Post originally published on March 23 2014 by the Standard on Sunday.
In a serene half-acre compound in Nairobi’s plush Lavington suburb that has remained almost unnaturally green under the unforgiving Nairobi sun is a five-bedroom house. In it lives a 90-year-old man. The vagaries of age have transformed his once sure gait into an uncertain shuffle. He walks with great effort back straight, knees hardly bending. “Your face looks familiar… but your name escapes me,” he begins as he sits onto a high-backed dining chair at a terrace opening out to a well manicured garden. I remind him my name as if we are acquaintances from a shared past. He clears his throat, puts his hands together, fingertips touching, and then attempts to narrate his journey through priesthood. At his prime, retired Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki was a sharp-witted deeply religious priest whose sermons were a thorn in the flesh for the unjust. Those who knew him then say his ability to remember incidents from years back was unrivaled. But currently, behind that small, wiry frame, a different man blankly stares back at the world.
His eyes are like a seal holding back painful secrets. “He has been like this for a while. Complications of old age,” explains Fr Anthony Mwituria who says he has been his caregiver since the retired archbishop was diagnosed with dementia. With each day, he loses more control over his short-term memory. His mind simply cannot retain what happens in the immediate but it can recall vividly intimate conversations and sermons from decades ago. Mental ability Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability caused by the gradual death of brain cells. The loss of cognitive abilities that occurs leads to impairments in memory, reasoning, planning, and behaviour. “I was born in Masaku,…” he says… “And I have always wanted to be a priest. Nothing else,” he adds before asking us for the umpteenth time who we are. “Are these people from the media? Let them put forth their question and I shall answer without fear whatsoever.” He clears his throat again and leans forward in his chair anticipating a question then breaks off again:
“They should let the Bishop of Moshi work. He is well qualified and the people know him. If anyone has questions about Moshi let them ask me,” he trails off in reference to an event during his earlier years of priesthood; his wandering mind a constant reminder of his fast-fading mental faculties. Those who have known him well can only watch with a tinge of sadness and resignation. “It is a ruthless condition. But we have come to accept it,” Fr Peter Gichure offers. Gichure lived with Ndingi for the better part of 10 years and has seen the retired archbishop deteriorate in function over time. This condition makes it nearly impossible to have a long conversation with the retired archbishop. His memories have a set timeline. Questions about events that occurred during more recent periods trigger a long thoughtful pause. His eyes look distant.
Failing memory Ndingi valiantly tries to talk about his most challenging period during his priesthood. But once again his memory fails. He stares hard and long at a particular spot on the glass table before him, then begins to ramble again. His narration of his past is in staccato.
“I was recruited after Standard Eight…I went to Kiserian Seminary…then ordained in 1961 in Machakos. After that I told them if they wanted a new Bishop they should just give it to him. I mean it was time Moshi had its own bishop. In fact JJ McCarthy had very short and stout arms. He made decisions immediately.”
JJ McCarthy was Archbishop of the Nairobi Diocese under which Ndingi served, but the introduction of this British cleric during our interview was another pointer to the delicate state of Ndingi’s mind. Fr Steven Mbugua and Ndingi are more than just colleagues of the cloth— they have been friends for decades and spent a great deal of time at the height of the ethnic clashes of 1992 during which as many as 2,000 people reportedly perished. “I would say the clashes in the early 90s were his most trying period,” offers Mbugua during our interview. With a concerned look at the retired archbishop, he says it often helps to have people who have spent years with Ndingi present during interviews.
Whenever they can, they answer for him. “When the clashes broke out, the Archbishop was on sabbatical in the US. I was a young man then and he trusted me with looking after the parish, but when the violence spread I knew I had to reach out to him,” Mbugua told the Standard on Sunday. Shaken by the events in the Rift Valley, Fr Mbugua called Ndingi and he returned to Kenya on the next available flight. “I remember when he had to go to Molo and we came across clash victims with arrows protruding from different parts of their bodies. He reached a point where he couldn’t take it anymore and broke down, wailing like a wounded animal.” Mbugua says Ndingi could not stand to see people suffer, and ending their pain became his life’s mission. He took on their oppressors without flinching. “He went full throttle and never shied away from confronting the provincial administration and the police.”
A diminutive man, Ndingi always tried to avoid conflict – except when there was grave wrong doing and he had all the facts with him. “Then he was impossible to deal with. If he had all the information regarding a particular situation, he could be relentless in his quest for a resolution,” Gichure says.
The facts could not have presented themselves any clearer than the rising death toll and wanton destruction of property during the skirmishes of 1992. Yet, the Archbishop never really used the facts to incite people against the authorities, those who now speak for him say. Ndingi jumps into the conversation, his mind clearly off tangent. “Tell them to ask me anything…anything…. as the archbishop I will answer without fear… and if they want a new bishop in Moshi they can consult me…” he starts only to be gently reminded that he is now retired.
“Oh,” he says and breaks out into a warm laugh. “So the bishop of Moshi…” he continues a couple of minutes later then goes silent. Ndingi was the most prominent Roman Catholic clergyman in post-independent Kenya’s long struggle for democracy in the 1980s and 1990s.
That is why his supposed capitulation to the State rankles the Church, who have discounted reports that the luxurious Mercedes and Subaru cars he received as archbishop were an inducement to silence him. “And let us once and for all do away with the car rumours… the vehicles were bought for him by church members. They were not gifts from politicians,” says Mbugua, his kindly eyes regarding the former head of the Catholic Church in Kenya.