IN 1958 racial tensions were running high in Kenya, a black African nation ruled by whites.
The powder-keg atmosphere was made even more explosive because Africans were split into 40 separate tribes; some, long-standing enemies. A state of emergency was in force, the legacy of the Mau Mau rebellion which began in the early 1950s and took more than 10,000 lives, most of them black Africans; thousands more went to detention camps. In Nairobi most native Africans were servants; few were seen
On the streets; none drove cars. In the classrooms of upper Secondary schools there were no native Africans. But what the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, would describe “the winds of change” were already blowing fiercely in Africa.
“We came to Kenya with our project, the first multi-racial college in East Africa, something for all the races and for all religions,” recalled Father Joseph Gabiola, Opus Del’s first priest in the country. “We feared the authorities would say:
‘What do you mean? This cannot be. Are you mad?”
The main obstacle was racism. Blocks of land in Nairobi, were generally for Europeans, Africans or Asians. Few could be used for the new college. The land, members of Opus Dei found, was in a European residential area and the neighbours objected. “Officially they objected because they did not want a school in the neighbourhood,” Father Gabiola said. “But everybody knew the real reason was that the school would have black Africans. There was a meeting in one of the rooms of the local council and we had to go along to answer some questions. There was a huge crowd of whites outside and the thing became quite hot. I don’t know why, but the whites were all abusing us. It was in all the newspapers, front page. And in the end they won. We lost the land.”
As it turned out losing the first battle was providential. Another block of land was found in Strathmore Road (now Mzima Springs Rd). This time there was no room for complaint—it was adjacent to three European schools.
The goal was to build a boarding school which would bridge the gap between secondary and university. Previously native Kenyans had to leave the country to get a higher education. ‘There was a big gap there,” Father Gabiola explained. “The aim was to create something to train the students in many areas: academic, human and, for those who wanted it, religious.”
After the land problem came financial problems. The first principal, David Sperling, and teacher, Kevin O’Byrne, took the brave step of starting the main building before all the money was raised. The students were all poor so it was useless looking there for help. The colonial government gave some money, some was raised through mortgages but it was not enough; so David Sperling set off for Europe and America in search of benefactors.
When the money problem was under control critics predicted the project would be a disaster anyway. A friend of Father Gabiola, a religious, warned him: “Its going to be a failure because you will not get the students.”
“But,” Father Gabiola said, “we were determined that, with the grace of God, it would work”. David sperling and Kevin O’Byrne travelled the country looking for students to put their faith in an institution that did not yet exist, and they were successful.
“When he heard of it, my friend said: ‘Of course you will have Africans, but you will not have Europeans. And Asians, you will not have Asians.’ Later I was able to tell him: ‘We have found an Asian student.’ His reaction was: ‘Very good, very good, you will have one.’ And then the Europeans wanted to come, through friendship because by this time we had many friends, and so it continued on.”
In the early days conditions at Strathmore were primitive. The college was surrounded by bush which ran down into the Nairobi River valley. As students arrived all that could be seen over the maize in front of the new school was the boxes they carried on their heads. The land was infested with cobras. One day a leopard paid a visit, followed by a hyena which chased a student up one of the pillars at the entrance to the main building.
More formidable than the physical environment were the racial barriers. These were not restricted to differences between black and white: some tribes had less in common with each other than with the Europeans.
Father Gabiola remembered the scene on the first night:
“They had told us the African students would be jumping through the windows, all kinds of things. We were full of wonder at what was going to happen. The first night I was out in the garden he opened his eyes wide in imitation of someone watching in anticipation and then broke into laughter: “But everything was silent. Everybody was studying.”
Potential racial tensions were neutralised by Strathmore’s family atmosphere, an approach inspired by the words of Opus Dei’s founder: “We are brothers, children of the same Father, God. So there is only one colour, the colour of the children of God. And there is only one language, the language which speaks to the heart and to the mind, without the noise of words, making us know God and love one another.”
The college shield carried three hearts and the motto was ‘ut omnes unum sint”, may they all be one. In a homily at the first Mass at Strathmore on a temporary altar, Fr. Gabiola first spoke of Strathmore as a family home. He remembered the surprise on the faces of students: “It was, I believe, a very bold thing to aim at, especially considering the large variety of races, tribes, nationalities and even religions, both among the students and the teachers. It could have been taken as a beautiful thought, as a figure of sj or. as an empty dream, but it was taken in earnest, and all responded.”
