If you are introducing the bishop of Ngong diocese, remember to call him by his full name –Rt Rev John Oballa ole Owaa.
So when did Ja Kisumo (Son of Kisumu) suddenly become Ole Owaa?
“I adopted this name on the day of my ordination as bishop. On that day I was made a Maasai elder and they gave the name Ole Owaa — son of Owaa. That is why I am very faithful to it; if you introduce me without it I will add it!” he says.
Ja Kisumo is now the shepherd of a flock more than 300 kilometres from home, something that he is still trying to get used to.
“I never dreamt of working in Ngong, leave alone becoming a bishop,” he tells me during an interview at his residence.
The call to be bishop of Ngong found him in weirdest of places–inside a garage.
“I had gone to Karen to repair my car when the Nuncio called asking me to see him as soon as I could,” he reminisces.
“Since I was the then rector of St Thomas Aquinas National Seminary, I thought he was calling to make inquires about the seminary or that some donations had arrived from Rome,” he chuckles.
He drove to the Nunciature, prepared to give the Nuncio an update on the status of the major seminary that he led.
Nothing had prepared him for what was coming.
The then Apostolic Nuncio to Kenya, Alain Paul Leabupin, announced to him that the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI had appointed him bishop of Ngong. Could he please say if he was ready to take up the call or not–can’t keep the Holy Father waiting!
Fr Oballa Owaa asked to be given time to pray over the decision. Time flew so fast inside the chapel, so much so that the impatient Nuncio started pacing outside the door.
The question was simple yet difficult– would Fr Oballa Owaa accept the Holy Father’s call to become bishop?
“At that time, inside that chapel, what came to my mind was the experience of Our Lady when the angel announced to her that she would be the mother of the saviour,” he recounts.
After a careful thought and prayer, Fr Oballa’s made up his mind, “If it is God’s will let it be,” he told the Nuncio.
“It was a long drive to the seminary,” he says.
When the news of his appointment reached his friends, many wondered how he would survive the transition — a fisherman turned herdsman.
His answer was simple: “When our lord sent out his disciples, he asked them to eat what was set before them and that’s exactly what I will do”
It’s been close to four years now, and today, he identifies more with the Maasai than with his Luo community back home. His court of arms has a Maasai herding cattle.
“Coming to Ngong is like being a herdsman of the herdsmen,” he says.
He credits his predecessor at Ngong, Bishop Emeritus Collin Davis, for his rapid positive transition.
“Bishop Davis witnessed my consecration and I still recall the words he whispered in my ears during the kiss of peace. He said, ‘Karibu sana (You are welcome),” he recounts.
Bishop Collins Davis would stay with the new bishop for a couple of years before retiring to his country Ireland.
Bishop, Oballa took advantage of his stay to get to know the mind of the indefatigable old man.
“He was very passionate about what he called Maasai Apostolate. He told me not to abandon that because we are still in primary evangelization and many of them have not heard the word of God,” he says.
The Irish bishop emeritus passed on a gem of wisdom that Bishop Oballa treasures to date–respect the Maasai culture.
It was Bishop Collins who impressed upon the young bishop to learn as much of the Maasai culture as he could and to do so quickly.
As a result, the diocese has kept the Maasai Cultural Centre that was founded by Bishop Collin Davis in Oltrepessi. Here, the bishop sends seminarians and newly ordained priests to learn the language and Maasai culture.
Well has the bishop learnt the Maa language?
“Well enough not to ask for food,” he says
He admits that he hasn’t found time to sit down at it. He wishes he could spare even a month for it but his many responsibilities at the diocese and at the Bishops Conference does not leave him much time to master the nuances of the Maa language.
The fact that Bishop Oballa cannot speak the local language pains him and he often wishes he could preach in the local language.
“When you speak to people in their language it is incarnational. When I visit remote parishes, I preach in Swahili and have someone translate, but you are not even sure of the quality of translation,” he says.
He notes that even though slightly more than a half of the population is Maasai, Ngong diocese also hosts other tribes.
So vast is the diocese that is hosts some unique kind of diocesans — wildlife. The diocese straddles four wildlife parks: The Tsavo West, Nairobi National Park, The Maasai Mara and The Amboseli.
The enormous challenge of running this vast diocese is that a bigger part of it is still immersed solidly in African traditions.
According to Bishop Oballa, navigating around some of these traditions–some of which are at loggerheads with Christian teaching– is a delicate affair: female circumcision (FGM), early marriages, polygamy and a deeply masculine society that still largely looks down on women and girls.
“That is why we have rescue centres to be able to make girls got to school because by marrying them off, they are denied access to education, this pains me,” he says.
The bishop also has to contend with long distances between parishes and outstations, usually through terrains so rough, even off-road vehicles struggle to reach there.
For instance, he has to cover close to 800Kms to reach Rombo parish from Ngong, the headquarters of the diocese.
Coming from the archdiocese of Kisumu where the archbishop could the sacrament of Confirmation close to 700 Christians on a day, the bishop was surprised when he got only a few candidates when he went out to in the parishes in Ngong.
“In the beginning I could not hide my shock but later I came to understand Ngong diocese. I learnt to accept it and appreciate that even the few candidates were duly prepared,” says bishop Oballa who once served as the Vicar General in the Archdiocese of Kisumu.
Then there is the enormous task of convincing the local community that has for decades, viewed the Church as a separate entity owned and run by generous white missionaries, to own the church
“Christians here have not realised that the help that used to come from abroad is no longer there and that they have to contribute towards building the Church. The time for receiving is over,” he says.
Self reliance is the main song he has had to sing to the Christians and indeed it is bearing fruits. He says that through Gods grace, constant education and lots of patience, this perception is slowly changing.
“Going by the history, Family Day contribution is rising every year,” he says.
The Future Lies with the Children
According to Bishop Oballa, the future hope evangelising the Maasai lies with the children.
“When they are baptised and confirmed, they acquire a certain worldview that their parents to do not share. There is the hope, that growing in that kind of environment they will be able to rise above some of the ‘values’ that their parents have held on to,” he says.
Like many other dioceses, Ngong is facing a shortage of priests. It has only 53 priests, serving in 33 parishes.
“For the first time, I have appointed a full time vocations director to follow up on vocations. And it is bearing fruits. Since we appointed him, we managed to have five young men who joined the seminary this year,” he says.
So, what where does Bishop Oballa see Ngong diocese in the coming years?
“I dream of a self evangelising diocese. I want to move it towards self sustainability,” he says.
“Families migrate is in search for water and pasture for their animals. This migration interrupting education of children therefore brings all the anguish,” he says.
The good bishop wants to see a diocese where clean drinking water is available for both human and animals. He plans to start more income generating projects, top among them being the renovation of the diocesan pastoral centre and putting up a petrol station in Narok town.
These two major projects, the bishop is confident, will give a major financial boost to the diocese.
By Fr. Daniel Mkado
THE SEED MAGAZINE