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How a far-off parish aided by Armagh pupils is sowing seeds of genuine change in Kenya

Published 13/02/2016

Kenyan children pose with one of the group from Bessbrook
Kenyan children pose with one of the group from Bessbrook
The students in the village of Londiani
Jarlath Burns
Jarlath Burns

Former Gaelic football star Jarlath Burns, principal of St Paul's High School in Bessbrook, tells of how he recently took some of his students to Londiani in Africa to see how cash they raised is being used.

Kenya is a remarkable place first encountered by me in our primary school, where the 'black baby box' was a permanent feature on the teacher's table.

Our school has long-established links with the parish of Londiani, and over the past 12 years money has been raised annually by the pupils, who pay their own way each year to visit the schools where it is being spent.

On Friday, February 5, we touched down in Nairobi to see at first-hand the work being done.

Our first night was spent as guests of Fr PJ McCamphill - a Dunloy man who has spent most of his life ministering in the country - in Nairobi parish.

PJ is no stranger to the danger involved in his vocation. He was seriously assaulted recently when he intervened in a case where a parishioner was about to lose her house after her husband died.

There is no glamour in the life of an Irish missionary priest. It is dangerous, challenging work, but these men shun publicity. They see episodes like that described above as part of the vocation.

Fr Martin Barry and his companion Fr Con Ryan live on a compound they built in the town of Londiani.

Theirs is a ministry that is inspiring in its ordinariness and is indicative of the quiet revolution that Irish missionary priests have been waging over the past 60 years in Africa.

Also in the compound lives the Friends of Londiani, an Irish non-governmental organisation, which is also doing incredible work in the region.

On the first night we met its founders Martin and Maria Ballantyne, and quizzed them about their mission and how it compares and contrasts to the parish work of our two hosts.

Their project is radical and crucial: education, gender equality and building infrastructure, with the aspiration of zero poverty the all-consuming goal.

The week we were there they had a conference in the compound on female genital mutilation, which is illegal across Africa but still a sinister underground practice in some tribes.

So, within this small compound are Irish Catholic priests and Irish aid workers, toiling together for the good of the people, using different methods but having the same impact.

Our link with the parish is one that trades funding from our side with a 10-day visit by six students each year to see how our money is being spent.

We have sent almost €200,000 during the past 10 years, which has been spent on water projects, school extensions and teaching equipment.

We also brought with us stock kindly donated by O'Neill's Sportswear, and the local pupils were genuinely delighted to receive our gifts, refusing to take off the labels because they were the first brand new clothing items they had ever received and they wanted to show them off.

Our travels took us to houses for Masses and local schools, and we quickly realised that Fr Martin's pet project was the polytechnic, a former settler's house that is now used to train vocational students in the art of dressmaking and carpentry. These young people have left secondary school but don't have the academic skills to get to university and are getting a chance to improve their employability thanks to the funding of the local Catholic parish.

On Wednesday we went to Kericho and visited the Live With Hope project, which is under the energetic guidance of Sister Placida and her team. This is, in essence, a health and education village right in the middle of an urban slum, which is a horrendous place even by Kenyan standards.

Sr Placida and her workers take HIV positive children and those who have been abandoned off the streets and give them education and medication, but, most of all, dignity, food and shelter. Up the road the agricultural college, founded by Franciscan Brothers from Mount Bellew, is another project that has had spectacular results in teaching local people how to farm effectively, taking them away from an era of hand-outs and into one of hand-ups

Their mission is to create a sustainable farming culture, and it has now spread to Uganda, where even greater challenges lie.

The people of Kenya appear happy, are extremely friendly and seemingly content with their lot.

Travelling through it was a fascinating and at times vulgar reminder of the 'First' and 'Third' worlds colliding, and this could be quite disconcerting. In Londiani, for example, alongside the primitive, modest shopfronts that make up Main Street was a gleaming bank that could have come from any high street in Ireland, but which looked out of place there.

I was left with a mixture of bewilderment, pride and frustration as we boarded the plane in Nairobi to leave Fr Martin and his team and return home.

Bewilderment at how a people could be so tolerant, so patient and so accepting of their fate; pride at the incredible contribution made by Irish missionary priests all across Africa, and frustration at a system that has prevented the country from reaching its full potential.

Kenya has a long way to go, but there is confidence that it can make this journey and, when the story of this nation is written, the contribution of the Irish will be there - loud, proud and positive.

Belfast Telegraph

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