Obituary

Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki: A cow, angry sisters & the ribbon of dreams

Archbishop will be buried at the Holy Family Basilica when mourners have been restricted from funerals

Bishop Emeritus: Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki only went to school to save his father from paying the local chief one cow as fine.

By Undercover Reporter

When he became a Catholic priest, it was common for boys from poor families to seek spiritual and creature comforts in church: Three square meals, nice houses, Parish cars, a cellar with choice whiskies.  

Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, lithe and diminutive, died at 89 on March 3 at Clergy House, Nairobi.

Catholic bishops are buried at the Cathedral of the Diocese where they served. Being the Bishop Emeritus of Nairobi, Ndingi’s will be buried at the Holy Family Basilica.

There, he will join in death, John Njenga, Bishop Emeritus of Mombasa. A bishop can write a will expressing his final resting place. Bishop Njenga chose Nairobi which was how he ended up at the special crypt at the Basilica in November 2018.

Priests and nuns, on the other grim hand, are buried at the St Austin’s Cemetery in Msongari, Nairobi.

Long illness, it was for Ndingi, that saw him being fed and cleaned by Sister Teresia, shuffling him from bed to wheelchair at the tail end of his life. Failing health, the vagaries of old age had pared his memory.

 Lapses in speech here, weak of body there, the man who rose from the backwaters of Kwa Nzeki village (named after him) in Mwala, Machakos County to head the Catholic Church in Kenya was, however, strong in faith to the end.

Stripped down to his bare essentials, Ndingi was a clergyman who stood up to power, spoke for Christ and country. Often going against the grain, he ordained a semi-literate Catechist, Joseph M’lengera to priesthood bypassing the mandatory seven years in the Seminary. Mobility is essential to priestly duties, but Ndingi had no qualms ordaining the physically challenged Fr Patrick Lang’at. Just as he had no heartburn opposing condoms use in HIV/Aids ravaged Africa, or backing the Opus Dei.

The title, His Eminence, Raphael Cardinal Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki, eluded him

In the fog of the season’s end: The last years of his life were spent being shuffled from bed to wheelchair, memory failing, but Archbishop Ndingi was still strong of spirit.

While bishops wore black cassocks during their obligatory ad limina apostolorum (to the threshold of the Apostles) pilgrimage to the Vatican every five years, the November 1976 visit saw Ndingi spotting white soutanes reserved for the Pontiff “Vatican was too hot for black” he argued, surprising Pope Paul VI.

He also dispensed with the purple zucchetto (bishopric skullcap) common among bishops here for a four-cornered one gifted to him by an Ethiopian priest.

It represented the African spirit and the reason he challenged the church to fashion itself along the mores of its time and have space for African traditions and customs in the liturgy.

For Ndingi, the gospel of liberation also extended to the State respecting and upholding individual freedoms.

He retired, after 50 years of episcopacy, but as an archbishop. Quite unlucky the title, His Eminence, Raphael Cardinal Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki, eluded him.

Burying prominent Kenyans will be tricky when social distancing is the safest route of escaping Mbagathi Hospital

Burial during quarantine: Because of the pandemic that has altered our lives, the burial of Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki at the Holy Family Basilica in Nairobi will star only 100 mourners.

Those in the Catholic know, the bishops, the priests, often whispered when the brandy entered the capillaries, that Ndingi deserved it more than John Cardinal Njue, the chain smoker who prefers driving himself, whose luck lay in being college mates in Italy with the Papal Nuncio to Kenya at the time.  

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Alas! Ndingi’s death happened when a pandemic now ravaging the world has reduced funerals to 15 people. Indeed, burying prominent Kenyans will be tricky when social distancing is the safest route of escaping a medical sojourn at Mbagathi Hospital to nurse a dry cough, flu, fatigue, fever, breathing difficulties.

Catholic, once the dominant denomination in Kenya, is playing second fiddle to the Pentecostals

Ndingi’s funeral will be attended by about 100 mourners. The faithful under house arrest, partial lockdown, will follow proceeding in a tele-funeral.

Sparsely attended burials of the prominent are not the only changes in Ndingi’s 89 years on mother earth.

