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 CNS Story:

KENYA-MUKOBO Dec-7-2011 (800 words) With photos. xxxi

Dealing with tribal violence just part of Kenyan bishop's daily tasks

Bishop Mukobo gestures during a meeting with reporters and Catholic Relief Services personnel at his office. (CNS/Patricia Zapor)

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

ISIOLO, Kenya (CNS) -- Bishop Anthony Ireri Mukobo's day, week and month were about to take a turn from whatever he had scheduled.

An outbreak of violence the previous night in a rural part of his Apostolic Vicariate of Isiolo, in central Kenya, soon overrode much of his normal activity of overseeing the Catholic Church in a nearly 10,000-square-mile region.

As he welcomed visitors to his office, he periodically received updates about violent attacks between tribes in the region. He said he expected to visit the tribal areas to help calm his people and would be issuing a statement calling for peace.

Within a two-week period, more than 20 people were killed and more than 60 houses burned in tribal violence that led thousands of people to flee from their isolated villages and herding camps to seek shelter in churches and other places that offered more security.

As Bishop Mukobo explained, trying to bring peace to the people of central Kenya is a regular part of the church's work. Every social service or development program includes training in conflict resolution, he said.

"My job here is not just to build up the diocese, but solving problems," he said.

Tom Oywa, the Isiolo-based project officer for the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, told Catholic News Service that such flare-ups are a regular occurrence in a region where settling disputes with violence is a centuries-old tradition. Oywa said intertribal attacks often occur at the start of the rainy seasons, when herdsmen move their grazing animals closer to home, after weeks of a nomadic quest for grasslands miles away.

When herds are moved across land owned by other tribes, animals occasionally get stolen, leading to sometimes-lethal retaliation, Oywa explained. During those periods, it can become dangerous for CRS staffers who belong to the tribes involved to even travel into the region, he said.

One Turkana man, Gabriel Ilikwel, who served as a volunteer translator for the U.S. visitors, reported in November that his father-in-law, more than 80 years old, was among those killed.

"We have had a very difficult time during the period of conflict," Ilikwel said in an email. "More than 7,050 persons were displaced. In fact, I had to host more than 75 women, men and children in my small compound with very little to provide in terms of food and shelter."

"At least the situation is a little better now, but there is still fear and people are traumatized," he added.

In early November Oywa told CNS that Bishop Mukobo's staff had sponsored three conflict-resolution meetings. Oywa had previously proposed to local leaders that they start a fund that could serve as a kind of insurance program for livestock owners, he said. The fund would reimburse owners who lose animals to poachers as a way of tamping down tensions that lead to violence.

Isiolo has been Bishop Mukobo's home since early 2006, when he was named to fill the vacancy created when Bishop Luigi Locati was murdered. Two priests of the diocese were arrested in that killing, which at the time was reported to be related to the priests' displeasure with some of Bishop Locati's management decisions.

Bishop Mukobo, a Consolata missionary, is Kenyan. He has worked in Puerto Rico and Colombia, returning to Kenya to train other missionaries. He was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Nairobi in 1999.

His vicariate has just 12 parishes and 23 priests to serve 35,600 Catholics in its large territory. But numbers alone don't cover the breadth of what Bishop Mukobo sees as the church's function. Beyond the usual ecclesial functions, the Isiolo Vicariate opens its schools and social services to all. Though Kenya is majority Christian and Catholics make up the largest denomination, the majority of the people around Isiolo are Muslim.

Few mosques provide services such as food assistance and medical care, the bishop said.

"And what they do provide is segregated, only for Muslims," he said. "We provide for everyone.

"A sick person is a sick person," he added.

One of the bishop's proudest accomplishments was the opening of a maternity hospital, which provides a full range of women's health care. With a main focus on preventing deaths from childbirth complications, the hospital relies on community health workers to teach women the early signs that they are about to go into labor, giving them the hours or days necessary to travel to the hospital in time.

There's a main hospital in Isiolo and a mobile clinic, both supported by assistance from CRS and the English and Welsh bishops' Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.

"These are areas of work where we are dealing with the needs of individuals: food, water, sanitation, health care, peacebuilding," Bishop Mukobo said. "That is evangelization. I don't have to shout at you."


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