Where and how did this journey all begin? It was a Saturday in March 2017 my dear friend Paul McGettigan from Galway City had a few months before asked me to participate in a 20k walk in Clifden, Co Galway to help raise funds for some ‘crowd’ called Shalom who were doing wonderful work for lasting peace and development in Africa. He sent me a CARD to collect sponsorship and said there was this great and amazing man called Fr. Patrick Devine and that I must meet him. Paul reckoned we had mutual interests and would get on well. My day was not going well workwise and there was no way to get to Clifden on time for the WALK. Around 5pm an inner voice told me I should just jump in the car and make the 3hr trip. I followed my gut feeling and departed in my work cloths. In Clifden, I met Fr. Devine face to face for the first time. Looking him straight to the eye, sharing an hours conversation and having a drink together I knew I was in the presence of somebody special. Still not having a red clue who this man was I departed very early in the morning before anybody was up. I noticed a magazine on the coffee table of Paul’s flat with Fr. Devine’s picture on the front cover and took it to read later. I read it late Sunday night and understood who I had shared some personal time with.
Monday morning came and off to work. I went and immersed myself in food production at my business in Longford. My mind filled with the encounter with Fr. Devine. At 1.pm, I went up to the front of the shop for a cup of tea and there he was walking in my front door. We sat for a few hours and talked about Shalom and the work being done on Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation in East Africa. I am a maverick and maverick’s do not run with the herd but I knew I would follow this man and help him with his mission in any way I could.
Fr. Devine invited me to Kenya to see first-hand the work being done by the Shalom team. I took time out of my business and away from my family and undertook the journey. After a long flight, arriving in darkness in Nairobi and with only a few hours sleep I started out before dawn to a place called Kariobangi with three members of Shalom team, Joyce Wamae, Judy Akedi and Asha Awed to deliver a workshop on Conflict Reconciliation in the aftermath of the tense and often violent confrontations during the nations election process.
The venue was within one of the slum areas of Nairobi where Shalom (SCCRR) works. I had no idea what to expect or what had brought me to this place.
I was self-aware that since meeting with Fr. Patrick Devine last year and on hearing him explain the work of his work in East Africa that I wanted to help somehow in the great work of Shalom.
My first observation of the 30 or so motivated group of people who came to the workshop was that they were mainly young adults – male and female, but also a few older members in the community. I was aware that the assembled Kenyans were from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. I was first struck by the openness and respect they showed each other. After a shy low voice introducing themselves to the group, their voices quickly gained strength and meaning. It was obvious they were here to learn and be empowered on the tools necessary to prevent conflict and to engage with forgiveness and reconciliation. The jovial and good nature of the people as we all shared the food provided by the centre made me feel at one with the group and I forgot that I was the only non-African and white person in the room.
The workshop was amazingly conducted by the Shalom staff. Perhaps it is my preconceived ideas and thoughts but I was conscious that this Shalom team of three contains a Catholic, Protestant and a Muslim, (two having completed their MAs in Peace Studies and one in process). What better way to teach respect and understanding in a community than to lead from the front by example.
While watching the slide show presenting the various steps along which one must travel to reach Reconciliation, I had a feeling I knew now why I was here today. I had a deep personal issue of conflict that I had been searching for reconciliation with for years. I would with the permission of the Shalom team pose the problem to the group and ask them to consider the case and help me with the healing process and perhaps to finally, after 8 years put the issue to bed. My fellow group did indeed help and I came away with the tools needed to solve the issue.
Fr. Philip the Parish Priest came and addressed the group. He said that outside, on this very day there was a mini riot and civil unrest related to issues of human rights. I was suddenly struck by where I was and who the people in the room were. To see first-hand, the work Shalom-SCCRR deliver to the many such communities (East Africa) was indeed an honour and privilege. It will stay with me for a long time. Day one over!
Friday 13th Fr. Oliver Noonan and I having just been introduced that very morning and start out on a field trip to the conflict regions of Northern Kenya so that I might experience first-hand the place and the people, their culture and their hard and difficult environment. I was excited and full of positive energy for a new learning experience. You could say ‘like a sponge ready to soak up each detail’, to understand the causes of conflict in the area and to hear and observe how Shalom approaches their every sensitive and difficult task.
We landed by plane in Lodwar and the first thing that struck me was the apparent lawlessness look about the place. A guy was standing there with a rifle gun over his shoulder and I wondered how well or not was he trained. As we drove through the town, my feeling of being in a frontier town that was swelling fast was reinforced by all I see around me. We stayed the night at St. Theresa’s Hostel, and met with some of Fr. Oliver’s old friends and people who help Shalom achieve some of the things that have to be done.
We went some miles out of town to view the two acre site where Shalom are intending to set up a base camp in order to be closer to the conflict environments. This new compound will house a Shalom staging post from which staff can go in various directions to practice their vocational and professional intervention in the many areas of tribal conflict. It struck me that the site was elevated and looked out over a vast area of Northern Kenya with Somali (East) to one side, Ethiopia and South Sudan to the North with Uganda to another (West) side. All looked peaceful but I have come to learn that it is anything but peaceful or tranquil.
The real road trip started at dawn on Saturday morning. The season rains had just began and were much needed in this semi-arid desert like, poverty stricken environment. It was raining and this did not favour our success on the journey. This was my first experience of what I call ‘Real Africa’. I was stunned to see people living in the mud huts, circular compounds, in the same manner as perhaps 1000 years before. It blew my mind there was a complete absence of tarmac road and that sometimes because we could not see that track or it was so wet and flooded, that we went across the bush between areas of native occupation.