The response was seen in practical things. When one of the first students, Gabriel Mukele, arrived with only one set of clothes, the other students fitted him out with ties, socks and shirts and David Sperling donated his old school suit. Despite .these gifts Gabriel felt he was too poor to continue.
He decided to drop out and take a job; but David Sperling talked him out of it; he arranged holiday jobs so Gabriel could earn enough to get by.
Integration influenced all aspects of college life. No room was occupied by students of a single race or region. The teachers’ rooms were alongside students’ rooms. Meals were served at tables of six: a teacher, a European and African students and so on.
One of the early residents, Jacob Kimengich, remembered:
“At meal time I found myself sitting at the same table with the principal and, of course, the other teaching staff were also there; and we were eating the same food. This was drastically different from my boarding school days where the food and accommodation was not shared at all. In those days who could think of eating the same food with a Mzungu, leave alone sitting at the same table and sharing the same residential building. It was totally unexpected.”
Another early student, Wilfred Kiboro, reflected: “A tradition started in Strathmore from the very beginning that everyone’s opinion, belief, custom, colour, creed was respected. We were taught to be mindful of one another and considerate. Students were encouraged to assist each other whenever possible. Hard work was a way of life.
.“Another tradition I recall was respect for individual freedom. We had no written rules, no prefects or class monitors, no general supervised study. One was given the responsibility to exercise his individual freedom: to study in his own time, and to manage his life generally. I think this is one of the traditions that truly distinguishes Strathmore from similar institutions. It was in my two years there that I came to feel that I was really accountable for my actions, not because there were rules, but because a certain standard of excellence was expected of me. If I failed to achieve it, I could only blame myself.”
Even today Strathmore is believed to be the only institution in Kenya without prefects or written rules. The philosophy was spelt out to teachers at the school thus:
“Show a man you trust him and sooner or later he will respond to that trust, Leave a person free to act and he will usually act in a responsible manner; if he does not act responsibly, then patiently show him how he was wrong and leave him free to act again.”
Strathmore continued to break social conventions with Kenya’s first interracial rugby team. The Africans had never played before because rugby was a white man’s game; the new team did not go up noticed. The first match was recorded in The East African Standard on June 8 under the headline: First Multi-racial Rugby Team Makes Debut; and in the Sunday Nation on June 11, 1961, under the headline:. An Experiment on the Rugby Field. The news reached as far south as Johannesburg, with the Johannesburg Stars carrying an action photograph of the Strathmore team entitled: Study in Black and White Rugby.
The experiment forced students at Strathmore to confront hidden prejudices. “The hooker in our team was white and the props were both big African fellows,” Father Gabiola explained. “After the first training session, the hooker came and said: ‘I don’t want to play.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. He did not want to say, but eventually he whispered: ‘I don’t want to be with the Africans so close together.’ Father Gabiola burst into laughter: ‘Well, it was there, the mentality was there. And it was something we had to overcome. And we did overcome it.” . .
It was not long before 80 per cent of Strathmore’s students were being accepted at university. The college gained an international reputation, attracting students from all over English speaking Africa as well as from Rwanda and Zaire. It branched out, opening a school of accountancy in 1966, a lower secondary school in 1978 and a primary school in 1987.
Some current residents of Strathmore spoke about their experience. Matthew Ndegwa, who came to Strathmore in 1979, now works for the government as a civil engineer and is a co-operator of Opus Dei.
“Opus Dei taught me how to get my priorities right, to do first things first and to persevere with something to the very end, to carry out my duties,” he said. “I am the first born son of a family of 12. In my country a first born son must give a good example for the others. He should also use his money to help the others, to help pay for the education of the younger ones which takes more than a third of my salary. The spiritual life Opus Dei introduced me to makes it easier to cope with the 24 hours of the day. It opens up my mind to my responsibilities and helps me not to ignore them.”
Boniface Ngarachu, a teacher of accountancy at Strathmore, came there as a student in 1977. Already a Catholic when he arrived, he said he had learnt at Strathmore about the value of work, something he wanted to pass on to other people: “the idea that through work you can do something for your country, for your family, and your soul and that you can turn it into a prayer”.
“There is also something else that has struck me,” Boniface said. “Perhaps something that was very personal. I had many friends when I went to Strathmore, including girl friends, and .when I talked to the priest I talked about them. Normally one shys away, but I felt 1 could tell him everything and I realised there was more in friendship. I realised there was something noble in it.”