The retired archbishop of Nairobi has died when mainstream churches like the Roman Catholic are struggling to find boys shrugging off blighting poverty for the priesthood.

Actually, Catholic, once the dominant denomination in Kenya, is playing second fiddle to the Pentecostals, according to the 2019 Census.

Majority of faithful from mainstream churches long found spiritual homes in prosperity gospel churches. There, the service features hypnotic music from the devotional team which Ndingi told the National Catholic Reporter in 2004 that “there is too much dancing and emotion, usually without a moment of reflection.”

Prosperity gospel churches are hippy, rooted on the trends favoured by Millennials

First Family: Uhuru Kenyatta’s son, Jomo, married Fiona Achola in a Kikuyu traditional ceremony. The Kenyattas are front-pew Catholics. Archbishop Ndingi saw no qualms in couples who wed traditionally receiving the Holy Communion.

Then there is the animated preaching centred on ‘felt needs’ of the congregants, ranging from urban squalor, domestic strife, search for the meaning of life. The sermon, prosperity gospel driven, is normally delivered by the lead preacher going by various names including Prophet, Apostle, Pastor.

He is most likely the founder of the church with his wife as treasurer, and the preaching skirts scaring the congregants with fire and brimstone in hell.

Ndingi argued such sermons and churches “lack worship, their communion is for everyone, they bring people from all over Nairobi in buses for worship, but we don’t do that, the Catholic Eucharist is for the select who are prepared, not everyone.”

 Prosperity gospel churches are hippy, rooted on the trends favoured by Millennials like online services, a pastor on Instagram. This is quite unlike mainstream churches and their centuries old habits, hymnals sang in drawls, preaching devoid of theatrics and pegged on bearded Old Testament prophets.

Ndingi thought, 16 years ago, that these evangelicals are popular because “they come out forcefully, but they don’t seem to keep their stamina. They seem to burn out quickly.”

To break the news, Ndingi sourced the traditional kamba beer, kalovo, for the Old Guy and his friends

The jury is still out, but so much has changed since Ndingi became a priest.

At the time in the 1950s, chiefs fined parents one cow for not taking, at least, one child in the family to school. Ndingi, last born of five children, began schooling to save his blacksmith father, Ngila Nzeki, from the fine.

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But he later had no clue his son was studying for the priesthood at the Kibosho and At Thomas Aquinas Senior Seminaries both in Tanzania before a teaching stint at a Junior Seminary in Kiserian enroute to John Fisher College in New York, USA.

To break the news, Ndingi sourced the traditional kamba beer, kalovo, for the Old Guy and his friends. Then he broke the news which signaled that the supply of grandchildren would come from his sisters, as we are informed in, A voice Unstilled, the 2009 memoirs of Ndingi by Waithaka Waihenya and Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia.

When I was ordained, it appeared strange for an African not to have his own family, not married, there must be something wrong with him

No haffi dread: When hard headed politician Koigi wa Wamwere, then without dreadlocks, was jailed by the Kanu regime, Archbishop Ndingi employed his wife, Jane Nduta, on condition he would sack her upon his release. He did just that when Koigi was freed!

His sisters, Veronica, Ann and Teresia were furious; kicking a noisy storm the Old Guy chased them away. If the going got tough, Ndingi promised to return home, after all, he was a trained P3 teacher and would have had no problems fetching a cutie Kamba wife, give his tata grandchildren.

But the priesthood was a calling and 1961 he got married to the church, first serving as an assistant priest in Makadara Parish, Nairobi.

“When I was ordained, it appeared like a strange thing, very strange. For an African not to have his own family, not married, there must be something wrong with him,” he recalled in 2004, but  today, like in the times of the bad Popes at the Vatican in centuries gone by, most priests, bishops, cardinals even, have families, chini ya maji.

Catholic priests shot dead by military generals when caught naked with their wives at some devil hours

In the early days after Kenya’s independence in 1963, scandals centred on men of God were rare and far between, or if they happened, were kept under wraps.

By the time Ndingi died, it was not uncommon for Catholic priests to be shot dead by military generals when caught naked with their wives at some devil hour.

