Cardinal Otunga Scholarship Dinner on 01.10.2008.


1. Introduction

How pray, dear ladies and gentlemen, dear Reverends and lay people as well as distinguished academics, can I describe Cardinal Maurice Michael Simiyu Otunga without first bowing in reverence at the mention of this great African Saint?

Otunga was born at Chebukwa village in Bungoma District on 31st January 1923. He was educated in Missionary schools. For his primary education, he attended Mill Hill schools in Sijei and Kibabii both in Bungoma District of Western Kenya. For his secondary education he attended the Holy Ghost run Schools of Kabaa and Mangu in Central province. He later joined Mukumu Seminary in Western province and Ggaba Seminary in Uganda. In Rome he was ordained a priest on 30th October, 1950. On 17th January 1956, he was appointed Auxiliary Bishop of Kisumu Diocese. On 25th February 1957 he was elevated as a full Bishop. On 21st May, 1960 he was appointed to Kisii Diocese as its Ordinary. On 20th January 1964, he was appointed Bishop of Kenya Millitary. On 15th November 1969, he was made Co-adjustor Archbishop of Nairobi to assist Archbishop John Joseph McCathy. On 24th October 1971, he succeeded J.J. McCarthy as Archbishop of Nairobi. On 5th March, 1973, Pope Paul VI elevated him to the position of Cardinal.

We both went to the same Secondary school, Mangu High School, even though he preceded me by four classes, and as such, I never met him. At the school, I inherited the nick-name Kamubea (a small priest) which had earlier been used to describe Otunga. This name was given in reference to his piety and love for the Holy Mass. The first time I met Otunga was shortly after his Ordination in 1950 when he made a visit to our seminary at Kibosho in Tanzania. He was dressed in the striking priestly garb of the time and I purposed in my heart to be like him. He spoke to me with an amazing calmness and encouraged me to persevere in my priestly call.

1. A Church in Need of Diocesan Leadership.

I recall that when the Union Jack was lowered and the Kenyan flag was hoisted in 12th December 1963 at the historic Uhuru Gardens, I a young priest straight from college overseas was the Master of Ceremony for the occasion and I joined Bishop Otunga in offering prayers for the brand new Republic. His presence was simply phenomenal, his piercing words sharp as a doctor’s needle. I was not surprised when he was named the first Cardinal for the Kenyan Church. He had exemplified unparalleled holiness, loyalty and leadership and there was no doubt that he was the man for the moment in Kenya. The church was young and in need of Diocesan leadership. The missionaries had done their bit at the helm and it was now time to give the local church a local face. I was now a bishop of the see of Eldoret and was learning the ropes from those who were older than me in the episcopate. Otunga was one such teacher from whom I learned a lot. Faced with new pastoral challenges of opening up to the world the see of Eldoret, I undoubtedly was in great need, in myriad ways, of real “ Bishop advice” Not given to big talk and conspicuity, the late Cardinal would be trusted for confidentiality and sound advice. More that once did I seek his brotherly advice, which often proved invaluable and down to earth. Small wonder then, that retired Archbishop Raphael Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki has accurately described Otunga in the preface to his biography as being,”both a statesman and eminent churchman.” I will chart my discourse on the life of Cardinal Maurice Otunga by reflecting on three questions:


• How has Otunga contributed to the growth of faith in Kenya in general and among his tribe peoples in particular?
• What is the essential quality that marked Otunga’s Christian personality and what is its linkage to an understanding of Christian leadership?
• What is Otunga’s contribution to the socio-political process in Kenya?

2. Otunga’s Contribution to the Growth of Faith

Let us now turn our attention to our first question: How has Otunga contributed to the growth of faith in Kenya, in general and among his people in particular?

