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Plans Underway to Develop Online Communication Tool for Seafarers in Kenyan Archdiocese

Officials at Stella Maris in the Kenya's Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa led by their Director, Fr. John Webotsa (second from left) pose with fishers at Vanga, a fishing village located at the country's border with Tanzania. A government official from the country's fisheries department (right) looks on. Credit: Fr. John Webotsa/ Stella Maris Mombasa

The Apostleship of the Sea in Kenya’s Catholic Archdiocese of Mombasa plans to develop, in collaboration with other stakeholders, an online communication tool in the country’s maritime sector to keep those who work at sea in touch with their families.

The Apostleship, which recently became known as Stella Maris, is a ministry that deals with the affairs of seafarers all over the world.

Stella Maris Mombasa Director, Fr. John Webotsa told ACI Africa that seafarers in Kenya grapple with a myriad of challenges, key among them lack of communication with their families as they stay for months aboard sea vessels.

“It is not possible for people working in the sea to communicate with their families using mobile phones. This lack of communication has often led to many problems in families including broken marriages,” Fr. Webotsa said in the Monday, July 5 interview.

He added, “I have listened to revelations of men who spent up to nine months on ships. When they came back, their children couldn’t recognize them. They found their families in pieces.”

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The Comboni Missionary Priest who ministers in Mombasa Archdiocese’s Integral Human Development Commission says that the new communication tool will use satellite technology on mobile devices.

He says that with collaboration with international shipping associations and individual vessel owners, Stella Maris Mombasa will develop a communication tool that will be free from security threats on vessels.

“We understand that vessels at sea take security very seriously. The tool will be designed in a way to ensure that the running and security of the vessels is not affected,” Fr. Webotsa who started his Priestly ministry as a missionary in Eritrea after he was ordained a Priest in 2002 said.

The Kenyan-born Priest spoke to ACI Africa ahead of the July 11 Sea Sunday during which Mombasa Archdiocese will join the rest of the world to celebrate the work of seafarers and to create awareness on the plight of the people who work on the Sea.

In his message on 12 July 2020, marking Sea Sunday, the Prefect of Vatican’s Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, Peter Cardinal Turkson, urged Catholics to exercise a “preferential option for the poor” for seafarers who, he said, are serving on the front line of the COVID-19 crisis. 

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The Vatican-based Ghanaian Cardinal described how the pandemic had left hundreds of thousands of maritime workers stranded and even driven some to suicide. 

“The celebration of Sea Sunday, especially by Christians, should invite us all to exercising a ‘preferential option for the poor’ seafarers, a pledge to live in solidarity with them,” Cardinal Turkson said. 

Pope Francis has also called the world to attention on the position of seafarers, reassuring the workers that their many sacrifices before and during the COVID-19 pandemic have not gone unnoticed or unappreciated.

“These are difficult times for our world, for we have had to deal with the suffering caused by the coronavirus. Your work as maritime personnel and fishermen has thus become even more important, since it is providing our greater human family with food and other primary needs,” the Holy Father said in his 17 July 2020 message.

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The Pontiff noted that during the coronavirus emergency, there have been significant changes to seafarers’ lives and already risky work, involving “many, many sacrifices.”

“Long periods spent aboard ships without being able to disembark, separation from families, friends and native countries, fear of infection… All these things are a heavy burden to bear, now more than ever,” Pope Francis said.

Around 90 percent of the world’s trade is transported by sea, but measures taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus have caused serious complications for the shipping trade in the last few months.

With travel restrictions, many ports and airports have had to close, leaving seafarers stuck at sea and unable to return home.

Fr. Webotsa narrated his encounter with a former staff at a ship in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa who he said lost everything to the pandemic towards the end of March last year.

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“The man had spent a year at the sea. When COVID-19 struck, he couldn’t go back to work because the vessel owner had implemented some stringent regulations for his vessel,” the Priest narrates, adding that trouble started when the man spent four months at home, unable to go to work.

“Suddenly, the family had no bread winner. The wife started grumbling and the man was a stranger to his children who had not seen him in months,” he says.

In the interview with ACI Africa ahead of the July 11 Sea Sunday, Fr. Webotsa said that the world needs to celebrate maritime workers who he said are “an important part of our value chain.”

He says that seafarers in Kenya grapple with many other challenges, including exploitation from bogus recruitment agents and lack of support from the government.

Following the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, specifically, this group of workers have lost their jobs due to minimized ship cruising, the Priest tells ACI Africa. 

“I have seen workers who were unable to renew their expired certificates in the midst of the pandemic due to lack of funds,” Fr. Webotsa says, and adds that those who went into heavy debts have had their property auctioned.

The Priest who, from 2006 until 2014, ministered among residents of Korogocho slum in Nairobi Archdiocese also shared with ACI Africa about the general mental frustrations, anxiety and despair amongst the unemployed seafarers.

At a fishing community known as Vanga where Kenya borders Tanzania, the fishermen are not appreciated enough despite producing 62 percent of the fish that is consumed in Kenya, Fr. Webotsa says.

“In Vanga, the fishermen’s grievances have been ignored for the longest time. They are only allowed a small section to fish while the rest of the place is set aside for tourists,” the Priest who has also ministered in Kenya’s Catholic Diocese of Lodwar says.

In the Archdiocese of Mombasa, Stella Maris which celebrated 100 years of spiritual and material support to seafarers reaches out to 400 seafarers and their families.

Fr. Webotsa says that the ministry engages with the government on the issues affecting the maritime workers and also accompanies the workers spiritually by celebrating Masses with them on the shore and providing counselling services to those with family problems.

He says that the office has implemented a COVID-19 relief project targeting seafarers including fishers and their respective families. The Priest says that the project has helped the workers regain their self-esteem, dignity and self-worth that was eroded by the pandemic.  

Services in the project include counseling, food, safe space for sharing, and school supplies for identified school children. In a few cases, medical support was offered to seriously distressed seafarers, the Comboni missionary shares.

The Priest who has worked in the Archdiocese’s Integral Human Development Commission since January says that seafarers’ ministry has been dormant for years.

“Mombasa has always had this office but it has been dormant and we are working to bring life to it. At the moment, there isn’t so much awareness about it,” he says, adding that the first meeting with seafarers in March attracted 200 representatives of their union.

The Kenyan Priest says that the June 11 event that will be attended by the country’s shipping and maritime officials is aimed at creating awareness on the Apostolate and the situation of the seafarers.

“Our hope is to make seafarers feel appreciated for the work they do. We are bringing in government officials specifically for this purpose, to listen to the plight of this group of workers,” Fr. Webotsa told ACI Africa July 5.