When the Mill Hill Missionaries began evangelizing the Maasai, they found a community that was already deeply spiritual.
Traditionally the maasai have always known God. They call him (Ngai) — the giver the creator, the one who gives cows, rain and even drought. They believe that when God created the earth, he created man and woman, and he gave them cows. That is why they believe that all the cows on the earth belong to the maasai people.
They will pray every day thanking Ngai for the rain and the grass and for the rain. They however did not know about Jesus Christ. That God had a son who accepted to be born as human being like them.
The Catholic Church had for many years attempted to evangelize among the Maasai with little success compared to other parts of the country.
They faced a myriad of challenges mainly because the British colonialists pushed the Maasai people from the Higlands which were left for the white settlers into closed districts.
According to Kenyan history, the Maasai were evicted from about three quarter of their lands to make room for settler ranches, subsequently confining them to the plains – the present day Kajiado and Narok counties.
“The Maasai were restricted to particular areas and even to go to Maasai land, one needed to have a passport,” says Fr Anthony Shayo, the oldest priest of the diocese and currently Assistant Parish Priest at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Rongai.
He explains that the colonial and later local governments both in Kenya and Tanzania, through treaties and land reform programs, transformed Maasai lands into group ranches, privatized settler farms, hunting areas, national parks, and game reserves.
“This is how Amboseli, Nairobi, and Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti/Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania were created,” he explains.
Catholic missionaries also didn’t find it easy to settle among the Maasai since the British colonial administrators preferred working with the protestant churches that were already in the area especially the Church of England, and others such as the African Inland Mission, and Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
The formation of Ngong diocese in the late 50’s can be attributed to Fr Ferdinand Fent a Mill Hill Missionary from Kisumu Diocese, who worked at Kaplong and would occasionally visit Kilgoris.
He saw the need of penetrating the interior of Maasai land which had been left out by other missionaries during the colonial times.
Fr Fent through the Mill Hill Missionaries requested Rome to create a missionary area in the region which at that time was under Kisumu Diocese that was also managed by the Mill Hill Missionaries.
In 1959 the Holy See accepted the request and later appointed John De Reeper, then Bishop of Kisumu to take care of the new Prefecture Apostolic of Ngong that was hived from Kisumu Diocese.
“Bishop De Reeper appointed five Mill Hill missionary priests who came to oversee the area; among them was Fr Colin Davis. They worked in the area and later brought other missionaries like Fr Terry Bugatin and Fr Frans Mol who wrote many books about the Maasai and their culture.”
In 1964, Fr Davis was appointed by Holy See to take over from Bishop De Reeper as the Prefect Apostolic of Ngong diocese. Since there were no local vocations in Ngong he encouraged young men from the neighboring dioceses in Tanzania to join seminaries and become priests to serve the Prefecture of Ngong.
“I encountered Fr Davis between 1964 and 1966. He would visit our parish during his numerous trips from Ngong to Rombo where he was constructing a parish. I was an altar boy and I asked my parish priest about missionaries working in Maasai land, my vocation developed from there,” narrates Fr Shayo who was among the very first to take up the call.
“I was taken to St. Joseph’s Minor Seminary in Kitui by Fr Davis because at the time we didn’t have a minor seminary in the prefecture,” he says adding that after finishing form four in 1970 he dedicated the following year to studying the environment of Ngong Prefecture which at the time included Kajiado, Transmara and Narok districts before joining St. Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary in 1972.
In 1977 the Prefecture Apostolic of Ngong was erected to be the Diocese of Ngong under its first shepherd Bishop Collin Davis and the following year the new bishop ordained his first two priests for the new diocese including Fr Shayo.
“We were ordained on December 8, 1978 at a time when there were only ten other missionary priests, so we added the number to be 12 and being the first African priests, people were so eager to see us and consequently the bishop tried to appoint us to various parishes across the diocese,” says Fr Shayo, the oldest priest of Ngong diocese.
