course the local vocations, for the religious, the
priests, and even the lay people. We have in Kenya a group that calls themselves
Lay Apostles, people who offer to spend three, four, some years as a missionary
within the country. They are totally committed to evangelization.
How do they evangelize?
catechism, working in hospitals, or just in dealing with the people who are
sick. In other words, doing the work that the priest did in the past, especially
witnessing by living the faith as lay people. Some are married, some not
married, but mostly not married. Theyíre very young, they spend three or four
years and then come back. That for me is the greatest. Then of course you have
the local vocations, many local vocations, and that has transformed the image of
the church. In the past, it was seen as a foreign church depending on Rome, but
now thereís more support of the church from the lay people than ever before.
Itís seen as a local church because the clergy are local?
Yes, and also
because the people are involved.
You have a challenge that would be the envy of many
bishops in Europe and North America, which is that your seminaries are too full.
Yes, we have many vocations. Seminaries built for 100 now have almost 200. Iím
now 43 years ordained a priest. When I was ordained, it appeared like a strange
thing, very strange. For an African not to have his own family, not married,
there must be something wrong with him. Now, that image has gone, especially
when they see us faithful to our vocation. As a matter of fact, even
non-Catholics, if there was a great need Ö suppose there was an accident
somewhere, or something that needed attention from somebody. If there was
another kind of minister and a Catholic priest, they will go to the Catholic
priest, immediately. Why? For me, itís because they know that if he can help,
heíll do it, without hesitation. Then thereís the part played by our local
sisters. People can approach our sisters very, very easily, and theyíre
available in nursery school, primary school, secondary schools, hospitals,
social work. People know that. That has been a great development in our church,
by the grace of God.
In terms of challenges, the so-called ďsects,Ē small
independent Protestant movements, are growing rapidly here. Why?
They come out forcefully, but they donít seem to keep their stamina. They seem
to burn out quickly. First of all, theyíre a minority. Donít let anybody deceive
you that theyíre a majority. Theyíre the minority. When they travel, they have a
big group. Take Nairobi, for example. They will have a big meeting in the
stadium, but people come from all over the whole town. Therefore they are not a
majority. They do attract people, but at the same time people resent them
sometimes, especially when they accuse other religions. People donít like to
hear a minister accusing another minister.
they attack the Catholic Church?
They can, but
at the same time, can they show what they have done? We can show our schools, we
can show our hospitals, we can show our work for the old people, for the
children, for the dying, and now at the moment instructing the people with AIDS
and so on. We can show that. They cannot do it. They can, as an exception, but
as a church they cannot.
What is their attraction?
I suppose most of them take advantage of the fact that in the past we were seen
as a European church. Now they cannot do that, you cannot say that. As a matter
of fact, people say they are growing fast but I do not think so myself. I am not
convinced, because if you count the people who come to church every Sunday,
Catholics are by far the majority. Kenya is about 70 percent Christian, and
Catholics as a denomination are the largest group in this country.
Whatever the number is, does the attraction have
something to do with the style of worship?
There is too much
dancing and emotion, usually without a moment of reflection. Whereas
traditionally, like in the area where I was born, when we met for worship there
was a moment for talking, for chatting, and then a moment came when no one
talked until the leader does this business around the tree, pouring water or oil
or what have you, and then he sits down and starts talking. Even the children
would keep quiet at that moment. This is traditional African religion. In the
Catholic Church, we have the moment when the priest prays, the consecration,
when nobody else talks, so itís familiar to Africans. What they [the sects] lack
is the worship. They speak of worship, but what do they worship? We can point to
our belief in the Eucharist. When it comes to communion, they invite everybody.
We donít, and we will not. As a matter of fact, like yesterday for example [at
the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the basilica]. We
announced that the Eucharist is for Catholics who are prepared. Other people are
welcome, but not for Eucharist. Even not all of the Catholics, but those who are
prepared, who are ready, to receive the Eucharist.
other words, you mean the praise of these groups lacks content?