More than half the population of Kenya is Christian; about one third of them, Catholic. The population has been growing faster than any other country in the world, though only about 18 per cent of land is arable. Most native Kenyans still live on small farm settlements struggling to raise livestock and crops or working part time on the properties of wealthy landowners.
As you drive out of Nairobi you quickly come to tea and coffee plantations where native Africans labour all day under the sun to earn a modest wage. The women in particular have a hard lot. You see them struggling along the side of the road under huge loads. Further inland where the countryside is dryer, hotter, dustier, where the earth has to be worked hard before it will give even the most meager returns, life is harder still. Many black Africans there live in thatched huts on bare earth floors as their people done for centuries. They are nomads, continually migrating with their livestock and their few worldly possessions in search of grazing land and water.
For those who move to the city, it is a difficult transition. Regular work schedules, the faster pace and the impersonal way of life are difficult to adjust to. And there is the problem of the unequal sharing of wealth. The extent of this problem was brought home to me while traveling on a ratty old bus from the airport into Nairobi. It was’ not a bus that whites normally used. All the passengers were blacks.
From the bus you could see the shanty houses and claustrophobic housing developments where poor blacks lived. The little free land in these areas, including traffic islands, was used for sambas (the traditional Kenyan vegetable patch). The sea of faces waiting at each bus stop grew as you approached the city centre until there seemed to be hundreds of men, women and children trying to get on. It was a Saturday morning and on the footpaths you saw row after row of wretched stalls, sometimes consisting of as little as a few used vinyl belts on a piece of old cloth.
On the other side of town where the whites and wealthy blacks lived, things were different. The houses were impressive, even by the standards of developed countries. They were large and airy, the gardens pleasant, the driveways long and the hedges high. It is this contrast between rich and poor which Kenya must fight to overcome.
So far the country has managed to avoid the major political or social upheavals of other African nations; but there are no guarantees about the future. Security can only come with social justice and a national spirit which avoids large class distinctions. An essential part of social justice as it is promoted by Catholic moral teaching—and therefore by Opus Dei—is the free action of individuals. The Church’s teaching recognises that good structures can never be enough to ensure social harmony and justice. No matter how good structures are, corrupt and selfish individuals can defeat them. On the other hand good citizens can succeed in making even a society with faulty structures work, the injustice of the system being counteracted by the spirit of individuals.
Over lunch in Nairobi I spoke with Wilson Kalunge, an assistant manager with an oil company and a member of Opus Dei. “One of the things which attracted me to Opus Dei was that here were people from other countries, but people who had a lot more• concern for the development of this country than many of us. It was clear these people were the way they were because of the formation they had received. In Opus Dei I have learned that unless Kenyans become more concerned about the development of others some will end up wealthy while others among their countrymen are left far behind, struggling to survive. Either we accept our duties or we will end up with a classed society.”
Patrick Mwaniki, a maths and physics teacher at Strathmore College, told me before he met Opus Dei his goals were a high salary, a big house, a good car and a comfortable lifestyle. “Now for me these are not the important things,” he said. “They are only means and not ends in themselves. In Opus Dei I have found your ambitions change to what
– you can do for people and society, not what you can do for yourself.” Patrick said at school he had been involved in the Young Christian Association, debating and wild life societies and had ambitions of getting into politics. He said he found those ambitions fulfilled in the work he was now doing with youth. “I feel I am having a real impact on society this way. Through the tutorial system at Strathmore you really get to know the students as individuals. I have had cases of boys labelled write-off and in the space of two years I have seen at least three of these ‘write offs’ completely reformed. That is satisfying. ‘e of two years I have seen at least three of these ‘write offs’ completely reformed. That is satisfying.’’
Kianda Secretarial College, the first multi-racial educational centre for women in East Africa, is another project of members of Opus Dei in Nairobi. In the beginning there were only 17 students and they were all European. When the first application came from an Asian girl, the neighbours refused to consent. Again there was the problem of finding non segregated land. A site was eventually found on Waiyaki Way, 10 kilometres outside the centre of Nairobi, and Kianda became the first integrated secretarial college for women in the country. The fact was heavily publicised. One newspaper article said if anyone saw girls of different colours walking on the streets together they could be sure they were from Kianda College.
The often hostile reaction made life difficult; but racial discrimination was not the only pressure Kianda had to deal with; there was the question of sexual discrimination. In the early 1960s most African women, if they had jobs at all, had the worst; they were poorly paid; their living conditions and clothes were poor; the fees for a secretarial course were more than they could afford. Kianda was able to talk large firms into establishing a system of sponsorships. The new opportunity enabled the girls to find a career for themselves and to help support their often poverty-stricken families and clans. When independence came in 1963 Kianda was the only college training Africans.
