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Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia:The priest who dared and dodged Moi secret police

Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia

Dressed in a crisp suit, a shiny rosary in hand, nothing in Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia, the current dean of students at the Technical University of Kenya (formerly the Kenya Polytechnic) betrays his past as a fiery cleric playing dangerous games with the authorities under the repressive KANU rule in the 1980s and early 1990s. But last week, Fr Ndikaru related to the People on Sunday, events of those dark days which he said should be a reminder to Kenyans of the journey we have travelled as we prepare to commemorate the Jubilee anniversary of independence in a fortnight. It all began after the 1982 attempted military coup.

On surviving the coup, says Fr Ndikaru, President Moi who hitherto had projected the image of a humble man to a point he had been called a “passing cloud” in some quarters, suddenly became a wounded tiger, ready to tear everyone and everything around. Actually, Moi simply went paranoid, says the priest-cum-lecturer. “The president suddenly began to see enemies everywhere he turned. To him, everybody was conspiring against him and had to be cut down to size before they made a move.

He seemed to trust nobody except one or two people from his backyard.” The first casualties were the politicians who he dealt with through the so called Njonjo/traitor purge. Then he came up with the KANU disciplinary machine that literally put the fear of the deity in Kenyan politicians. Next Moi raided the academia and silenced all critical voices through detentions, imprisonment on trumped up charges, and forced exiles.

Not to rest there, Moi silenced the legal fraternity through detentions and removal of the security of tenure of the judges and the Attorney General. The press was not spared either, as publications were banned and editors put behind bars without much ceremony. “By the end of the 1980s Moi had, so to speak, castrated all the voices of dissent in the country”, says Fr Ndikaru. Fr Ndikaru says the only group Moi found hard to suppress was the church.

“He could issue threats here and there, but certainly he couldn’t storm a church and drag a troublesome clergyman to detention or prison”, he says. But for some like Fr Ndikaru, who went “beyond” what Moi could take, it had to be a hide-and-seek game. In this dangerous game, Anglican Bishop Alexander Muge died in a mysterious road crash while outspokenPCEA clergyman, Rev Timothy Njoya, was twice mercilessly clobbered and left for dead.

Fr Dr Ndikaru [centre] with Dr Kerre [left] and Dr Kipruto

Fr Dr Ndikaru [centre] with Dr Kerre [left] and Dr Kipruto

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Somehow, Fr Ndikaru managed to get away with it by going into hide-out before fleeing the country altogether. How Fr Ndikaru survived crackdown Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia was hitherto a little known Catholic parish priest at the St Matia Mulumba Catholic Church in Thika, until he started delivering stinging sermons demanding citizen’s rights and democracy in Kenya.

Because of daring to say what nobody else said those days, Fr Ndikaru became the darling of the media. The press would camp at his church every Sunday knowing for sure they would not miss a headline from his hard-hitting written sermons. He was among the very few who would address President Moi by name. He would demand that the President release those in detention, allow a multi-party system, and stop the run-away corruption in the public sector.

Just like the media flocked to Fr Ndikaru church, so would State spy agents deployed to report on the priest’s “subversive” activities. Then came one of the early head on crashes with the authorities. A chemicals factory in Thika town owned by individuals well wired with State House was releasing harmful emissions in a residential area. Fr Ndikaru repeatedly spoke against it but it never stopped. Realising that he was talking to the deaf, Fr Ndikaru mobilised thousands of Thika residents and poured into the streets.

They blocked all the roads and camped outside Thika Police Station. Next they declared a hunger strike and vowed not to leave the streets until the offensive factory was re-located. He recalls: “To break the demonstration, I was arrested and charged with obstruction and leading an unlicensed demonstration. At the police station, I recorded a statement to the effect that I had only led a demonstration without a permit because when I sought one, it was denied.

I concluded my statement by saying that it is the police who had denied me a permit to demonstrate and the owners of the factory that was polluting the environment and causing deaths who ought to be prosecuted.” On consultations with his superiors, Fr Ndikaru was set free. But the story didn’t end there. Knowing that they couldn’t jail a priest and avoid international outcry from the church and civil rights activists, the authorities thought of better ways to “skin the cat”. First, President Moi ordered that the offensive factory stop their harmful emissions and compensate the affected. But that was the carrot.

The stick was that Moi personally asked then head of Catholic church, the late Cardinal Maurice Otunga to transfer the troublesome priest faraway from Thika. Recalls Fr Ndikaru: “The Cardinal called me to his office and told me he was under a lot of pressure from State House to have me transferred to a parish where press would find it difficult to keep track. Alternatively, he was asked to ask me to tone down my criticism of the system. Luckily, the Cardinal told me he had no intention to do either.”