Yes, it is
exaggerated. The people go for a very short time, then they move on to another
church, three or four, and then they go. We have Pentecostal churches in
Nairobi, and when they begin, theyíre packed with people. Fair enough, we donít
speak against them, but we definitely dispute the method of bringing people from
outside. Say now this is the parish, their bus will collect people from
different parts of the city to come to worship. We donít do that. Our parishes
are clearly marked. They compete to grab people. In fact, theyíre providing
transport for people to come to worship. On very exceptional occasions you can
do it, for example the burial of the cardinal. People came from outside Nairobi
and therefore they organized transportation, but not every Sunday.
What is the relationship between the church and Islam in Kenya?
So far we seem
to work together. For example in the last elections, we formed what we called
the ďUfungamano Group,Ē meaning ďunity.Ē We worked together, Muslims,
Protestants and Catholics, to provide civic education to prepare voters. We were
present at every polling station in the country, regardless of whether it was a
Muslim area or a Catholic area or what. After that, we continued to work
together. As a matter of fact, we worked together until a debate arose over the
new constitution. The Muslims wanted Islamic religious practices inserted into
the constitution, and there we differed. They wanted their Islamic legal system,
the shariah, their courts, to not only be recognized but financially
supported. There we differed. What we wanted is a clause that would recognize
all religions and their rules, for example canon law, provided that religious
law does not work in conflict with the national constitution. Thatís what weíre
trying at the moment. They walked out of the meeting, but we are trying to get
them to come back.
How are relationships at the grassroots?
from areas where there is a heavy Muslim population, in Kenya we have no fight.
Youíll have individual people with different views, now and then someone will go
to an extreme, shouting against another religion or writing against it, but
apart from that we seem to work together very well.
Some believe there is a distinctively Swahili form of
Islam that is tolerant, open, non-violent. Would you agree?
Yes, along the coast. Those people you can talk to, you can argue with, no
problem. It is those people who have been brought up with prejudiced minds to
think that Islam is the only faith, and that anybody who is not Muslim is
kaphir and there is no salvation for the kaphir, who are the problem.
Those people are on the extremes. They say you can find some like this in
Mumbasa, but there are not many.
there is no push for Islamization in Kenya?
No, I would not
hear in Uganda, for example, that Muslims sometimes seek to marry Christian
They say that,
but in Kenya Iíve never heard of such a thing. In Uganda the Catholics are very
strong, but then when Idi Amin came he gave a push to the Islamic faith.
Naturally you would expect some people to do that.
Islamic schools try to convert children to Islam?
Where there are
purely Islamic, Muslim schools, where the majority of children are Muslim, there
will be a bit of that. They will be inclined to see the others as people who
shouldnít be there. Whereas we admit everyone, all of them. In Nairobi, if a
Catholic school has five or more Muslim children, we give them a room where they
can meet to pray. We allow them to wear headscarves. Why not? If it has a
meaning for them, and it is not a hindrance to their education or their mixing
with others, why not? I cannot understand why in France theyíre against it, but
thatís their business.
But fundamentally there is no serious Christian-Muslim
conflict in Kenya?
I must say so, yes. None. You will have individual people who are prejudiced,
but they are few and far between. There is no policy or general feeling saying,
we are against these people, no.
What is the Catholic Church in Kenya doing to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis?
First of all,
the Catholic Church was the first organized group to speak on HIV/AIDS, to warn
people against it, and to warn against the use of condoms, and to propose
education for the people, as early as 1987. The first case, Iím told, was
discovered in 1985. At that time, our document that we issued was totally
ignored by the government and by the press. Now they are on their knees begging
us to come, and we are doing it. We are the one obvious organization doing this,
in hospices, home care, and so on. In instructions, social teaching Ö without
boasting, we are the number one provider of care.
You mentioned the condoms question. Some say that the
Catholic Church has stood in the way of solving the AIDS question because of its
opposition to condoms. How do you see it?
