The story of an old white man, priest or otherwise, working among the Kenyan poor communities is not news. It’s a narrative that dots many villages and slums across Kenya.
But what makes Fr. Peter Meienberg’s story worth telling is his peculiar passion for the prison pulpit and priesthood underlined by the drive to instigate social, economic, spiritual and infrastructural reforms in Kenyan jails in the last twenty years.
Thanks to his unrelenting efforts, every major prison and its inmates in Nairobi and across the country bears some footprints of his work, implemented through Faraja Foundation.
“I first came across the inhuman conditions that prisoners live under during my work with refugees,” the Benedictine priest told the Daily Nation during the interview at his house in South B. “I realized that prisoners needed more than just spiritual nourishment. They were living in very bad environement so I set up Faraja Foundation and through friends and family we have been able to make some accomplishments”.
Among the projects the 87 year-old Swiss clergyman has pioneered include a kindergarten for prisoners children at Lang’ata Women’s Prison, a first in any Kenyan jail, an ultra-modern kitchen at Kamiti Maximum Prison, a library at Industrial Area Remand and Allocation Prison and tailor-made courses for inmates and prison wardens among many others.
Besides being in the historic team that recommended the current prison reforms, a sixty-minute movie was shot by a Swiss company in 2008 narrating his love and passion for prisons and prisoners.
The Prison and the Priest: Peter Meienberg in Nairobi, which was exhibited in several European film festivals, tells the clergyman’s story as a prison chaplain, inmate’s benefactor and philanthropist. It’s also tells the challenges of being a prisoner in Kenya through individual stories.
Away from the prison pulpit the Catholic priest, who has been in Kenya for forty five years, have courted controversy in several occasions over comments on social and political issues.
Upon his transfer to Kenya from Tanzania, where had been a priest for ten years, Fr. Meienberg had a whirlwind of postings in Eldoret, Pokot, Marsabit then to brief stints in Ethiopia and Cameroon. While serving in the Eldoret parish in 1972, he prophetically predicted Rift Valley ethnic clashes whose first phase would appear twenty years later.
“The most influential and industrious Christians were the Kikuyu, who by hook or by crook were fast expanding in Western Kenya and acquired land in a manner which could easily lead to a politically explosive situation,” the priest, who is a member of the Liturgical Association of Kenya with several hymn books to his credit, said. “It was just a gut feeling derived from talking to members of various ethnic groups all of whom felt that the Kikuyus were as abrasive as they were aggressive in their land acquisition”.
He also projected, and correctly so, that the centre of such an explosion would be in either Nakuru or Molo towns.
Many years later in 1994, after the first post electoral violence was witnessed in Kenya Fr. Meienberg had just come from a month-long priesthood sojourn in the Goma Refugee Camp which was hosting the survivors of the Rwanda Genocide.
“The genocide was the talk of town so I was given the opportunity to deliver a sermon at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi and narrate my experiences in Goma,” he recalls. “I told the audience that if Kenya was not careful we would end up experiencing politically-instigated killings just like Rwanda. And we almost got there in 2007/2008, thirteen years after I delivered the sermon”.
This controversial sermon earned him a rebuke from Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a Nzeki, who was in charge of the Nairobi Diocese by then.
About the 2017 General Elections, the Benedictine priest says that a dark gloomy cloud hangs over the nation like a committee of vultures circling over a prey.
“I am really afraid of next year’s elections because there is so much hatred between the two political alliances that something drastic has to be done to prevent the imminent explosion of violence,” Fr. Meienberg observes. “The clergy, civil society and other opinion leaders should preach peace to prevent the country being plunged in to another round of violence and bloodshed”.
Reading through his recently published book Africa-My Destiny which is compiled from letters, journal entries and notes written over his more than fifty years stay in Africa, it’s notable that the Swiss priest is not new controversies.
After President Julius Nyerere commissioned him to write the first civic book for the school curriculum of the newly formed republic, Fr. Meienberg became a target of his fellow clergymen and jealous government officials.
“This order plunged him into a lot problems. Alone, without support and conspired against by his colleagues, the unsuspecting newcomer developed the textbook under difficult conditions in four and a half months,” explains Alois Riklin in the Africa, My Destiny book forward. “At first it was disqualified by the Secretariat of Bishops as useless… thereafter, it was officially approved by the government as a school textbook. Then, due to political reasons, it was banned for years but finally introduced once more”.
The priest had met with President Nyerere, a staunch Catholic, in the US in 1969 where the Tanzanian leader had signed the churchman’s Masters degree dissertation on the study of socialism and ujamaa in Tanzania.
Apart from prison, politics and pulpit engagements the Benedictine Father is also very passionate about youth empowerment, a mission that saw him acquire a 38-acre piece of land in Isinya where he built a high-tech training farm.
“This is where we take the youth who has just finished form-four for a half yearly semester on agricultural skills, with the course being seventy percent practical and the rest theory,” the octogenarian priest explains. “With the institution sustained with funding from the Swiss government and other organizations, most of the students get work immediately since they have the practical skills in matters agriculture”.
Fr. Peter Meienberg’s is the story of a man who left the creature comforts of a home in Switzerland to come to Africa with no extraordinary mission in mind besides being a Catholic priest.
But destiny and fate thrust him in unexpected directions.
“I had a maternal uncle who used to go to Egypt to buy cotton from where he would come back with books and stories of the pyramids from Africa,” he recalls. “This alongside other stories planted a deep seed of interest in me to come to this beautiful continent”.
I was also in the St. Benedictine Monastery in my hometown St.Gallen-St.Fiden in Switzerland which also taught us a lot of stories about Africa since they had a monastery in East Africa”.
He eventually got a posting in the then Tanganyika as a young man of 32, where he stayed for ten years.
“Politicians were becoming envious of our work in rural areas and politicizing issues, hence we decided to seek another place to establish a monastery,” Fr. Meienberg explains. “I suggested Kenya and that’s how the St. Benedict Monastery in Tigoni was established”.
He would later leave the monastery to focus on his philanthropic and humanitarian work through Faraja Foundation, which is private establishment.
“Although we have many donors, the Foundation funds forty percent of our more than sh100 million annual budget,” the priest points out. “Our source of income includes rent from a four story building in South B and some luxury apartments in Westlands which we built with help from my family”.
This is measure, he says, are meant to ensure the posterity of his work after he is long gone.
“The book that I published recently is also an effort to make the work of those who wish to study my undertakings after I am gone easier,” he jokingly says. “It’s also a story of my odyssey across this beautiful land”.
Other White Priests that left deep marks in Kenya include Father John Anthony Kaizer, whose murder remains a mystery, and Father Renato “Kizito” Sesana, infamously accused of sexual assault on minors.