The ordination of the two African priests later opened the door for many others including priests from the local Maa community such as Fr John Ntiyesia, Vicar General Catholic Diocese of Ngong.
“I was ordained on August 19, 2000 and was among the last priests Bishop Davis ordained,” says Fr Ntiyesia a Maasai who hails from Sultan Hamud Parish.
Fr Ntiyesia who was brought up in a protestant family and says that having Catholic vocations in Maasai land was something new in the community and a bit of a challenge.
“A Comboni missionary priest from Machakos used to come to evangelize along the railway line in Sultan Hamud, Emali, Kima up to Kwanza. He showed films in the market, came to our primary school and we were fascinated to see a mzungu with a big beard; it is through that priest that I was attracted to the Church,” he explains during an interview with The Seed.
Fr Ntiyesia describes Bishop Davis as a shepherd who was very tough especially on pastoral issues.
“His focus was on creating good Christians; how many children have been baptized, how many couples have received the sacrament of matrimony and things like that. He used to say if you want to develop the diocese create or make more faithful and then the rest will come.”
Fr Shayo reiterates Fr Ntiyesia’s sentiments saying Bishop Davis tenure was characterized by several priestly ordinations and establishment of about 26 parishes.
“A unique aspect of Bishop Davis is that wherever he would want to start a mission he would identify and initiate friendships with local well known families and seek their collaboration. He often visited the people and lived with them in the Manyattas, plus he related well with the chiefs and the leaders of the communities,” states Fr Shayo.
Bishop Davis also encouraged the priests to learn the local language, and he initiated the Maasai cultural centre in Lemek.
“Even as seminarians we used to go to the people and stay in the Manyattas especially during our pastoral experience. We spent a whole year before going to major seminary learning the language and culture of the people,” he says.
Following his retirement in November 23, 2002 Bishop Davis was succeeded by Bishop Cornelius Schilder also a Mill Hill Missionary who had worked in the diocese as a priest in Lemek Parish.
“He followed the steps of his predecessor focusing on the people; he spoke the language well and valued the Maasai culture plus he was very keen on helping them sustain themselves by coming up with better breeds of cattle,” says Fr Shayo.
Bishop Schilder’s main message however, was that the Church should be ready to start supporting itself, explains Fr Ntiyesia.
“This message was not new but a bit strange for the people to hear a mzungu bishop say there is no money, and that enlightened people and made them begin to strategize on how to be self reliant,” says Fr Ntiyesia.
“He was just starting on issues of how to increase the income of the diocese, unfortunately before we could embark on anything he went to Rome for appeals but later resigned on August 1, 2009 because of ill health,” he adds.
The diocese remained without a bishop for about three years with John Cardinal Njue the Archbishop of Nairobi as the Apostolic Administrator.
It was during this period that the diocese implemented the idea of bringing all the parishes in the diocese together under the Family Day.
The diocese set development targets for the parishes and on the first Saturday of December 2008, all the parishes gathered together as the family of Ngong and contributed towards the support of the diocese.
This included contributing towards projects such as the construction of the new cathedral in Ngong town a project that was initiated by Bishop Schilder.
“That year we managed to raise about Ksh 8.9 million and the Family Day has now became a tradition with the contribution increasing in the subsequent years, example in 2015 it reached about Ksh 29 million because now people own the idea and the spirit of self reliance,” states Fr Ntiyesia.
Bishop John Oballa Owaa was appointed the third bishop of Ngong — the first African Bishop of the See.
Today, the Catholic Diocese of Ngong has grown to be a robust church that continues to flourish under the leadership of its third bishop Rt Rev John Oballa Owaa who was ordained on January 7, 2012.
The expansive diocese located in southern Kenya covers an area of 47,000 square kilometers, boasts 33 parishes, with approximately 100,000 Catholics out of a total population of approximately 1,011,000 people, predominantly from the Maasai community.
By Stephen Mukhongi
THE SEED MAGAZINE