Meeting a martyr
It's All About Anthropology
I met a martyr while in Africa this summer. He is the reason I still believe, for the culture shock I experienced traveling abroad was profoundly shattering. Seeing the extremes of human existence that the Kenyans know on a daily basis, I almost lost my faith. Precisely when I questioned how God figures in a world of such drastic dichotomies, I met Father John Kaiser. I believe he is a yet-to-be canonized saint. I tell this story with reverence for the man and his mission.
Father John Kaiser, an American priest, spent his last 36 years working as a Mill Hill Missionary pastor in Kenya. We first heard of Father John when Susan Tilton, fellow journeyman, and I spoke of our desire to go on a safari. We were told of the well-known, beloved American priest who lived alone in the largest game park in Kenya. There in the Trans Mara District beyond the Rift Valley, Father John was pastor to many Massai. They described him as a "typical American" — stubborn, outspoken. They said he was the one we wanted to take us on safari. His safaris were the best.
Knowing Father John did not have easy access to mail, and with time running out, we were losing hope of connecting. So, when we heard he was in town, we raced through dusty dirt paths lined by market stands and mothers selling green oranges, past the village children shouting affectionately, "Mzungo, how are you?" We found him in the Mill Hill House.
Father John's extraordinary spontaneity might be misunderstood at first as somewhat irrational. Hindsight tells me now that Father John instinctually trusted the course of fate, making his easy flexibility the means by which God's plans were carried through. We introduced ourselves. He mentioned his American niece, Camille, our age and visiting him during the same two-month period. He suggested that the best way for us to go on safari was to travel home with him, right then and there.
The four-hour ride to Father John's house was so memorable, I think of it daily. As we bounced along the rough paths in the back of his faded white pick-up truck, nicknamed "The Helicopter" by the natives, Father John told us his stories. Something inside me urged: Write down everything he is saying. As I scribbled furiously in my journal, I tried to copy his words verbatim. His words were steeped with importance. At the time I thought proudly of how my journalism training was paying off. I laugh now; the feeling I had was not the reporter in me at all. No. I was simply playing out my particular role as one of Father John's last three messengers.
Perhaps another reason for my frantic note taking was the fact that I honestly could not believe my ears. The piercing truths and sobering lessons were amazing. It was like he was spitting out to us everything of political and social importance. In turn, I uncharacteristically probed someone I had just met with deep, philosophical questions.
I count my blessings that, for the next three days, Susan and I walked a magnificent country alongside a remarkable guide. It was like being in a private study group with Merlin. Magic abounded. We received from our time with him more than words can convey.
Father John was a man who spoke openly about the corruption of the Kenyan government. He was once placed in charge of a refugee camp in the late 1990s, when thousands of natives were chased from their homes in the vast expanse of land in the Trans Mara District. There, he witnessed the tragedies of what the government claimed to be "ethnic clashes." Father John said it was actually "ethnic cleansing."
A little over a year ago, the World Bank and the IMF advised the Kenyan government that to receive more funding, it must hold court hearings to get to the bottom of the displaced. Though he was a key witness in this trial, he sat in the courtroom for weeks as his name began at the top of the witness list — then fell, quite mysteriously, to the bottom, before day's end. Stubbornly, he kept coming back. Finally — begrudgingly — he was called to testify. The examiner asked Father John if he knew who was responsible for the displacement. Father John answered loudly: "Daniel arap Moi." Everyone gasped to hear him place the blame squarely on Kenya's President.
Father John also was the first person to actively help three young girls accusing the man next in line for the presidency, Julius ole Sunkuli, of rape. In short, he was not a political ally of Kenyan government officials. He would not allow himself to be too frightened to speak the truth. He thought both God and his American identity were in his favor. There were, however, dire consequences to his steadfast truthfulness. During our stay at his little house, he had us hang blankets across the windows to catch rocks that might be hurled through. He parked "The Helicopter" in his locked garage, knowing a bomb might be planted in its engine. He talked of feeling his enemies lurking close by, ready to pounce at any opportunity.
And, just three weeks before he was the victim of a political murder, Father John told the three of us the history, politics, greed, deliberate malevolence and corruption that beat down upon the Kenyan people he loved so dearly. He was as eager to talk as we were to listen, rushing to get it all out. He begged us: Please, go back to America. Write to your congressional representatives. Tell everyone to do the same. Beg them to stop feeding the killing hands of the corruption. Help instead those poor suffering citizens who have been the target of those who would keep them uneducated, hungry and powerless.
Visit the Father John Kaiser Web site, (www.frontier.net/~johnnyd/kaiser/), for additional news releases. Please: Study, learn and then write some letters. His work must continue.
Brittany Morehouse is a majoring in American studies and anthropology and minoring in African studies. You can reach Brittany through e-mail at Morehouse.email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Tuesday, February 6, 2001