Kianda has similar aims to Strathmore and has faced similar challenges. In 1966 it started a residential college for students who were new to Nairobi and had nowhere to stay. The more than 5000 students who have passed through came frclm all over East Africa, Ethiopia, Zambia, Sudan, Nigeria, Lesotho and Rwanda. Up to 17 nations have been represented at any one time, moving Kenya’s Sunday Nation newspaper to comment in 1980: “Today the pan-African status of Kianda is a model for other African countries.” In 1977 Kianda opened a high school. The Daily Nation noted in 1984 that the school took only seven years to become one of the nation’s top 10 schools.
One goal of Kianda, as with Strathmore, has been to help students overcome racial and tribal differences and to build strong characters. Students are encouraged to read widely and to improve their cultural background. Kianda’s philosophy is that Kenya needs not only secretaries with fast shorthand and typing, but mature individuals with initiative, personality and responsibility. As a principal of the college, Miss Olga Marlin, described it: “people who can run an office, not just type letters.” Some of the students have become teachers at the college. Others run businesses, such as data processing firms, shops and commercial farms.
Miss Marlin, who came to Nairobi to help establish Kianda in 1960, said Kianda did not stop at giving students a sound professional formation, but helped those who were practising Christians to improve their Christian life so that it permeated everything they did. “Monsignor Escriva often warned against the danger of separating these two aspects,” she said, “living a kind of double life, with God for Sundays and special occasions, on the one hand, one’s professional and social life, on the other.” Miss Marlin’s successor, Miss Constance Gillian, outlined some of the qualities Kianda encouraged in its students as generosity, inner strength and calmness, tenacity and positive thinking.
Given the professional training that centres of Opus Dei like Kianda provide, it is clear that Opus Dei does not seek to restrict women to the home. Asked to comment on what a woman’s mission should be Monsignor Escrivá. once said he believed there need not be any conflict between family life and social life.
“I think if we systematically contrast work in the home with outside work,” the founder of Opus Dei said, ‘retaining the old dichotomy which was formerly used to maintain that a woman’s place was in the home but switching the stress, it could easily lead, from the social point of view, to a greater mistake than that which we are trying to correct because it would be more serious if it led women to give up their work in the home.
“Even on the personal level one cannot flatly affirm that a woman has to achieve her perfection only outside the home, as if time spent on her family were time stolen from the development of her personality. The home—whatever its characteristics, because a single woman should also have a home—is a particularly suitable place for the growth of her personality. The attention she gives to her family will always be a woman’s greatest dignity. In the care she takes of her husband and children or, to put it in mote general terms, in her work of creating a warm and formative atmosphere around her, a woman fulfills the most indispensable part of her mission. And so it follows that she can achieve her personal perfection there.
“What I have just said does not go against her participating in other aspects of social life including politics. In these spheres, too, women can offer a valuable personal contribution, without neglecting their special feminine qualities. They will do this to the extent in which they are humanly and professionally equipped. Both family and society clearly need this special contribution, which is in no way secondary to that of men.”
I asked several women in Kenya how Opus Dei had influenced their lives. One, Mrs. Zipporah Wandera, had been an advocate of the High court of Kenya. Her appointment as the first female Assistant Town Clerk of Nairobi created attention in the local press: in Africa women have generally been restricted in public life. Mrs. Wandera, a convert to Catholicism and a member of Opus Dei, spoke in her office surrounded by books, papers and the offices of her male counterparts.
“In my job I have to deal with departmental heads and there are often difficulties,” she said. “There are always politicians who are disgruntled because of the way you do things or because you do not want to do what they ask. African men tend to think very little of a woman’s opinion. It is the way they are brought up. But the spiritual direction I have received gives me courage to stand up to people, even my bosses and if I think they are wrong I tell them.
“That is not to say that Opus Dei gets involved in my professional life. Opus Dci gives me spiritual formation and helps me to broaden my knowledge of Christian teaching but never tells me how I should solve any problem I have come across in my job. In fact, interference is something I have never heard of in Opus Dei and that is why I feel at home with it.
Mrs. Irene Njai grew up in a rural area, but won a scholarship to study social work in Italy. She became a social worker, but when we met she was working as an airline ticketing officer because she said she could not bring herself to accept government policy promoting contraception.