We were in a Turkana/ Pokot conflict area and between the harshness of the landscape and the feeling when meeting people that anything could go wrong, my heart was beating, but I felt alive. We stopped in Turkwell parish which was where Fr. Oliver began his work in Kenya years ago! The local priest asked us in for tea and brought Fr. Oliver up to speed on the community and events of the area. There followed a prayer in the old church followed by a walk about through the neighbourhood accompanied by two girls who recognised Fr. Oliver. It was a joyous reunion of the former priest and his loyal and obviously devoted people. I knew my travelling companion had touched the lives of these people in a great way. There and then, I understood what a missionary looked like. It is hard to describe the respect I observed and felt.
So onward we went, bump on the road to bump on the road to Lorugumu toward the Ugandan border, an area of conflict tension with the Karamojong tribe. We had to make hundreds of decisions on the road just not to get stuck in the many large potholes or soft ground but eventually driver and navigator made a wrong choice and down we went to the axel in mud/sand. Out of nowhere came two young warriors in traditional dress and guess what happened…. ‘‘Hello Fr. Oliver’’. They helped dig us out and on we went arriving to Lorugumu before dark. The river there had just started to flow. I was struck by how nature dictated the pace of events around here. Rain, sun, flood, drought or famine they were all in the hands of Mother Nature.
At St. Peter’s church, we shared the food of the 2 local SMA fathers and stayed in cottages behind the church. I was up at 5 am and straight outside to experience as much as I could on this short trip. Sunday Mass was a special and emotional event. To be among hundreds of Turkana in their best tribal costume, singing and dancing and celebrating the mass and God made me feel at one with the congregation. I met so many people afterwards in the area from all faiths whose lives were and are being touched by Shalom either through workshops on Peace and Reconciliation or education development and medical attention.
A lasting impression has been struck on my memory plate of the good work being carried out by the Medical Sisters of Mary and the SMA Fr’s at Lorugumu.
I was introduced to a young lady called Ann who I believe helps the Shalom staff when they work in the area. The SMA fathers explained to me that she had taken in 2 young boys whom she found hanging around the compound looking for food because they could not find their parents. Ann also has given a home to the 2 children of her deceased sister. All these children to care for alongside her own. What a great witness of God’s Love for all of humanity. Many talk but few do. I think of Aristotle the Greek Philosopher who said ‘‘Man at his best is the Noblest of all animals, separated from Law and Justice, He is the Worst’’.
On Monday 16th I met many of the staff members of Shalom, who are all highly qualified and deeply committed to persistently working in the conflict zones. They are the finest group of hard working, dedicated and educated people I have ever met. Godfrey Okoth, (Program Manager) and Francis Mwangi (M&E) gave me a presentation on Shalom from Structure, Vision to Mission. I spoke with the highly qualified accountant Duncan Akhobe who gave me a full appraisal of how funds are recorded and accounted for. He explained the checks and balances of Shalom finance which is an area I have much experience. I was impressed with his professionalism and knowledge.
Having spent the few days with the Country Director Fr. Oliver Noonan and having met other members of the Board including Rosaline Serem, having spent time with 2 members of the programme management team including Joyce and having spent a wonderful hour with Prof. Omoka, Ph. D, I can say I have had a full and comprehensive week with Shalom in Kenya.
It has been a privilege and an honour to spend time with Shalom and its passionate and vocated staff on their mission to bring Peace and Reconciliation to East Africa. God bless the good work of the team as they go about the Lord’s Work. Spread the seed and it will grow.
On Monday Fr. Patrick brought me for a drive after our morning in the Shalom office. Fr. Patrick had been the team leader in charge of SMA development and pastoral work in Kenya from 1995-2007. We visited the parishes that the SMA fathers had developed from scratch – most beautiful churches with compounds oriented to education, health and social services which has brought essential and badly needed help and relief to deprived areas/slums which had none of these amenities before to assist people of all ethnicities and religious belief.
A special moment was to be privileged to say a prayer at the grave of Fr. John Hannon SMA in Matasia. Fr. John made the ultimate sacrifice by giving his life for his Mission and Faith when he was murdered in 2004. Fr. Patrick explained the difficult time it was for Fr. John’s family back in Ireland, all the SMAs, and the shock of arriving on the scene in the middle of the night to find him dead and the heart-breaking trauma of thousands of the local people. I witnessed some of Fr.John’s wonderful work. I have to say the church in Embulbul was as fine and beautiful as any in the world. Fr. Patrick drove us to the edge of the Great Rift Valley and with the gesture of an out stretched arms he tells me ‘here I would like to begin a new mission/peace/development center for the Maasai and their neighbours’. I have been in the presence of a great visionary. Fr. Devine is a great missionary being carried along in the work of his Maker.
I would like to thank Fr. Patrick , Fr. Oliver and all the team at SCCRR Kenya for giving me an insight into their work with conflict resolution and reconciliation and for their kind and generous welcome and friendship during my visit.
I was born in Longford in 1966 over my mother and father’s butcher shop. I was educated locally in St Mel’s college and later at Trinity College, Dublin. A young part-time solider in the Irish Army for 14 years, it thought me discipline while at the same time I was learning my father’s trade and family business. I have spent 40 years being a serial entrepreneur both in Ireland and abroad. In that time I have experienced great success and great failure. My motto is “Through failure you learn” and “And what does not kill you makes you stronger” I am married to Caroline and we have 6 beautiful children.
LOUIS HERTERICH MBA. LONGFORD, IRELAND.