 Lust, gluttony, greed, envy, pride, wrath and sloth-the seven deadly sins, had long found refuge in church through the front door; it is common for priests to plot the murder of fellow priests over Parish money and women.

The bottomless kitty of the church is such that ‘the poor shall inherit the earth’ has been left to congregants; the moral voice of the church having long been drowned by the unholy shenanigans from the Vicars of Christ. In fact, one Catholic priest who impregnated a nun and left the priesthood really stressed Ndingi to a point of endlessly trying to separate them despite the Catholic Father’s domestic zeal to be a father of his own brood.

Ndingi has died at the wrong time, a pandemic almost decimating the planet like the floods in the time of Noah. How will he be remembered?

He singled himself out as quite fearless, sticking his wiry neck out during the dark days when Kenya was a police state

Sheath it, brother: Stanley Ngara, the ‘King of Condoms’ distributing to likely users. Archbishop Ndingi, despite HIV/Aids ravaging Africa, opposed their use in fighting the scourge.

Well, as the clergyman who stood up and spoke truth to the government of founding President Jomo Kenyatta when Ndingi became the first African Bishop of Machakos Diocese in 1969- the year Tom Mboya was assassinated and Central Kenya were forced into rampant secret oathing to ensure the presidency did not cross River Chania during the ensuing political unrest over the death.

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Few dared mention the incidents, but the brave, wiry lion from Mwala did lash out against the muma (oath).

That was said to have led to his transfer to Christ the King Cathedral as Bishop of the Nakuru Diocese in 1971, his abode for the next two decades when he singled himself out as quite fearless, sticking his wiry neck out during the dark days when Kenya was a police state under the ignoble Kanu regime of God fearing President, the late unlamented, Daniel arap Moi.

That Ndingi often criticized Moi whose home was in Kabarak, Nakuru County was quite daring.

 He was a thorn in the flesh, calling out the idiocy of the Mlolongo voting system in 1988 and cover up of the 1992 ethnic cleansing masquerading as land clashes in Molo, his jurisdiction which he crisscrossed in his old Peugeot.

That car sent tongues wagging when the late politician and billionaire businessman Njenga Karume, a devout Catholic, gifted Ndingi a brand new Mercedes when he was appointed archbishop of Nairobi to replace Maurice Cardinal Otunga in 1997.

From Peugeot to a Mercedes, the symbol of secular opulence, appeared at variance with the man who appeared to wear genteel poverty with the flare of a social justice crusader, which he was.

The church, for ages the alternative Opposition is now a toothless political lap dog, sympathizers of the State, spiritual guns for hire

Mlolongo massive: Kenyans queued behind preferred candidates in 1988 when those with the shortest queues winning. Archbishop Ndingi called out the bluff when assassinations were options in political management.

Ndingi kept the Mercedes, parking it at his church provided house, Luna Gardens in Muthangari, Lavington where he enjoyed his daily afternoon swims, mostly the backstroke because mens sana in corpore sano ( a healthy mind in a healthy body).

But wasn’t accepting the Mercedes the same as the current breed of clergy who have turned churches into markets for politicians to launder looted funds?

 The church, for ages the alternative Opposition is now a toothless political lap dog, sympathizers of the State, spiritual guns for hire.

Besides standing up to power without being assassinated like Fr Anthony Kaiser and Bishop Alexander Muge, Ndingi will also be remembered for arguing that condom use increased the spread of HIV/Aids, leaving mouths gaping.

“Condoms are available on request, costing nothing,” he explained. “In this country, to provide a young person, a young Kenyan, with a condom is a license. It’s like saying, ‘my son or daughter, you are free. And they do it.” Ndingi pushed for abstinence as “it was guaranteed insurance, it cost nothing and had no side effects.”

Ndingi also supported Opus Dei, the secretive Catholic Order which has for ages drawn unfounded suspicions as an aloof club of the loaded for its exaggerated but not overtly advertised way of doing things.

The man who lived to the motto Mwamini Mungu si Mtovu (One who believes in God lacks nothing), will be buried on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Raphael Simon Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki, may you lack nothing in that land where no traveler returns: Thi useo, mwa!

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