Hitting home

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posterSyracuse Diocese’s Kenyan priests discuss the unrest in their homeland

By Luke Eggleston
SUN staff writer

Two local priests found themselves in the midst of social conflagration around the holidays when they were visiting their homeland, Kenya.

Father Charles Onyango Oduke, SJ, a professor at Le Moyne College, and Father Cleophas Oseso Tuka, a parochial vicar at Holy Family Parish in Fairmount, had both returned to Kenya in order to celebrate the holidays with their families and to vote in the Dec. 27 election. Kenya’s constitution forbids absentee ballots, so citizens wishing to vote must be present in the country.

The country erupted when apparent irregularities in the election occurred. Opposition leader Raila Odinga appeared to be leading in six of Kenya’s administrative territories, while incumbent president Mwai Kibaki led in the other two. The ballots were counted in secret and when the results showed that Kibaki had won, opposition supporters expressed their frustrations through a revolt.

“When the people got signs that the election was rigged, obviously they were upset,” said Father Oduke. While he was visiting in Kenya, Father Oduke had to be quiet about his whereabouts because he feared for those he was staying with after he ruffled the government’s feathers.

First, Father Oduke celebrated a Mass at which he refused to allow a government official a chance to speak publicly. Father Oduke explained to the official, a representative of the Kibaki government, that while political issues such as social justice are permitted a voice in church, advocating for one party over another is not.

Following the election, on New Year’s Day, Father Oduke delivered a homily in which he addressed the police and asked them to refuse to shoot and kill their own countrymen.

Neither public action endeared Father Oduke to the government so he could not discuss his whereabouts with friends and other Jesuits in Central New York.

Father Tuka declined to comment on which candidate he supported prior to the election and subsequent upheaval. He said he preferred to vote according to which issues he was concerned about.

Although he grew up in Nakuru, which is located in the Rift Valley region, Father Tuka’s family lives in Nyanza in the western region of Kenya. After the election, he traveled to Nyanza to visit his family but when he attempted to return to Nakuru, he encountered significant problems as gangs stopped each passing vehicle demanding to know drivers’ ethnic identities and also extorting money.

“That day was really terrible,” said Father Tuka, an ethnic Luo. The Luo are one of the largest ethnicities in Kenya, a country that has 42 different ethnic communities. The Luo are also located in regions of Uganda and Tanzania.

At one point, a group of youths flatly refused to let Father Tuka pass and even threatened to burn his car. After he turned around, however, another youth described an alternate route to Nakuru.

Fortunately for Father Tuka, he was able to fly out of Nairobi the day before massive demonstrations took place.

Father Oduke is a native of the Kisumu region, which is active in the opposition movement. Odinga is from there as well. Father Oduke, noted that while the opposition’s revolt is unfortunate, all the government would need to do to stop the unrest would simply be to admit that there were flaws in the process and allow a second election.

“Peace doesn’t come about by talking about peace,” Father Oduke said. “Peace is something that happens through justice and truth. A fair and transparent voting process will stop the violence.”

Father Oduke stressed that the election was simply the tipping point.

Jan. 24, Odinga and Kibaki began meeting for the first time after former UN-Secretary General Kofi Annan traveled to Kenya to facilitate a dialogue. Despite international pressure, the two parties had not met since the election.

Father Paul Machira arrived in the Syracuse Diocese Nov. 27, 2002. He is currently serving as parochial vicar at St. Cecilia’s in Solvay. While he did not return to Kenya to vote or for the holidays, he has been in contact with his family in the Rift Valley region since the post-election debacle began.

He agreed with Father Oduke’s assessment.

“Some people think that the main issue is the election but these problems have piled up,” Father Machira said. “The election triggered it. The main problems are corruption, tribalism and the gap between rich and poor.”

Father Tuka said that the election was a flashpoint for problems in Kenya that have never been adequately addressed. He said that certain regions feel resources are distributed unfairly. He also stressed that Kenya’s constitution, which heavily empowers the office of the president, continues to be a source of controversy. Father Tuka added that tribalism has led to a sense of disenfranchisement among some ethnicities.

“There is a feeling among the people that unless you have your own tribesman leading, you are not going to be treated fairly,” Father Tuka said.

According to Father Machira, his home diocese has been a center for unrest. While the primary ethnicity in Nakuru is Kikuyu — the same ethnicity as Kibaki and his clique — several other Kenyan cultures are there as well.

“Nakuru has been the center of the problem,” Father Machira said. “People who live there come from throughout Kenya but the majority are Kikuyu.”

Father Tuka echoed Father Machira’s sentiments, saying, “The Rift Valley was really affected terribly.”

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