I first met Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki, the then archbishop of Nairobi, some time in 1999 as a member of a newly formed fellowship of Christian journalists.
Our group was affiliated to Gegrapha, a global fellowship of scribes. Gegrapha finds its roots in the gospel of John 19:22. It is Greek for “what I have written, I have written” which was Pontius Pilate’s response to Jewish chief priests who complained when he wrote ‘King of Jews’ on Jesus’s cross.
With veteran journalist Connie Kisuke (now a media lecturer at Daystar University) as our leader, we explained all this to an attentive Ndingi.
The meeting itself was a miracle of sorts. In forming the group, one of our objectives was to advise church leaders on how to deal with the media.
Our efforts to reach out to the men and women of the cloth were not met with the expected reciprocal enthusiasm … until we knocked on Ndingi’s doors.
A keen listener, Ndingi gave us a hearing and, at the end of it all, gave us a room free of charge to be using as an office at the Holy Family Basilica.
Meeting Ndingi face-to-face was an awesome experience because of the name the man had carved for himself in fighting for the rights of the downtrodden.
In my estimation, he fell in the same category with the then legendary Archbishop of Manila, he of the rather strange-sounding name of Jaime Cardinal Sin.
As Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his thieving clan wreaked havoc in the country, it was Cardinal Sin who became the moral compass of the nation, calling out the dictator and his equally distasteful wife Imelda Romualdez Marcos for their excesses and extravagant lifestyle. It was said that Imelda owned a wardrobe of some 1,220 pairs of shoes, earning her the nickname ‘Marie Antoinette, with shoes.’ But I digress.
Back to Ndingi. Many agree that, whereas he had served with distinction at the Diocese of Machakos, it was at the Nakuru Diocese that he was catapulted to the national limelight. Initially, Ndingi was seen as a quiet critic of President Daniel arap Moi’s administration.
With the country under a one-party rule, brave church leaders effectively kept the government in check. Ndingi was one of them and his stinging criticisms of the Kanu regime often reflected the views of his flock.
The apogee of Ndingi’s tour of duty in Nakuru was when some Kanu stalwarts, in a diabolical scheme to prove Moi’s “prophecy” that reintroduction of multipartyism would lead to civil strife, sponsored the now infamous tribal clashes in the Rift Valley that saw more than 2,000 people – mainly Kikuyus perceived to be opposition sympathisers – killed and thousands others displaced.
As these heinous crimes were taking place, the top brass of the Rift Valley provincial administration led by the Provincial Commissioner Zachary Ogongo, a man of quiet disposition who, when in a business suit, cut the image of someone who had spent a lifetime working in a bank and was never promoted, chose to look at the events with rose-tinted glasses, telling the world that all was well.
That’s when Ndingi unsheathed his claws, showing that there was more fight in the man than the diminutive body suggested.
At the height of the clashes in April 1992, Ndingi made the startling claim that unidentified lorries and helicopters were ferrying unknown people into Rikia Forest in Molo, the epicentre of the fighting.
He wondered why locals had been denied access to the forest while a civic leader regularly went there late at night. In a scripted response that the itching ears of his bosses wanted to hear, The PC denied the allegations, calling Ndingi a liar.
Ogongo claimed that the helicopter Ndingi was referring to had carried provincial security committee members on a mission to “assess destruction in the forests”.
In the ensuing falling-out, Ndingi’s fellow bishops came to his defence, with 21 of them, meeting under the aegis of the Kenya Episcopal Conference, said he was saying the truth and demanded an apology from the PC. President Moi waded into the controversy, defending Ogongo. The PC was later to apologise to Ndingi.
In 1996, Ndingi was named Coadjutor of the Archdiocese of Nairobi to serve under Maurice Cardinal Otunga, thus coming back to the same place where he started off on being ordained as a priest in 1961 after finishing his studies at Kiserian Seminary. In 1997, he succeeded Otunga.
The high profile of the Nairobi position made Ndingi more or less the head of the Catholic church. Many remember the fierce fight he waged against the distribution of condoms by health workers.
“The Catholic Church does not advocate the use of condoms under any circumstances. HIV/Aids grows so fast because of availability of condoms. When you give a young Kenyan a condom, for him or her it’s a licence for promiscuity. They think they’re protected. They’re not protected,” Ndingi often said.
Unbeknown to many of his detractors, Ndingi was actually stating the Catholic church’s official stance on condoms.
The debate later died but Ndingi earned the moniker ‘kondoom’ because of the way he pronounced the word. Ndingi was also to face some disquiet from within his church and a section of Kenyans when he accepted a gift of a brand new Mercedes Benz car, a gift from monied Central Kenya Catholic politicians.
Ndingi retired on October 6, 2007, marking the end of an illustrious career for the man who was born in Mwala, Machakos County on Christmas Day of 1931.
Till we meet at Jesus’s feet, man of God.
Joseph Mboya is a Nairobi-based journalist currently working on a book on church leaders who impacted the growth of Christianity in Kenya.