Retired Catholic Archbishop Ndingi Mwana a'Nzeki's death on Tuesday this week came as a peculiar coincidence. He died on the same month as both his mother Maria Muthoki and father Ngila Nzeki who passed away on March 27, 1972 and March 6, 1976, respectively.
But this was not all. Mwana a'Nzeki had a peculiar touch for change that saw him make a huge difference at whatever task was thrown at him. He always served with great drive and would never accept failure.
This strongly endeared him church followers and communities. For instance when he had to leave the Diocese of Machakos in 1971 on transfer to the newly created Diocese of Nakuru, there was a protest from the people of Ukambani. They did not want their bishop transferred. And he had only been there two years! The then Apostolic Pro-Nuncio had to intervene strongly, quoting the maxim "Eos libere nominat Pontifex Romanus" which freely translated means the Roman Pontiff is free to choose whichever bishop he wants.
Mwana a'Nzeki is acclaimed for promoting education and independence of the church as well as voicing the concerns of the downtrodden.
He spearheaded fundraising events for building schools, hospitals and churches but remained true to his calling, never missing an opportunity to lead mass in many churches that he served.
His position as the Nairobi diocesan education secretary following his ordination as a priest by then Nairobi Archbishop John Joseph McCathy on January 31,1961 saw him participate in establishment of various Catholic-run secondary schools but his commitment to his religious duties earned him a new role on August 1, 1969 at the Namugongo Shrine of the Martyrs, Uganda, when he was ordained as Machakos bishop.
He would later be posted to Nakuru in 1971 that he headed for 25 years. Nakuru is the setting in which Mwana a'Nzeki expressed himself in a manner that made him a household name. Longevity in this vast and diverse area afforded him the opportunity to leave an indelible mark in its landscape. For 25 years he tarried with the most varied peoples in conditions that ranged from the plush Kericho highlands to the arid areas of East Pokot. Almost every ethnic group was represented in this cosmopolitan diocese and the bishop earned the respect of all.
Unknown to many, the churchman fully entrusted his priests with serving their respective congregations but was their lone voice when they reported to him about the impending ethnic clashes in various parts of Nakuru.
"I have information that youths are being trained to cause mayhem and eject anti-Kanu supporters from deemed Kanu Zones. The government must up hold the constitution by providing security," he said during one of his sermons.
And when the clashes broke out, he hired lorries to ferry displaced families to Nakuru where he housed the afflicted families in catholic churches.
At one point he criticised then Nakuru District Commissioner Ismael Chelang'a (now deceased) for withdrawing security men from Molo South, ostensibly to allow them visit their families and that opened the ethnic clashes floodgates leading to new deaths, maiming and displacements.
For this, Mwana a'Nzeki was summoned by the Rift Valley Provincial Security Committee (PSC) to provide evidence or risk arrest for purportedly lying that the government instigated the clashes. He presented himself at Nakuru PC offices but Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Zachary Ogongo and the PSC members locked themselves inside the PC's offices in Nakuru.
President Moi stepped into the matter and supported Mr Ogongo, saying the church was sympathetic to the opposition but this saw 21 catholic bishops issue a colloquium supporting Mwana a'Nzeki where they demanded an apology from the Rift Valley PC.
Mr Ogongo did the unfathomable_ defying Moi's position, saying the churchman was right and the government was wrong. Interestingly, he kept his job and was later promoted to become a permanent secretary.
He outlawed reservation of front pews for politicians saying they were mere “mortals” seeking God's favour every time they came to church.
Within the church, the cleric mooted income- generating activities that helped the church move towards self-reliance among them establishment of an insurance firm for its assets and those of its members.
In Nakuru, the church owns a commercial multi-storeyed building leased to institutions and private offices while in Nairobi, it recently unveiled an underground 500 car parking bay, among others.
According to Mwana a'Nzeki, it is eternal greats like politician Pio Gama Pinto, Bishop Alexander Muge, Father John Kaiser and university student leader Karimi Nduthu and many others known or unknown that are national heroes.
In his “Recognition as the Cornerstone of Improvement” speech delivered during a civil society meeting in Nairobi, the prelate observed that Kenya had a new chance to rebuild its institutions into people-centric entities. But this required everyone to play their role patriotically-putting the self away for national good.
"As we talk, we have a political dilemma in our hands. We have the challenge of ensuring that the government provides services to the citizens but does not disintegrate into campaigns mid-term. Governments are made to serve citizens, not to campaign in-between elections," he said.
After the lengthy service in Nakuru, Mwana a'Nzeki was transferred to Nairobi as the co-adjutor archbishop under Cardinal Maurice Otunga. He later succeeded him as head of Nairobi See.
To be at the helm of the Archdiocese of Nairobi is arguably the most difficult task any bishop can have. The importance of the See is signified in some way by the change of title. The holder of the office is no longer referred to as Bishop but Archbishop. He took his elevation to the Archdiocese of Nairobi in stride. He reorganised the management of parishes in the Archdiocese by firmly entrenching parish councils. The diocese moved from a net loss position to a surplus position. New ventures were started to ensure the diocese could pay its way. Schools were improved to ensure quality education and fresh investments were made in the healthcare system to ensure this critical service was available to the sick. Programmes to help street children were either expanded or initiated. King Midas was in town.
Mr Kariuki is a writer with the “Business Daily”. Fr Mwituria is a lecturer, St. Augustine Senior Seminary, Mabanga, Bungoma County.