It is amazing how this son of a polygamous Bukusu Chief the great Paramount Chief Lusweti Sudi opted for a life of mendicancy and celibacy and defied his headstrong daddy to embrace the catholic priesthood. This he did in spite of the fact that he was his father’s “favored son” even though his mother ,mama Rosa Namisi did not object to his son’s desire to be a priest, his father was unconvinced, and could only in sarcasm utter the words,” let him go and find out for himself” in reference to the seminary . he was convinced his son would soon tire of the life and return home and uphold the “rich traditional life’ of the Babukusu people . Though his joining the priesthood from privileged background is not the first story of its kind in the history of the church, yet it has unique features which cannot be ignored.

First Otunga defied his father, a tribal chief to boot. And by doing so, he committed two sins: the sin of disobedient against ones father, and the sin of defiance against the chief, the leader of the tribe! One can only appreciate this act of defiance within its cultural matrix. In a truly African setting, a child could not defy his father no matter the circumstance because the African Parenting world-view was governed by stringent parenting laws. These laws required children to learn what they were meant to hear, learn to say what they were meant to say, and to learn to even think what they were allowed to think!

Thus it was un-African for children to contradict their parent or their parents’ expectations of them as is increasingly happening today. A child was supposed to enjoy their childhood and once they became adults, make life decisions in consultation with the tribal leadership. Was this world-view right or was it wrong?

This for me is a wrong approach to the issue. The issue of rightness or wrongness is inapplicable here for the simple reason that this relational arrangement was relevant and appropriate to the times, at least at the developmental stage in which African societies were. But we may ask: did this benevolent dictatorship its intended purpose? Most times, yes because everyone was socialized to accept this world-view and it was taken for granted that there could never be a better view.

We have seen the sin of disobeying ones own father that Otunga committed by joining the seminary. But he also defied a chief, a paramount Chief to be precise. The African chief in general and the Bukusu chief in particular was one endowed with unlimited power which included power over life. To defy a chief was the ultimate defiance which could only be met with death.

Consequently, no person within the tribe would dare cross the path of the chief. Now you can imagine with me the perception among the tribe when the son to the chief dares the father by his obstinacy. Since the father could not kill his son, he did the next sensible thing- he ignored Otunga. In his book on Otunga, Millicent Osaso reports how chief Sudi pleaded with Otunga’s brothers not to beat him on account of his decision to join the seminary because Otunga “will sort out things for himself.”

But in a deeper sense, Otunga had begun a serious revolution, that of refocusing his tribesmen to loftier than a preoccupation with the fleeting pleasures and powers of unrestrained chieftaincy. Otunga had started a revolution for Christ, a dignified crusade for Christianity .And what better way to begin this change than from the chief’s own household?

Secondly, Otunga defied some of his traditions. The son of a chief had his life already scripted for him. He was to follow in to the footsteps of his father. There was no short-cut to this.
If his father was polygamous so must he; if his father was a greedy, acquisitive and war –like guy so should the son be. Otunga chose a life of Celibacy, simplicity and poverty instead of a life surrounded by a colony of Wives and children, wealth and ostentation. His choice was a back-stab at the Sensibilities of his tribes-people. He was promoting an alien culture which was unheard in the entire Luhya Land.

He was propounding alien values to a people given to the simple relational rules of an African village. How, pray could everyone be equal to God?
How pray could the chief be equal to a mere peasant in the eyes of WERE, the Bukusu God? What kind of love of neighbor was Otunga trying to tell his people? How could they, in all logic, love their cruel neighbors those that came to steal their wives, daughters and property and kill their young men? They all reasoned that Otunga had gone nuts.

2.1 Changing perspectives.

Yet Otunga was scoring a first for Christianity. He was changing perspectives, perceptions and paradigms. No longer will his peoples’ perspectives about God be limited to mere Bukusu perspectives about WERE. Enrichment and an expansion was in order. The same WERE they worshipped since yore, was not supplanting their rich traditional beliefs about Him, but was using the chief’s son to enrich them. The perceptions about their geography were changing. Like most African tribes untouched by the rest of the world, the Bukusu believed themselves to be a complete whole.