“When I met up with Opus Dei I learnt about turning your work into prayer. I had been a Catholic so long, nobody had ever told me about this. I was told you should pray, but never that work could be turned into prayer; that you could say, I offer this work from eight to 10 o’clock to God for such and such a thing. I felt I was being guided in a special way. It was really very beautiful.
“It isn’t only the big things you can offer to God. When someone comes through the door at the office I think well here is a Son of God, there is a soul in this person and I try to help that person as best I can. Sometimes you will see a customer who looks very much irritated and tired and maybe frightened and you smile and you can change entirely the whole attitude of that person.
“Of course, we will never reach perfection, but little things pieced together produce something very nice. And I think this concept turns the day into something one looks forward to. To someone who has no concept of this, the day does not have this meaning. The day can be something that one dreads, as I used to dread it before. When one discovers that work is not a tragedy, it is a joy, it changes your life.
“Another thing I am grateful to Monsignor Escriva for is this idea of marriage as a vocation. For example, his praise for human love. I have never heard it from anybody else.
I had read quite a lot of books before I came to Opus Dei, but I never came across anybody who asserted marriage was a vocation as Monsignor Escrivá did. Nobody else has ever talked to me about this in the same way, showing me how to use the married life as the means for my salvation and my husband’s salvation. And also there is the idea that we are the heart of the family and we need to be at the service of other people. As Monsignor Escrivá used to say: ‘To put our hearts on the floor for the others to walk a bit more comfortably.”
The house was tiny, made from bare boards, with a tin roof and a kerosene lamp for light. Mr. Martin Ngigi and his wife, Jacinta, had invited me to dinner. Mr. Ngigi is a traditional Kenyan farmer with a two-acre shamba. He had grown most of what we ate: chicken with a maize cake called ugali and a spinach-like vegetable called sukumawiki. Mrs. Ngigi, a mother of six and a bank clerk, is a cooperator of Opus Dei.
“When I came across Opus Dei I had only two children and I had decided not to have anymore,” she told me. “But when I came into contact with Opus Dei I saw how good a Christian heart was in a big family. And I now have the four you see and I feel much happier since, so happy.”
One of the younger boys, Josemaria, 9, took this opportunity to whisper to a friend who was with me that this was how he “came to be”. “I was born in 1976,” Josemaria confided. “That was the year after Monsignor Josemaria died.”
Mrs. Ngigi continued: “I used to think working at the bank was a terrible burden and the same with housework; but it is lighter now. These days I find it, well, a lot of fun.”
Esther Lanoi Kuronoi, a member of Kenya’s Masai tribe, famous for keeping old traditions, grazing cattle and living mainly on a diet of milk mixed c blood taken from cows. As a child she had wandered the dusty plains with the people of her tribe. Nevertheless she had enough schooling to become a student at the Kibondeni School of Institutional Management, a corporate work of Opus Dei which gives girls forced by poverty to drop out of school a chance to make a career for themselves; for some it is their only chance to break away from an environment where men have six to
12 wives and where women do most of the work.
At Kibondeni, Esther had been doing the two-year course leading to the National Certificate of Institutional Management which includes nutrition, dietetics, administration and accounts, nursing, languages and sociology. She had also taken classes in religious formation provided by Opus Dei: ‘1 came to Kibondeni School two years ago,” she said. “I had always been a Catholic, but here I learnt about how to keep to a spiritual plan of life and to sanctify my work: that is offering all of your work to God.
Esther said there was no tribalism at Kibondeni. The teachers emphasised that everyone was a child of God, no matter the colour of their skin or the tribe they came from.
All the girls sat together with those of different tribes. One was from the Turkana tribe, a rival of the Masai. The two ribes had been fighting each other for a long time. At home, Esther said, she would never have been able even to talk to the other girl. “Here we tell jokes at get togethers about each other’s tribes and everyone laughs,” she said. “But we are good friends; when we leave the room, we leave holding hands…”
The experience in Kenya highlights something important about Opus Dei: why it can be controversial in some countries, but not in others. It is not because Opus Dei differs from country to country—it is always the same. The real reason is that standards of morality vary, supporting equal rights for women in the 20th Century is bound to get you into trouble in countries where women are kept out of the workplace. But ft will also attract opposition in those countries; some of them developed countries, in which women are denied the choice of being full time mothers and homemakers.
Kenya Fighting Discrimination
IN 1958 racial tensions were running high in Kenya, a black African nation ruled by whites.