For me, a condom is not the answer. In fact, in this country I would say without
fear that the use of condoms has been the greatest means of increasing the cases
of AIDS. Take our university students, students in schools of higher studies,
where condoms are available upon demand. They have had the greatest number of
deaths due to HIV/AIDS. The former vice-chancellor of Nairobi University said
publicly that every week they bury somebody from the university, a teacher or a
student or a university worker. Condoms are available on request, costing
nothing. In this country, to provide a young person, a young Kenyan, with a
condom is a license. Itís like saying, Ďmy son or daughter, you are free.í And
they do it.
abstinence is the only answer?
had a meeting one time at the former presidentís home, President Moi. It was
sponsored by the United Nations. I was surprised. There were three signs, in big
writing. The first said, ďAbstinence, the only guarantee against HIV/AIDS.Ē
Second, ďIt costs nothing.Ē Third, ďIt has no side effects.Ē That was by the
you see any evidence this message is getting through?
Yes, yes. Practically every family has seen somebody dead or suffering, or
attended a funeral. Fear, fear of death, makes them change. In most of the
country, people get involved in HIV/AIDS when they drink Ö with a condom in
Are young people changing their behavior?
Yes, there is a
bit of that. There is a movement of young people, ĎTrue Love Waits,í where they
meet. Even the press will go and ask them, they will talk about it publicly.
When they have a meeting, they speak openly, clearly. You know, when they speak,
they can convince their peers on an equal level in their conversation and their
It is very hard to understand why anti-retroviral
medications are still not available to so many Kenyans.
They should be able to make it available to the people, but theyíre not doing
Whoís to blame? The government? The drug companies?
are a little bit to blame, if we are not allowed to produce it, or if they do
not make it available as much as we would want. There is a kind of corruption
still in our countries, maybe some people are using it or selling it. Itís
possible. Itís very frustrating, because they could prolong life. People should
be allowed either to make it available for them to buy, or for them to produce.
The moral principle is, in extreme necessities all things are shared. If Iím
dying and there is medicine, itís my right to get that medicine. That is not
being followed. In Africa, with all due respect to our people, corruption is
There has been some controversy in the local press
over the Nyumbani Children of God Relief Institute, focusing on accusations of
illicit research. Does it still have your confidence?
I think so far they
are doing very well. As far as the controversy is concerned, what took place I
cannot understand. If it took place, it was unfortunate. I spoke to the father.
But I believe they have done very well. At least those children have some place
where they can be taken care of, before they die. If it happened, having blood
tests taken outside of the country without permission, itís very unfortunate. It
should not be allowed.
But we shouldnít lose sight of the good work being done?
There is no question about that. They have done very well. There is another
place, Cottolengo, run by an Irish and Italian missionary society. Itís not very
far from Nyumbani. Theyíre doing the same work. They worked together at one
time, and they disagreed on principles so they divided. For me, I am very happy
that somebody is doing something.
Nyumbani still has your support?
What are your perceptions of Opus Dei in Kenya?
For me, they
are doing wonderful work. They definitely penetrate the society. In Africa,
Kenya has the largest number of Opus Dei people, and they have done extremely
well. One thing is that they are very faithful to the church, to the churchís
teaching. They receive the sacraments and they organize seminars and workshops
for young people, for married couples, for all kind of people. Priests, they
invite us. They make you pay for it, but when you look at what they ask, itís
almost nothing. You go to their seminars and workshops, they do very well. I
think at the moment they are running a wonderful school, Strathmore. They are
now starting a university. Personally I support them, very much. When I came
here, there was Strathmore and the Kianda College, not very far from here, and
other things, all restricted to one side. So when I came I told them, look, you
people need to go to the Eastlands where the majority of Kenyans are living. I
donít want a church, donít put up a church, put up a center. They did. I havenít
been able to visit it, but I want to. Iím telling you, whoever is running that
place keeps [the people] occupied all the time. All the time, because there are
so many people Ö women who donít go to work, people who are off duty, children
after school and on weekends. They are kept occupied all the time instructing
them, and they donít discriminate. If they are Protestant, if they are Muslim,
whatever. I support them.
