Humble priest, Mwana a’Nzeki, who dared speak truth to power

Wednesday, April 1st, 2020 00:00 | By
Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki.

Noah Cheploen @cheploennoah

Bold, fearless and humble are some of the virtues that characterised the life of Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, the retired Catholic Archbishop of Nairobi, who died yesterday at the age of 89. 

Early yesterday, his successor Archbishop John Cardinal Njue broke the news that Ndingi — the man who confronted the totalitarian Kanu regime head on in 1980s and 90s — had passed on at the Nyumba Ya Wazee in Kasarani in the outskirts of Nairobi. 

“A sombre morning as His Eminence John Cardinal Njue has announced the passing on of His Grace Archbishop Emeritus Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki,” the Catholic Archdiocese of Nairobi said in a Facebook post. 

President Uhuru Kenyatta, retired President Kibaki, Deputy President William Ruto and Opposition leader Raila Odinga are some of the political leaders who paid tribute to the fallen prelate yesterday. 

In his message, the President described Ndingi as a loving and outstanding man of God whose servant leadership will be missed by Kenyans while Ruto described him as a “towering and progressive spiritual figure who relentlessly advocated for justice in our society”.

Distinguished service

“A moral enthusiast, focussed and selfless leader with enduring love for everyone, Mwana a’Nzeki was humble, persuasive and prolific; he will be fondly remembered for working for the greater good of the people of Kenya,” Ruto tweeted.

Raila described Ndingi as one of the brightest lights to have graced our nation in our time.

“Kenyans knew they could always count on him to stand and speak out for truth and justice whatever the threat that posed to his life,” the opposition chief said. 

Kibaki, who described Ndingi as a personal friend, said his death evoked a deep sense of loss and nostalgia.

“Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki leaves a legacy of exemplary service to humankind that all Christian faithful—irrespective of denomination—should emulate,” Kibaki said.

Fearless cleric

Raphael Obonyo said Ndingi was the epitome of a fearless servant leader. 

“He loved Kenya and served the people with all his heart. Ndingi’s legacy is deep and broad. His moral courage, steady and inspiring leadership will never be forgotten,” he said. 

“Rest in peace our hero, you are my father in Catholic faith and I remember you giving me confirmation name, Stephen, as my second name when I was 14 years old,” Ndirangu Macharia tweeted.

In Nakuru, where Ndingi made a name as a defender of civil liberties and human rights, particularly during the agitation for multipartism and fight for expanded political freedoms, many people remember him as a hero and a fearless cleric. 

In an article published in a local newspaper last year, Fr Lawrence Njoroge writes that since his appointment as Bishop of Machakos in 1969, Ndingi remains one of the best known church leaders in Kenya.

“He once told (President) Moi to his face the State was sponsoring ethnic cleansing in Molo where many people had been killed in ethnic clashes. ‘If I lied, may I perish,’ he said without batting an eyelid.”

“Outspoken and a household name in his heyday, Archbishop Ndingi is the quintessence of a fearless leader,” Njoroge wrote. 

Among the many battles Ndingi fought was the 1988 mlolongo (queue) voting where voters lined up behind candidates, a system which was openly abused by the State to rig in preferred candidates. Those were the days when few had the courage to oppose government edicts. 

Catholic Diocese of Nairobi Archbishop John Cardinal Njue broke the news of Archbishop Mwana a'Nzeki passing on. Photo/PD/FILE

The clergyman’s bold image was reinforced in 1992 when he exposed the plight of victims of tribal clashes in the Rift Valley.

“He became closely associated with the fight for justice, especially in the form of multiparty democracy,” Njoroge recalls.

Ndingi served in many roles and places: as assistant priest at Makadara, Nairobi, Education Secretary-General of Catholic Bishops; student at Rochester College, New York; Bishop of Machakos, later of Nakuru and finally the Archbishop of Nairobi.

In Nakuru, veteran journalist Joe Ngugi recounted the many instances where the prelate criticised President Moi’s ways of handling things.

“He was a priest who gave his life to the service of the church and community and didn’t shy away from stepping on politicians’ toes if he thought it was necessary for the greater good,” said Ngugi.

Ngugi recalls that Ndingi did not hesitate to chide the government, and President Moi in particular, for violation of human rights by the police and intolerance by politicians.

Death warrant

The cleric was one of the few religious leaders who joined opposition leaders in demanding political pluralism “at a time when doing so was like signing a death warrant.”

“A respectful straight forward talker, Bishop Ndingi was loved and loathed at the same time because of his outspokenness,” said Ngugi who covered him on many occasions.

During the 1992 ethnic clashes in the Rift Valley, Ndingi mobilised his church and well-wishers from within and around the world in rescuing the victims and offering sanctuaries in church compounds. 

“In one of his summons, Ndingi declared that no politician would be given platform in any of his churches if they continue sponsoring ethnic killing,” recalls Ngugi. 

It was believed the message was directed at President Moi who regularly attended mass at the Christ The King Cathedral in Nakuru town.

The former journalist remembers the archbishop very inquisitive, intelligent, self-less and proactive and that is why he initiated many development projects in Nakuru during his time.

“Bishop Ndingi was also a stickler for rules and a tough disciplinarian who punished wayward priests and church members firmly but fairly,” he adds. 

During his time in Nakuru, not less than 10 priests were excommunicated for being involved in scandals that tainted the image of the church. 

Nakuru Governor Lee Kinyanjui said Ndingi would be remembered as a fearless defender of the poor and underprivileged in society.  

“His work at the pulpit was characterised by a quest for justice for the voiceless, even when it meant going against the establishment,” he said.

Ndingi served as Bishop of Nakuru Catholic Diocese for 25 years from 1971-1996 after which he was appointed Archbishop of Nairobi. He retired in 2007 after attaining the mandatory age of 75 years. 

He was born December 25, 1931, in Mwala, Machakos. He joined Kiserian Seminary after completing his primary school education.

He was ordained as a priest in 1961 where he served under then-Archbishop JJ McCarthy of the Nairobi Diocese.

He was ordained as a bishop in 1969 and served in that capacity in the dioceses of Machakos and Nakuru before being appointed as co-adjutor Archbishop of Nairobi in 1996 as an assistant to Maurice Cardinal Otunga.

He succeeded Otunga on April 21, 1997, as the Archbishop of Nairobi. He was succeeded by John Cardinal Njue who was his assistant in Nakuru.

Ndingi sat for the Cambridge School Certificate privately and returned excellent results before admission to university to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree.

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