Oldest Missionary Congregation in Kenya Igniting Hope Among Poor Slum Dwellers

Kenyan-born Spiritan Fr. John Munjuri, Parish Priest of St. Mary's Mukuru Parish, Archdiocese of Nairobi, who has facilitated a feeding program on Fridays under the auspices of St. Vincent de Paul Group
Credit: St. Mary's Mukuru Parish, Nairobi Archdiocese

The marram road that leads to St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, a sprawling informal settlement located on the fringes of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya is lined with tiny single-roomed corrugated iron shacks that provide home to thousands of slum dwellers in one of the most deprived areas of the East African country.

Cutting through these overcrowded homes is a foul sewer that flows to Nairobi River which has, for years, been polluted by industrial as well as domestic waste by the residents who lack sewage and solid waste disposal systems. And sitting on the banks of the sewer are women manning stalls where they sell little amounts of fresh vegetables and other grocery items.

Outside the administration block of St. Mary’s Catholic Church, situated within the slum, about 20 women and a few men queue for food that is given for free at the Parish that is run by Holy Ghost Fathers, also referred to as Spiritans, who run a myriad of other charity projects that target the slum residents. Those who benefit from the projects are the poorest slum residents, the sick as well as members of broken families such as single mothers, widows and other vulnerable groups.

Agnes Musyoka, 67, is among the women from deprived backgrounds who come to the parish every Friday to get foodstuffs and clothing for her six grandchildren and her husband who has been bed-ridden for nearly 10 years.  

“My husband used to work menial jobs and to provide for us. But one day, he fell down and became paralyzed and hasn’t left the house since 2011. I have been left to provide for our six grandchildren from my daughters’ broken marriages by myself,” Mrs. Musyoka says, adding that she has developed diabetes and high blood pressure because of the stress she experienced out of the years of trying to fend for her family single-handedly.

“There have been instances where we went without food for days. I nearly gave up until someone pointed me in the direction of this church. This is where I have been picking food every Friday. This food sustains us for the entire week then I come back for more,” she says.

Elizabeth Mumbua, a 38-year-old mother of two relates to Mrs. Musyoka’s experiences. After Mumbua’s husband broke his leg and stopped going to work at construction sites, the mother of two stepped up, accepting all menial jobs she came across in the slum to fend for her family until she too was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

To date, Mumbua hasn’t received proper treatment for her brain tumour for lack of funds and relies on the food that parishioners at St. Mary’s Catholic Parish give every Sunday. The food is distributed by a group of volunteers at St. Vincent de Paul Outreach Group who are drawn from the various small Christian communities (SCCs) at the Parish.

The volunteers scout for the neediest cases within the slum and add them to the feeding programme. Those who are very sick are attached to caregivers who visit their homes, bathe them and help them to take their medication.

Fr. John Munjuri, a Kenyan Spiritan priest who has been working with the volunteer group since 2015 says Spiritans work in informal settlements occupied by the poor who initially travel to cities looking for employment but who later face housing challenges.

Hinting on the early mission of his religious missionary congregation in Mukuru Kwa Njenga, sometime in 1995, the Spiritan cleric says, “We came in this area when it was still very unattractive. People who came to Nairobi in search of casual jobs in the industries that were coming up in this area sought for very cheap accommodation near these industries. Some of them put up cheap iron cabins and houses they made from boxes.”

This, according to the Fr. John, is what gave birth to present-day slum areas where people working low-end jobs battle challenges such as poor housing and congestion, lack of basic amenities such as running water and proper sewerage system and sometimes go for days without getting a job in these companies.

“While coming to this place every morning, I see long queues of men and women who wake up every day in search of casual jobs in companies. A big percentage of these people wait the whole day without getting any job. These are people who live from hand to mouth and going home empty-handed means their children sleep on empty stomachs,” the Catholic priest says and adds, “It is even worse when these breadwinners fall sick, leaving no one to take care of their children.”

This, Fr. John says, has led to an increase in prostitution among underage children in the slum who are left to fend for themselves when their parents fall sick.

Other forms of crime such as substance abuse and child trafficking are also common in these parts of the city.

“There have been many cases of parents selling their children with as little as KSh2,000.00 (USD20) just to afford a meal and other basic amenities. Cases of child trafficking are very common in this place,” he says.

Also rife, are cases of broken families, according to the Kenyan priest who has welcomed abandoned women and children in the feeding programme.