Then the State turned to dirty tricks. Fr Ndikaru says strange people began to follow him wherever he went. “Though I knew I was being followed, now they made sure I knew I was being followed. Strangers would pop up wherever I was. Guards would tell me of strange white cars showing up outside my house at night. My phone would make strange noise whenever I picked it. Somebody just wanted me to get the message that they were monitoring my every move and that I was living at their mercy. Mark you, that was so soon after Bishop Muge mysterious accident and disappearance of Cabinet Minister Robert Ouko.”

Then one day, a friend within the security system advised Fr Ndkaru that it was wise to temporarily go into hiding. “My friend was convinced there was real danger and that I needed take cover for a while. I knew he meant well and took him seriously”, recalls the priest. He chose to hide at the Sister’s Mission at Mary Hills Girls School, Mang’u, where he was convinced security agents would have no clue. He was wrong. The mysterious white cars shifted base from his parish and camped at the Sister’s place.

And just to make him understand he could run but not hide, mysterious people would telephone in the middle of the night and ask for Fr Ndikaru. When referred to his parish, they would sarcastically reply that they had information he had “converted” to Sisterhood and posted there. “For the first time, I really feared for my life. I had no illusions that anybody deploying so much resources to keep track of my movements had no intention to harm me. After all, I would not be the first one to be made to disappear”, recalls Fr Ndikaru.

Then a friend came with an inspired idea. The best place to hide would be next door to a major security installation where everybody would find it crazy that someone under security watch could hide. Fr Ndikaru new hide-out would be a rented flat next door to then CID headquarters on Milimani Road, now the Nairobi area CID headquarters. And it worked. Fr Ndikaru laughs as he remembers the drama of those moments. “In their wildest imagination, I think the security intelligence didn’t think anyone could hide just next to the lion’s den.

That’s is why they never got a clue of my whereabouts.” The only problem with his new hide-out was that he would not venture out even for an hour of sunshine. “As the hunted, I was too close to to the hunter that I would dare not show my head”, he says. After three weeks staying indoors, arrangements were made to sprint him to Germany where he stayed for three months. However, on his return, Father Ndikaru was surprised that security agents had finally caught up with him within a week of arrival in a foreign land and had kept tabs on him for the three months he stayed in the Germany city of Munich.

“While all along I thought nobody except a few friends knew where I was, on landing at JKIA airport upon my return, a security agent appeared from nowhere and sarcastically welcomed me. He told me they knew where I had fled to and what I had been doing. That’s how good our intelligence people are”, he says. Fr Ndkaru relates another incident where he had to play hide-and-seek with the authorities in those dark days. This time round it entailed driving the late Prof Wangari Mathai from Nairobi to Nakuru incognito after President Moi ordered her arrest.

He recalls: “Bishop Ndingi Mwana a Nzeki, then the head of the Catholic Church in Nakuru, sent an emissary that I had to “smuggle” Prof Mathai to Nakuru where he had arranged a hiding place for her to escape arrest. It had to be done very fast as security agents were looking for her all over.” Driving a beaten Toyotta Corolla, Fr Ndikaru picked Wangari, disguised as a sickly, abandoned old woman at Uthiru in the outskirts of the city. Clad in a bui bui, she got into the back seat and like a real sick person collapsed into the seat as Fr Ndikaru steadily drove away from the city at about 9.30 in the morning.

He recalls the dramatic journey: “At the Kamandura-Limuru junction we were stopped by the police but when they saw the ‘sickly Somali’ old lady at the back, they just waved us on. The same happened at a road block opposite the Delamere farm in Naivasha”. However at the toll station near Gilgil, they were flagged down by mean looking General Service Unit (GSU) officers.

“For a moment, we said a silent prayer fearing the worst”, says Fr. Ndikaru. “Where are you going?” a burly man asked in an intimidating tone, his eyes fixated on the “Somali” woman slumped on the back seat”. Fr Ndikaru was terrified that the officer would recognise Wangari. “I have never felt that kind of fear in my life”. But before he could respond, the officer enquired, “Kwani Mama ni mgonjwa” (is the old lady sick?) to which he automatically and in relief responded, “Ee, ni mgonjwa sana” (Yes, she is very sick), which he calls a ‘holy lie’ but given the circumstances, he believes God forgave him.

“Haya basi, kimbia haraka umpeleke hospitali pale Gilgil” (then hurry up and take her to hospital in Gilgil). There were no other major incidents on the rest of the journey to Nakuru and Fr Ndikaru dropped Wangari at the garage of the Nakuru Christ the King Cathedral at around 1.00 pm. Fifteen minutes later he was on his way back to Nairobi. Ndikaru says the church stepped in when there was no other voice to speak for the masses and to those who may ask why the church is quiet today he says, “Today people can talk for themselves; they can call anybody including the president names, but at that time even thinking about the President could land you in trouble”.

-The People

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