This is the tribalism that has persisted to this day where most tribes-people feel their ethnic groups to be more superior than others in the sense of self –sufficiency and therefore deserving more share of this and that .Otunga’s personal change of perception, which I suppose was altered in large measure by the Mill Hill and Holy Ghost Missionaries was responsible for the general change of perceptions which he actively advocated for his people. Had Baruch Spinoza the great philosopher of Amsterdam not said that, “the wise, knows that he can help himself only by helping others and realizes that individual happiness is mutual happiness?” This is the happiness I believe Otunga hoped to see realized among his family members and in the people he served. He lived to see his hard-core father baptized in to the faith in 1963 as well as his diviner mama Rosa Namisi. There is little doubt in my mind that Otunga began a serious paradigm shift in more ways than simply re-tuning his people to newer perspectives of looking at reality. He was first among his generation of Africans to seriously cast doubt at the myth that Africans were incapable of a celibate priesthood. This perception has persisted to this day, at least in some quarters but if truth be told, Otunga and many others like him, have set the record straight for all humanity to see, a celibate priesthood is a gift of God’s grace and is possible for people of African decent as it is for all peoples everywhere and all times . It only requires one to respond with a generous spirit to this divine invitation to share agape love with a loveless world.

3. Otunga’s Christian Personality and Christian Leadership.

Now to our second question: what is the essential quality that marked Otunga’s Christian personality and what is its linkage to an understanding of Christian Leadership?

The story of Cardinal Otunga reminds me of a story by Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher who has never ceased to mesmerize the world with his revolutionary thinking. Said Plato, “Spirits of the other world came back to find bodies and places to work. One took the body of a poet and did his work. Finally, Ulysses came and said, all the fine bodies have been taken and the grand work done. There is nothing for me.’ “Yes ‘said a voice, ‘the best has been left for you –the body of a common man, doing a common work for a common reward.”

In one word, modesty is the standard quality I can ascribe to my elder brother-in-the-church’s hierarchy, Maurice Otunga. And I am not the only one to ascribe him this quality. Bishop Philip Sulumeti of Kakamega Diocese has spoken as much when he describes how, “it was difficult for Otunga to be accepted in Kisumu as Bishop “due to prevailing prejudices against black priests and that he succeeded because “of the humility in him”. His own personal driver, Samuel Ntabo describes Otunga as possessing “extraordinary humility”.

Modesty, as the “Encyclopedia of Biblical and Christian Ethics” points out “is one way of behaving and is characterized by assuming conduct, self –depreciation, and inconspicuousness’”. Otunga possessed these three attributes. In spite of his position in the church’s hierarchy, he never advertised himself or exerted his weight everywhere he stepped. In this way, he became powerful by appearing powerless.

In this way, he taught us that power as defined by Christian discipleship can only be arrived at through powerlessness, the final act of surrender of human pride before the majesty of God. It is only after we have succumbed to our own folly and risen out of the mud that we can welcome God’s power to work in us. I believe this is what St. Paul means when in the letter to the Philippians he utters these immortal words: “I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learnt this secret , so that anywhere ,at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little . I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me”. (Philippians 4:12-13 Good News Bible)

3.1. Otunga’s Love for Life

Otunga’s self-depreciation was not a variant of mechanism; he valued life and was at the forefront in opposing abortion and the use of condoms. He loved life and that is why; he appreciated the human body and was passionately involved in the pro-life movement. He also had a deep regard for our Mother Mary. I believe this regard for our lady permeated in to his relationship with Religious Women in particular and women in general , all of whom he regarded with candid respect. He was a traditionalist and that is why he approached each one he met with paternalism. This did not mean that he was dictatorial as we are wont to characterize paternalism indeed; he was benevolent father, approaching his charge with compassion and love. In deed his biographers have described him as” a man with real desire to serve”.

Many a priest in Nairobi Archdiocese will confess how he reprimanded them with deep paternalistic love and thus strengthened their resolve to be good servants of the people. Thus, his self-depreciation was trained in the University of Christ’s discipleship, which has as its guiding philosophy the words: YOU MUST DECREASE SO THAT I CAN INCREASE. This thinking is best exemplified by St. John‘s Gospel where we hear Jesus saying: “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit: for you can do nothing without me” (John 15:5 Good news Bible).