“There is a day that a woman came to this church carrying a naked new-born baby. The woman was crying, saying that the husband had abandoned them and that they had been sent away from their house because of unpaid bills,” he recounts, adding, “I have never seen a more desperate scenario. But I am glad that the volunteers came in and ensured that the woman and her child were fed and dressed and they had a place to stay.”

Before establishing base in Mukuru Kwa Njenga where the Spiritans cover other surrounding informal settlements including Mukuru Kwa Reuben, Sinai, Lunga Lunga and Pipeline, members of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit (the official name), who were the first Catholic missionary order to evangelize Kenya had been to other places, ministering to slaves and introducing the people to formal education and farming.

Established to operate in “places where the Church has difficulty in finding workers”, according to Fr. John, the Holy Ghost Fathers first set foot in Mombasa, a coastal town in Kenya, in 1889 at the height of slave business in Africa. They settled in the East African coastal town of Bagamoyo in Tanzania where they ministered in villages that were occupied by slaves on transit.

The name Bagamoyo in Swahili meant “where slaves left their hearts”, before they were ferried across the Indian ocean to work for their masters abroad.

The Spiritans’ mission, according to Fr. John, was to liberate these slaves while they were still in these villages along the coastal town.

“The villages in Bagamoyo were referred to as Freedom villages,” he narrates adding, “The work of the missionaries was to buy the slaves from their slave masters and to educate them in the villages without putting them at the risk of being resold in the event that they went back to their homes.”

At the end of slave trade in the late 19th century, the missionaries ventured inside the country, travelling on a train through major towns in Kenya before they settled in Nairobi where they immersed themselves in building schools and churches and introducing people in different places to farming.

The missionaries whose projects are anchored on Faith, Education and Agriculture are behind the construction of Holy Family Minor Basilica Cathedral church located at the heart of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, the Holy Ghost Cathedral at Kenya’s coastal town, Mombasa and the Holy Ghost Cathedral, Machakos in the Catholic Dioceses of Machakos.

The Spiritans also constructed St. Mary’s School in the Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi where President Uhuru Kenyatta studied. Other schools include Mang’u High School and Kabaa High School, also top schools in Kenya.

The missionaries’ arguably biggest success, however, is the introduction of coffee farming in the East African country.

“Since we were the first ever missionary congregation in Kenya, it wasn’t easy getting people to jump on a faith they had never known before. But farming is what everybody could relate with. In fact, the missionaries had more success in promoting coffee farming than they did, faith,” says Fr. John.

Highlighting some of the projects undertaken by the group of volunteers at St Vincent de Paul Group, the Spiritan from Kenya's Catholic Diocese of Meru says, “Apart from the feeding programme, we mentor the needy economically and help them start small businesses to earn their livelihoods.”

The group also runs a water project and a toilet to provide free services to the slum residents.

In its future plans, the group intends to start distributing ready-made food in a daily feeding programme that will target the sick who can’t make it to the parish to get the weekly donations.

The biggest challenge that Fr. John faces every day is not being able to satisfy the needs of slum residents who come looking for assistance at the parish. This, he attributes to insufficient resources.

“The need is there. People in this part of the city are really suffering. But there is only so much we can do for them,” he says, adding, “At the moment, we rely solely on the Sunday offertory and a few individual donations from slum residents who don’t have much to offer but who donate deeply from their hearts. It is from these donations that we provide the needy with. But there are needs that we can’t meet. Such as facilitating treatment for the sick.”

Highlighting the frustrations, which he endures every day, the priest says, “It is heartbreaking not being able to meet all the needs of the people who come here trusting us to help them. But it also satisfies my heart that I give my whole every day. I chose to become a part of this community and now I must participate in their daily struggles.”

The Catholic priest who joined the Spiritan community of St. Mary’s Catholic Parish in Mukuru Kwa Njenga while serving as the financial administrator (bursar) of the Spiritan Province of Kenya had also ministered in the Archdiocese of Mombasa as well as Marigat in Kenya’s diocese of Nakuru.

Ordained in 2008 after completing his theology studies in Paris, France, Fr. John says the work with volunteers of St. Vincent de Paul Group is inspired by the message of the scriptures.

“The Gospel of Matthew Chapter 25, which says in part, ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me’ inspires us every day when we attend to the needy in this deprived area,” the Kenyan Spiritan cleric says.


ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.

Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa
[email protected]