Sunday 19 May 2019

Life, death and salvation in the slums of Nairobi

An Irish Pallottine priest has spent over 25 years serving the poor in East Africa -- while putting his life on the line against bloodthirsty mobs, writes Paul O'Callaghan

Fr Noel O’Connor is the parish priest of Dagoretti in Nairobi, Kenya. Below: the entrance to the Pallottine mission
Fr Noel O’Connor is the parish priest of Dagoretti in Nairobi, Kenya. Below: the entrance to the Pallottine mission

The quiet country lanes and relaxed pace of life in Gallapo village in eastern Tanzania share much in common with rural life in New Inn, Co Tipperary, in the 1950s and 1960s where Fr Noel O'Connor grew up.

A life-long habit of rising early continues -- he is up by 6am. The priest is in prayerful meditation in the cold parish Church, a copy of Paul: His Story by Jerome Murphy O'Connor by his side.

His working hours are spent as spiritual director, talking with and advising young men contemplating religious life. His free time is spent walking in the nearby hills that are home to elephants and even the odd leopard that strayed outside the adjoining national park.

His current posting provides the perfect place to reflect on 30 years of priesthood and the most memorable and challenging appointment he has had to date -- that of parish priest of the Irish Pallottine parish of Dagoretti in Nairobi, Kenya.

The parish is large, tribally mixed and even to this day feeds refugees who have fled armed conflict and genocide in neighbouring countries.

To add to these challenges, the parish is located at the intersection of two densely populated, crime-ridden slums; Kibera to the east and Kawangware to the west.

It is a joke among some parishioners in Dagoretti that thieves from Kibera rob their houses on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, it is the turn of the thieves from Kawangware. Sundays, of course, are days for Church and chores.

As a priest who has lived and worked in East Africa for over 25 years, Fr Noel has been both a victim of crime and an unwilling witness to the ruthlessness of mob justice.

One morning, while returning home after celebrating mass in a parish out-station, a machete-wielding drug addict tried to decapitate him in a bizarre and unprovoked attack.

Quick reflexes and ducking at the right time saved his life that day.

Another time, Fr Noel came upon a gang of youths that had surrounded a suspected thief and were beating him with steel bars. Whipped into a frenzy by a crowd of onlookers, the only way he could stop them was to lie on top of the thief, shielding him from their blows.

"A steel bar came within an inch of my neck," Fr Noel recalls.

But his actions were effective for, robbed of the chance to vent their violence, the mob melted away. The man's life was spared and the police had one less body to collect that day.

Although this man may have been a thief, the terrible truth in many of these incidents of mob justice is that often the victims are completely innocent.

Fr Noel recalls one time in Nairobi when a Maasai tribesman from Tanzania was suspected of theft.

"The critical mistake he made was to run," Fr Noel recounts.

Trying to escape was seen as an admission of guilt and the mob pursued him.

"They had everything ready to kill him," Fr Noel remembers.

Had Fr Noel arrived minutes later, the man would certainly have been dead; a death that would have been a welcome release from a horrible and excruciating torture.

"It is a sign of respect, I suppose, that people have for their priests, but if a priest stands up for someone, the mob backs off," Fr Noel explained.

A few days after the incident, the watchman returned to the parish to personally thank Fr Noel for saving his life.

Although not always able to prevent deaths occurring, sometimes simply being present can prevent further bloodshed occurring.

One morning while on a bus from Arusha to Singida in Tanzania, an eight-hour, bone-jarring journey across soft sand, mud tracks and well-weathered, rock-exposed roads, a fight broke about between a drunken passenger and the bus conductor.

While trying to re-board the bus, the passenger received a kick from the conductor, stumbled and fell under the wheel of the bus.

At the same moment, the driver started the engine and the bus rolled over the man. He died from internal bleeding minutes later in the arms of Fr Noel.

A row broke out as the conductor insisted he would look after the money found in the man's pockets. The other passengers disagreed, blaming the conductor for the death of their fellow passenger.

Fr Noel intervened and he was given the money to pass on to the man's widow.

But the case didn't end there, for that night two policemen came to the parish house to see Fr Noel. Fearing the money would never reach the widow if he handed it over to the officers, Fr Noel refused to see them, sending another priest to meet them and convey his apologies.

The following day, the man's widow received the full sum, which she used to pay for her husband's funeral.

But of all the stories, experiences and anecdotes, Fr Noel has acquired after over one-quarter of a century in East Africa, the most memorable and heart-warming incident was the day a curious bundle arrived at the gates of the parish centre.

"I had just finished early morning Mass and was on my way to the priest's house when a group of excited women beckoned me over."

A child had been discovered in a black, plastic bag at the gates of the parish training centre. There was no note with the child, nor any clues as to who the mother was who had left her child to the care of the parish.

By the time Fr Noel arrived, one woman had knotted and cut the trailing umbilical cord, another had bathed the child, while a third woman donated her 'kanga' (a large piece of dyed cloth that women use as a shawl or wrap around their waists) to clothe the boy's naked body.

"In a case like this, the police always need to be informed," Fr Noel explained.

So with the Reverend Mother from the parish convent carrying the child, they made their way to the nearest police station. However, in order to register a child in the lost-and-found book, the police needed to know the name of either the father or the mother -- an impossible task.

Fr Noel then proposed that he and the Reverend Mother sign their own names as parents and then search for a suitable orphanage when they left the police station.

"We entered the police station as two religious people and left as the legal parents of an abandoned child," Fr Noel recollects.

But one missing jigsaw piece in this drama still remained.

"To this day, no one ever discovered who the mother was or why she chose to leave her child at the gates of the training centre," Fr Noel continued.

One thing we do know, though, is that the mother must have been convinced her baby would be found and well looked after.

The boy was given the name Vincent Pallotti in honour of the founder of the Pallottine Order, a saint who himself founded a home for abandoned children in Rome just over 150 years ago.

Fr Noel now awaits the day Vincent Pallotti comes in person to the parish looking for an explanation for his enigmatic birth certificate.

Not many black Kenyans can claim to have an African nun as their legal mother and a white 'father' from Tipperary who also baptised them.

Although Fr Noel returns to Ireland once a year for a holiday and some fishing in the rivers of his native Tipperary, it is Africa and the projects he has there that are his passion.

As he chats and jokes in fluent Swahili with the congregation during his lively and interactive homilies, one gets the sense that this is where home is and will be for the foreseeable future for Fr Noel O'Connor.

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