, 08 April, 2020 / 7:12 AM
About 100 mourners who wore white and blue face masks as a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 gathered at Holy Family Basilica in Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, to bid farewell to a distinguished Catholic Archbishop who died on March 30 after nearly 60 years of shepherding the people of God the East African country.
The burial of Archbishop Emeritus Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki would have been a celebration of a kind, probably drawing attendance from far and wide, and especially among the most vulnerable members of the society where the late Prelate is celebrated as an advocate for justice and the rights of the marginalized. But because of COVID-19 pandemic, the invite-only service was a small representation of the Clergy and lay faithful, including family members, government officials and friends.
There were also a small number of the Holy Family Basilica Youth Choir members who sat about two meters away from each other and whose angelic voices rose beyond the masks that hang loosely beneath their chins every time they pulled them down to sing.
Social distancing was also observed as six Bishops carrying the remains of the late Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki led about a dozen members of the Clergy to the late Archbishop’s resting place in the crypt that is adjacent to the Basilica.
At the crypt, mourners queued about two meters away from each other to view the wooden casket that lay atop that of late Archbishop John Njenga who was laid to rest at the Basilica in 2018.
Millions of other Kenyans followed a live transmission of the Requiem Mass that was broadcast on televisions and streamed live on YouTube and on other social media platforms.
In his speech just before the late Archbishop Emeritus was laid to rest Tuesday, April 7, John Cardinal Njue, the Archbishop of Nairobi blamed the low attendance on COVID-19 and the country’s fresh directive that banned travel in and outside of Nairobi, locking out many Bishops from attending the service.
“I feel so touched by your presence here today. We would have been more but because of the disease, there were those who could not come. And especially with the new government directive,” said Cardinal Njue, referring to the government’s ban on movement in and outside the city.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, on Monday, April 6 declared a three-week ban on movement in and out of Nairobi and in four other cities that were said to have most cases of COVID-19 infections.
In an address that was delivered by a statehouse official at the burial, President Kenyatta promised to set aside a later day to mourn the late Archbishop who died aged 88.
“His Excellency wants to inform the Church and the country that when we are through with these difficulties he will lead the nation to set aside a day when the life of the late Archbishop will be celebrated,” said Mr. Kennedy Kihara, who works at the Executive office of President Kenyatta.
In his homily at the Requiem Mass, the Auxiliary Bishop of Nairobi, David Kamau hailed the late Archbishop who, he said, had strived to address the ills affecting the people in an era that Kenya faced the oppressive rule of the country’s former president, the late Daniel Moi.
“Dear brothers and sisters, we all know the values for which the late Archbishop defended and fought for,” Bishop Kamau said and added, “He did not go by the minds of the day. Neither was he compromised to be quiet about the ills that were affecting the people then. He instead raised his humble voice and, in the process, he ended up opposing injustices of those in political positions and especially when they were wrong on political, social and religious standing.”
According to Bishop Kamau, the late Archbishop’s boldness was motivated by the value he attached in doing and defending good, whether or not it yielded results at the moment.
“His motivation was the triumph of good over evil,” the Auxiliary Bishop of Nairobi Archdiocese said.
To many, Archbishop Ndingi will be most remembered for the help he gave them when ethnic violence swept through the Rift valley in the early 1990s.
Catholic Bishops in Kenya have hailed the Prelate who they described as having “tirelessly and truly laid down his life for the flock and the entire people of Kenya.”
“We as Bishops of Kenya have lost our dear and highly respected brother in the Episcopate, a revered shepherd who tirelessly and truly laid down his life for the flock and the entire people of Kenya,” read a tribute to the late Archbishop, which was signed by Archbishop Anyolo, Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) on Sunday, April 5.
Bishop John Oballa, Chairman of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) of KCCB praised a leader who spoke for the weak and the voiceless.
“The late Archbishop Emeritus Ndingi Mwana ’a Nzeki served during turbulent times in the history of our country. He spoke for the weak and the voiceless, always championed and fought for truth and justice to prevail, circumstances notwithstanding,” Bishop Oballa stated.
The Justice and Peace official further described a man who promoted dialogue between men and women throughout Kenya, while respecting the diversity of their culture and religious inclinations.
“While conflicts and disputes are expected in any environment where human beings are, Archbishop Emeritus Ndingi used his superior leadership abilities to encourage, guide and promote cooperation,” said Bishop Oballa.