You know that Opus Dei is a controversial group. Some
people complain of an obsession with secrecy, others power, and so on. Have you
had any of these concerns in your dealings with them?
No, they have been
very, very straight with me. Anytime their priests come here, they present them
to me and I talk to them. They tell me what the priest is going to do. We have a
school called Nairobi school, another Leanana School. I have no chaplain for
those schools, and they are doing it, without coming to ask me for anything
expect moral support. Maybe if theyíre building a church, they will ask me to
support the application for the church, thatís it. They say that Opus Dei is for
the rich, but Kimlea is not for the rich people. Absolutely. Most of these are
jealousies among other people, especially the missionaries. Iím sorry to say it,
but itís just because they donít agree with them, they do that. Opus Dei
organizes seminars and workshops and so many people attend. They donít interfere
or tell anyone what to do. When that university started, Strathmore University,
oh I tell you. They were very honest. So, I donít agree with those who criticize
them. I donít see them pushing at all, pushing for power. One of them is now a
bishop, but he was appointed on his own merits. As a matter of fact, they didnít
even know. They were informed. When a decision was made to consider him, then
they were asked in very strict confidence. When the decision was made that he
was going to be appointed, then they were told. They were not asked. They were
actually disappointed! The regional vicar told me, now we are missing a priest.
I said, your only sin in that appointment is, you prepared him well. Heís doing
very, very well.
You mentioned that some of the criticism comes from
some of the missionary communities. I understand that when Strathmore was
founded, there was criticism from some of the Holy Ghost Fathers.
Yes. I was in charge
of the schools at that time. In this country, I was the education secretary for
the country. The fact that they were near St. Maryís, which is a wonderful
school, was seen as, ĎAre they coming in opposition?í It was not competition. As
a matter of fact, they came to Kenya by coincidence. They started out in
Tanzania, then Kenya and Uganda. Uganda had everything. Even now, they cannot
tell you why they chose Kenya. Uganda had a university, they had school of
higher studies beyond what we had in Kenya, and yet they came here. That they
canít explain, but I told them, Ďprovidence.í But yes, there was that feeling
among the missionaries, are they going to compete, are they going to come here
to teach us how to teach? But that was normal. When you start something good,
people will always come to criticize it. If you listen to criticism and give up,
you are the loser.
the relationship between Opus Dei and the rest of the church better?
Oh, very much. As a matter of fact, you can never tell who is Opus Dei and who
is not, except when they do their exercises. At the moment, it is like that.
They donít go out and advertise themselves. Now they speak more, but at the
beginning there was a bit of, you donít say who you are. There used to be this
thing that if you give someone a lift and he says, let me off a kilometer away
so I can say the rosary, then he was probably Opus Dei. These things were said
because people did not understand. They also made some mistakes, they
exaggerated things. We had one professor in the seminary and he thought some of
the books in the seminary were not right, so he wanted to have them burned.
Maybe he was right, but is burning the answer? This was a priest of Opus Dei,
and he eventually went back. I didnít see this myself, but people say that. Even
if that is true, you can say, maybe he was wrong. Maybe the book was bad on this
or that page, so it should be removed Ö but I understand he would remove the
books himself. Whether or not that is true, I cannot say. There will always be
people who exaggerate.
The bottom line is that you are supportive of Opus Dei?
Are there any areas you want to see them grow?
As it is today,
Iíd like to see more involvement where the community gathers. They have the
professionals among them, the medical professionals and so on, they have a high
school. But thereís also the middle and lower class people, and thatís where I
would like to see them spread, like their center in the Eastlands. Itís in the
lower part of the city, where the population of people is concentrated. There
they invite the children, the parents. For me, Iíd like to see more of that for
the ordinary people.
