“For the courageous peace makers who risk scorn, fear and harm to build a better world.”
Bishop Cornelius Korir may have penned these opening lines in his book: Amani Mashinani (Peace at the Grassroots), as a dedication to others, but, unwittingly, he may have been describing himself.
For Bishop Korir, the prelate of Eldoret Diocese who died on October 30, was perhaps the only clergyman in Kenya’s history for whom peace could have been his middle name.
While the Bomet-born bishop was celebrated for expanding the Catholic Church in the North Rift, what stands out in his 27 years of episcopal ministry is his role in building bridges and seeking reconciliation.
He believed that the best way to keep the peace in the north was to bring development to people.
“We dug two dams in East Pokot, and donors came in to utilise River Lelan, which is shared by the two Pokots and Marakwet,” he told Nation in a past interview.
The developments at Lelan in West Pokot have since become the shining torch in Bishop Korir’s peace-keeping ministry.
“The foundation, run by the American billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates, helped put up milk cooling plants, which made Pokots and Marakwets concentrate on milk production,” said the Bishop.
His efforts saw the fighting stop with Lelan becoming a leading producer of milk with an average of up to 20,000 litres daily.
But while bringing prosperity to the Pokot and Marakwet neighbours remains an enduring milestone in his life, Bishop Korir may have reached the pinnacle of his peace-making call when he came face to face with the post-election violence of 2007-08.
At the height of the violence which erupted after the disputed election of 2007, Bishop Korir literally blocked some armed youth who were baying for the blood of women and children fleeing the skirmishes.
At one point the cathedral in Eldoret, the headquarters of the see and the seat of the bishop, hosted up to 10,000 Internally Displaced People in the church compound.
“In 2008, I had to go from location to location bringing people together and our major rallying point was to call for a ceasefire that would allow farmers to plant as it was the planting season. We were planting and talking,” he recalled.
The fourth born child of the late Athanas Arap Tamason and the late Blandina Chepkoech, Cornelius Korir was born on July 6 in 1950 at Segutiet Village of Bomet in Kericho Diocese.
Initially, his parents resisted his decision to join the church but he defied all odds and braved the 46 kilometre return journey to attend mass at the Mill Hill Missionaries, Kaplong Mission, at least once a month.
It is here that the young Korir met Fr Joseph Casser, a Mill Hill Missionary, who encouraged him to join the minor seminary after completing his basic education.
He would later attend Mother of Apostles Minor Seminary, Eldoret, completing his secondary education in 1975 before proceeding to St Augustine Major Seminary in Bungoma to pursue a Diploma in Philosophy and Religious Studies.
In 1982, Bishop Korir joined St Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary, Nairobi, for another Diploma in Theology and in 1989 he attained a Masters degree in Sacred Theology from St Patrick College, Maynooth in Ireland.
His Church work began when he was ordained a priest on November 6, 1982 by Rt Rev Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki and posted to Nakuru Diocese.
It is here that, he began his peace mission while serving as a priest in Molo and Kituro parishes. He took over the diocese of Eldoret from Bishop John Njenga when he was appointed to head it by Pope John Paul II on April 27, 1990.
Bishop Korir’s book has some of the most chilling episodes in a missionary’s work. An example is when in 1997 he visited Endo in Marakwet at the height of the battles between the Marakwet and the Pokot communities.
“We were having tea. Suddenly a shootout broke out. When fighting finally died down, we found many dead people lying on the ground and numerous others injured. We provided first aid and helped take casualties to the hospital,” says he says in his book.
The incident served as an eye opener and a wake-up call for the young bishop who promptly begun holding a series of peace meetings to bring the warring communities together.
In 2015, Bishop Korir managed to bring together leaders from the banditry prone counties in the North Rift for peace caravans where they traversed the battle fields preaching calm, patience and tolerance.
The peace meetings dubbed peace caravans brought together governors, MPs, Members of the County Assembly (MCAs), religious and opinion leaders from Baringo, Turkana, West-Pokot and Samburu counties.
“He was an unsung hero whose selfless actions touched many lives. With his passing on, humankind is the poorer,” said chairman of the council of governors Josphat Nanok.
Former Industrialisation Minister Henry Kosgey recalled how Bishop Korir comforted him after he was named by the International Criminal Court as one of the six individuals suspected of having been the masterminds of the 2007/2008 post-election violence.
Former US Ambassador to Kenya Michael Ranneberger paid tribute to Bishop Korir who he described as a hero and patriot.
For his peace-building efforts, Bishop Korir was in 2006 awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear by President Mwai Kibaki. He had earlier earned the Milele Lifetime Award from the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
In 2012, Moi University conferred upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters.
Until his death, Bishop Korir was the Chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) and the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC). He was also the chairman of the interfaith communities under the umbrella of the Dialogue Reference Group (DRG) which comprises top leadership of the Catholic Church, National Council of Churches in Kenya, Supreme Council of Kenya Muslim, National Muslim Leaders Forum, Hindu Council of Kenya, Evangelical Alliance of Kenya, Organization African Instituted Churches, Seventh Day Adventist and the Shia Ithna-Asheri.
It is under these auspices that Bishop Korir was in the forefront of calling for a credible election in 2017. In the run up to the August 8 General Election, he summoned leaders from the North Rift and urged them to be careful with their utterances to guard against dividing the country.
“He reminded us of the 2007/2008 events and told us to ensure the region does not go back there,” said Jackson Mandago, the Uasin Gishu governor.
Before his death, bishop Korir was agitating for county governments in conflict prone regions to set aside budgets for peace building, calling on them to come up with alternative income generating activities for pastoralists to pave the way for sustainable peace.
In his book, Bishop Korir warns that land remains an emotive issue in the North Rift and suggests that the government deals with Agenda Four of the national accord, which deals with issues of land and inclusivity.