When he served at KCCB as the Chairman, the late Archbishop Ndingi is said to have guided “with good measure and ability during the heated interreligious and inter-ecclesiastical dialogues towards a common understanding,” according to Bishop Oballa.
Born in 1931 in the present-day diocese of Machakos, Archbishop Ndingi only attended formal education by chance, according to the eulogy read by Fr. Laurence Njoroge, a lecturer and Chaplain at a Kenyan university.
“During that time, the Kambas (a Kenyan tribe) had not embraced western education as a way of bringing up the youth., especially for boys. Herding cattle was their main occupation. The government therefore made it mandatory for each family to volunteer a son to go to school or suffer a fine of one cow,” reads the eulogy, noting that young Ndingi took up a position that was declined by his brother to go to school.
He trained as a teacher before joining Kibosho Seminary in Moshi, Tanzania and was ordained Priest in January 1961, becoming the first Kamba to be ordained Roman Catholic Priest.
While ministering at Our Lady of the Visitation parish in Nairobi, the young priest is said to have set up a hostel for the homeless who had just gotten to the city in search of livelihoods and had no accommodation around.
He’s a celebrated reformist in Kenya’s education system for fighting to improve the education system while he served as Education Secretary in the Archdiocese of Nairobi.
Appointed the first Bishop of Machakos Diocese that was carved from Nairobi Archdiocese, the late Archbishop was consecrated Bishop by Pope Paul VI in 1969 in Uganda during the first Papal visit to Africa.
The appointment gave the late Archbishop a platform to distinguish himself as a champion of good African customs and an enemy of evil practices, according to the April 7 eulogy.
“One lasting memory of his Machakos years is that he told off politicians who tried to bribe and force innocent citizens to vote for them in the 1969 General Election. This strong stand against evil was just a foretaste of things to come. The political class had seen nothing yet,” read a part of the eulogy.
But it was during his tenure as Bishop of Nakuru diocese between 1972-1996 that Archbishop Ndingi’s courageous defense of the oppressed people during the infamous tribal clashes in the 1990s was felt most. He is said to have, at one point, sold his car to provide for people who had been internally displaced by violence in Kenya’s Rift Valley region.
In a television program, Kenyan award-winning journalist, Linus Kaikai serving as the Director of Strategy and Innovation of Citizen TV, Kenya’s leading television channel, eulogized a man who was small in stature but a giant in character.
“In physical terms, the late Archbishop Nzeki was a very small man. When I met him for the first time, I felt my height was rude to a man I considered a giant. And a giant, Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki was,” said Kaikai who doubles as the Chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild.
According to the Kenyan journalist, the late Archbishop personified the truth and courage as Bishop of Nakuru Diocese for 24 years.
“He was Bishop at a time when truth and courage were dangerous attributes to possess or fight for. Ndingi belonged to a rare breed. He belonged to an irreplaceable generation of religious leaders that stood for greater ideas for the Church and for the country,” said Kaikai during the April 2 program, News Gang.
He said that besides Ndingi Mwana a Nzeki in Nakuru, the Catholics had sainthood-bound Maurice Cardinal Otunga, the Archbishop of Nairobi, the soft-spoken but firm John Njenga in Mombasa, a fiery Zaccheus Okoth in the Archdiocese of Kisumu as well as Anglican and Presbyterian leaders who kept the government in check.
“Together with Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, these religious leaders stood for the good of all Kenyans in a most unique way. Together with Ndingi, they made the pulpit an authoritative source of hope and common good,” said Kaikai.
He added, “It was a generation of incorruptible, independent minded and courageous church leaders that spoke truth to power. They fearlessly took on the government of KANU as they preached the gospel and virtues of good governance. They stood out like giants and luckily for Kenya, across several regions of the country, these religious giants defied religious boundaries and spoke the voice of one congregation of Christ and one people of Kenya.”
As Archbishop of Nairobi between 1996 and 2007, the late Archbishop will be remembered for his role in growing the number of parishes in the Archdiocese from 80 to over 100, ordaining 56 priests and forming many professionals, religious sisters and Clergy in their vocations.
The late Archbishop who “thirsted, pursued and fought for truth and justice” was in 1996 awarded a doctorate of Law by St. John Fisher College, his alma mater. Additionally, he was honoured with the State Commendation, Elder of the Order of the Burning Spear by the Republic of Kenya in recognition of his enormous contribution to national service.