The late Archbishop John Joseph Njenga built not only physical structures, but he was himself an institution. For five decades, he spearheaded the construction of several edifices including Waumini House in Westlands, Sacred Heart Cathedral Eldoret and St Mary’s Teacher Training College, Bura-Taita.
He will also be remembered for the pivotal role he played in negotiations between the Church and the government, leading to the 1968 Education Act. The bone of contention was management of schools founded by the churches and whose transfer to the government looked like a hostile takeover.
The cleric represented the Catholic Church, which as a faith-based organisation, had founded the largest number of schools and Dr Gikonyo Kiano, then Education minister, championed the government position. After protracted and difficult negotiations, it was agreed that the ministry takes over management and the Church was guaranteed several rights as school sponsors.
The prelate also sought funds to support needy learners. Early in his priestly work at Our Lady of the Visitation Makadara, he had been struck by the rising number of jobless youth.
To address this challenge, he partnered with several well-wishers and organisations to set up centres such as Edelvale Home. He received the support of many religious sisters organisations coordinated by Sr Dr Marie Theresa Gacambi, then superior of the Assumption Sisters of Nairobi.
Beneficiaries of the archbishop’s efforts in education have organised themselves to form the Archbishop Njenga Alumni Group. The group’s chairperson, Ms Pauline Sisa, reports that their organisation has over 500 members, with four chapters in Kenya and a fifth one comprising the diaspora.
During his time of service, he focused on raising literacy levels and enhancing enrolment, transition and completion in relevant education programmes.
His other passion was provision of healthcare. To attain this, he trained personnel and also sought material and human resource from outside the country. In the mid-70s, he invited the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters, a Nigerian foundation that specialises in healthcare, to serve in far-flung parts of the Eldoret Diocese.
When he was transferred to Mombasa, he founded the congregation of Sisters of Mary Mother of God to serve in education, counselling and community service.
In retirement, Archbishop Njenga settled at Queen of Apostles Seminary Ruaraka and volunteered his services to several parishes. An avid and competitive lawn tennis player even in his 70s and 80s, he continued to be generous with his expertise and experience in matters education and counselling.
This writer recalls that three years ago, he granted an interview to Simon Ndung’u, a PhD candidate I was supervising, who sought information on the 1968 Education Act. Though ailing, the cleric was ready for a one-hour interview and became so animated as he re-lived the past that the session spilled to two hours.
As the student and I prepared to leave, he stopped us. “It’s lunch time. You can’t leave without eating,” he declared. My protests were useless.
After the meal, he said: “Weren’t you in a hurry to leave? Quick! Be on your way now. It’s time for my siesta.” Before I could find a proper comment, it was clear that the conversation was over.
Fr Njoroge, a priest of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, teaches Development Studies and Ethics at JKUAT, [email protected]