You donít mind seeing African vocations serving in
Europe or the United States, but you would like to see more support for the
African church from those places?
Today especially, I would like to see, for example, support to prepare our lay
people to get even more involved. If we could have somebody working fulltime on
the lay apostolate, a man and woman, working fulltime to set up seminars and
workshops. Then our seminaries need help. They were built in the 1960s. St.
Thomas opened in 1963, for 50 students, and now there are over 100. The building
cannot be extended. Another was built for 100, it now has many more. Another one
has 250. I also believe that if we do send missionaries, we must send the best.
If you are giving a gift to anybody, you must give the best. We will never send
people who are problems. Just like in the family, the mother and father takes
great care of the one who goes astray, they do not send him off to bother other
people. Those who like to cause trouble, it is my responsibility to keep here.
If I send anybody outside, he must be the best.
What concrete ways could we help you?
At the moment
for me, itís our seminaries and houses of formation. We need money to improve
the physical facilities, to expand them. For example, when they were built, they
were built for students to share rooms. At that time, in the 1960s, that was
okay, but today we donít expect them to do that. You could divide a room into
two. They can share the bathroom, that doesnít matter, but not the room where
they sleep. That would be number one. The other one would be, helping our
catechists to support the work of evangelization. Selected people could educate,
form, our people.
So since American Catholicism produces a large crop of
very well-educated lay Catholics with advanced degrees in theology, youíd like
some of them to come here.
Some could come over here, learn the Swahili language or the language of the
people, and spend some time doing that. Some have come, actually, but very few.
We need more. That would be for me an exchange of personnel that would help us a
How well does the Vatican understand the pastoral situation in Kenya?
So far, I must
say they have never contradicted us on anything we have done. One area where
they can be very adamant is the appointment of bishops. I must say that in every
case in this country, we have been consulted. Every bishop has been consulted.
Maybe there have been one or two cases where not everyone has been consulted.
Each one of us is consulted, privately or publicly. We also encourage everyone
if they think someone can be a bishop, even without a specific vacancy, to
propose it to the bishopsí conference, to explain it. They vote, we have the
list of those who are passed, the names go to Rome. When there is appointment,
the nuncio consults each one individually. Then when we send the name to him,
when we are meeting he reads the names and sends the names to Rome. In Kenya,
Rome has never appointed anybody not recommended by us, so far.
When you need a recognitio or help with a diplomatic problem?
We have a very good nuncio. In Kenya, weíve really only had one nuncio who was a
problem, very difficult. He was really difficult. He went to one diocese, and he
disagreed with the bishop when they went outside the bishopís house. Then they
went to a small parish, where the bishop left the nuncio behind and went home,
saying, ĎLock the doors!í Outside of that, we have had wonderful people. The
nuncio plays a very important role. We invite him to come to visit our places,
and to visit the people. When I opened a church in Nkuru, Cacciavillan was the
nuncio here. We ate outside, and I have a picture of him sitting there with
everyone else. From here he went to India, and then to the United States.
Many have talked about the idea of an African pope.
Is the African church ready to produce a pope?
Itís possible, if there is one who could be
elected by the cardinals. Why not? Whoever thought there would be a pope from
What would that mean to the African church?
It would be a
recognition of our growth, our development, and our responsibility in the
church. If thatís in the Spiritís design, it would be wonderful. Itís very hard
to speculate. But we would need an African who would understand us.
What do you mean?
An African who would understand us and encourage us. For example, I would like
to see more liturgical participation. I would like to see more translation of
liturgical books in the language that our people understand. At the moment, itís
not bad. But you can have somebody come along who starts restricting things.
Thatís whatís happening, isnít it? The Holy See wants
translations into fewer languages and closer to the Latin.
Closer to the
original, but weíve got to understand the language. You can bring it closer to
the original, but the people arenít so clear. We should be faithful to the
original translation, but it has to be understood in this language. So we need
someone not so strict, who understands us.
National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004