“This diocese is in continuous development. The Christian presence started with faithful who came from upcountry, from the central highlands of Kenya. They came here and brought with them a strong Catholic tradition, but also their own ethnic traditions; they did a lot to support the growth of the Church. Today, half of the Christians are local people, people who are still at the beginning in their encountering Jesus. The majority are mothers and their children. It is a growing community that poses many challenges. We are now facing various questions about family life, marriage and divorce. Our pastoral care needs to take these realities into account”, says Bishop Emanuel Barbara.
The Diocese of Malindi covers the northernmost coastal strip of Kenya, from Kilifi to the border with Somalia. This region is home to a good mix of ethnic groups, mostly businesspeople and farmers. In the interior of the diocese, the main ethnic group is that of the Giriama, most of them follow their traditional religion. Along the coast and in the urban area, the population is either Muslim or Christian. Bishop Barbara is a Capuchin from Malta with a long experience of missionary work in Kenya.
Bishop, even though the Muslim presence on the coast goes back many centuries, most of the population still follows traditional religions. How do you proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to them?
Our methodology is simple: we go where there is an interest in our presence. Most of the time we start with a small kindergarten or a school, other times with a health centre. People do appreciate these projects. Usually there is a small group of Christians who went there to work; it is a small presence that facilitates our work. People come and know us, mostly women and their children. We organize small Christian communities and, when there is the possibility, we start the celebration of the Eucharist and other sacraments.
What about the relationship with the elders who oversee the traditional shrines?
The Mijikenda (common name for nine ethnic groups who live along the coast and share much of their culture and traditions) leaders do not live here, the kayas – sanctuaries – are in the south coast. Here we do have elders and we always talk to them before starting a presence. It is up to the priests in a specific territory to find ways to inculturate the Gospel. In Chakama and Tarasaa there are elders that ask why they should change their traditions. We try to explain that it is not matter of rejecting the past; instead we want to keep the human values already present. We simply invite them to reflect on those attitudes that are not in line with the Gospel. The novelty we bring is a true liberation, but this is not always easy to perceive at first.
At personal level, the challenge I always find is to work in the diocese aware of my European background. I need to acquire a local perception of reality. We need to move with small steps. The diocese has already some structures that work well. Yet we need to improve our presence in education: we have many kindergartens, but only two secondary schools. There are many Small Christian Communities, but much is still to be done with families, and in giving attention to parents.
You speak of small steps. How is the diocese working for self-reliance?
I came here a year ago and I found plans to have a harambee (fundraising) for the diocese. This is called Family Day and it is an initiative taking hold in all the dioceses of Kenya. We are poor and we try to be self reliant. We see the needs, yet we can answer only with small projects. Of course, we do have projects for schools or health centres that need external funding. However, we try to do as much as possible with local resources. One of our goals is to recover the ground lost during colonization. For a long time, these people were told that they are incapable, materially and spiritually, to live life in fullness. The concept of dependence has been strongly imposed on them. Instead, these people do have great resources. Perhaps they are poorer than Europeans, but certainly they do know how to plan and achieve their goals. We need to build on that.
See part two of this interview here.