Otunga was inconspicuous in the sense of not summoning interest towards himself. He was a Cardinal, a potential Pope to be precise, yet he never made it his habit to call to attention everything that he did, because of this defining quality, he was able to touch non-Catholics as well as Catholics. Even more curious, he was able to settle among the Kikuyu people in Kiambu and Nairobi and learn their language and way of life. Never at any one time did he dangle his Bukusu-ness to anyone or the fact that he was royalty! He had made a personal choice to be a missionary of Christ and one of the conditions for the mission is to forsake everything and everyone and embrace Christ and this mission in toto.

He had scaled the defining line of a true Christian-one who subscribes to the principle that spirit is thicker than blood. Where many Christians succumb at the blood level, refusing to be good Samaritans to others who are not of their blood and tongue, Otunga scaled the fence ,and tried as humanly as he could and as inspired as he was, to touch others with love . Thankfully, there was never a time that he was mentioned of engaging in corruption or immoral behavior. He was a transparent man, servant of God who gave his life in the service of God. He was a humble man, almost to the point of doubt.

4. Otunga’s Contribution to society

And now to our third and final question for our discussion today: What is Otunga’s contribution to the Socio-political process in Kenya?

As far as I can recollect, Otunga was not a physical builder in the sense of development work. This should not be construed to imply weakness. Rather, I suppose that in his range of responsibilities, the option to build was not attractive to him when compared to other options. One such ‘other option” where he excelled was in furthering agape love in the form of spiritual re-awakening. Towards this end, he initiated the construction of the famous, “Resurrection Garden ostensibly to be a place of reflective prayer and meditation. Today, this vision has been realized.

Because Otunga subscribed to a belief that compassionate justice is due to all marginalized peoples and communities , the decried extreme materialism” in both public and private spheres . hence, he never tired reminding his listeners that extreme materialism was the enemy of genuinely human growth and development. Of course it may be argued that Otunga was extreme in his views of what constitutes materialism and what does not. I will leave this question to historians.

But I will hasten to add that Otunga was a human being and as such he was limited in the range of possibilities available to him at a given time. This is the fate of all of us humans. Thus, while Otunga was not entirely disinterested in infrastructural development, yet he was not keen to expend most of his energies in this regard He was passionate about evangelization through teaching of the word and that is why he excelled in sending many of his priests for further studies. But to his credit, while he was not entirely interested in physical development in pastoral terms, yet he did not stand in the way of his priests or missionary groups who felt drawn towards this other side of evangelization effort. Today, the Karen area of Nairobi is known as “little Vatican”, a covert recognition of his openness in accepting countless missionary congregations to set base in Nairobi.

But he spoke and when he did, the state took him seriously. Since he was not one to be bribed by state organs to turn the other eye to injustice, he became the resounding voice of the prophets or yore, them that uttered these ominous words to kings and their hirelings: THUS SAYS THE LORD ……To Otunga’s credit, he made the church to have a good name during his tenure. This is not to mean that the church does not have a good name now, but only to emphasize his sterling performance as a spiritual head. Though not confrontational by nature, he was tough when he felt he was speaking on the side of truth and justice. Thus, he led from the front in matters of Faith and Doctrine!

5. Conclusion Remarks

Fire “says an old Eastern proverb “destroys wood but strengthens iron.” The story about Cardinal Maurice Michael Simiyu Otunga is a story about a soul filled with fire for love of people and God. Indeed his middle name Simiyu means “one who is born in a dry season” put in an African perspective, this is a time when ground is fiery, thirstily awaiting to be quenched by the long awaited rains, which for African mean: new growth, new life, new production and re-birth.

Hence, I can say to us today that the story of Otunga is a story of African renaissance in terms of understanding power in service to the people and power as servants of the people. And this lesson is as applicable to African leadership in the church as it is in the state and civil organizations.

In conclusion, I can only say with the local as well as the universal church…ON 01.10.2008 Thank you lord for giving us the gift of Otunga, a genuine leader of your flock!


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *