Six weeks after the coup attempt of August 1st, 1982, a young Irish priest arrived in Kenya to take up his first missionary posting in the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar in Turkana, a deeply impoverished and marginalised region in the semi-arid northwest of the country. Gabriel Dolan couldn’t have come to the country at a more challenging time. President Daniel arap Moi was tightening the screws on all forms of opposition to his rule, and the country was rapidly descending into a dictatorship.
But Father Dolan was not daunted by the many obstacles his missionary work in Kenya would likely face. Instead he saw them as an opportunity to carry out Christ’s vision by empowering the millions of people in the country who had been neglected and oppressed by the state for years. Like the many liberation theologians in Latin America who fought against dictatorship in the 1980s, he had a vision of a people being free of poverty, violence, ignorance and oppression. After seeing the dire conditions in Turkana, he founded the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, which became an important vehicle through which the people of the region could voice their concerns. As so began a journey that would see Dolan not only become a thorn in the flesh of powerful Kenyan politicians but the country’s elite clergy as well.
The Catholic priest’s human rights work in Kenya over the last forty years, which almost got him killed, has now been captured in his book Undaunted: Stories of Freedom in a Shackled Society – a scathing indictment of Kenyan society and its political leaders. In the book Gabriel Dolan describes his work in Lodwar, Kitale and Mombasa, three very different part of the country with their unique challenges, but ones he was familiar with, poverty being one of them. Like colonised Kenyans, the people of Northern Ireland had experienced landlessness and evictions under the British Crown. Poverty and homelessness were ever-present threats during Dolan’s childhood. His father worked as a farm labourer and the family lived in a house that lacked electricity and running water. When the landlord sold the farm, the Dolan family couldn’t find another home for months due to discriminatory housing policies that favoured the ruling elite. That heartbreaking childhood experience, he says, instilled a compassion in him for the thousands of people in Kenya who face the threat of demolition and eviction on a daily basis.
It is, therefore, no surprise that much of Father Dolan’s work revolves around land and housing rights, which in Kenya are extremely volatile issues that have been festering beneath the surface for decades. He does not mince words when he blames post-independence leaders of perpetuating land alienation and displacement that marked the country’s colonial history, and for failing to implement policies that would reverse skewed land distribution.
“The families of the country’s three Presidents since independence jointly own around one million acres of the best and most valuable land in the country…Displaying most of your wealth before your citizens’ eyes makes you quite vulnerable in time of conflict and transition. It also provides a powerful motive to retain power at all costs because a radical change in leadership would put your property and businesses in real jeopardy. That message is often not understood by the Kenyan public despite their obsession with the politics of transition ” he writes.
Dolan documents various cases of housing rights violations and outright theft of public land by politicians, including a heartbreaking case where the Kenyatta family callously evicted people in Taita Taveta to secure 20,000 acres of land. Not only were the people violently evicted but their water supply was also deliberately cut off. Recent promises by President Uhuru Kenyatta to hand over some of the land to the original inhabitants also resulted in tears as the title deeds issued had no clear owner, with some titles having more than one family registered. Others were given titles to land that was already occupied. “How much land does one family need?” asks Dolan.
Father Dolan also wades into various timely topics that have impacted Kenyan lives in the last few years, including devolution. While not dismissive of the concept, he believes that some governors have started to act like mini dictators by milking their counties for their personal benefit. He has a particular bone to pick with Mombasa governor Hassan Ali Joho, who has been challenged in court by Haki Yetu, an organisation founded by Dolan, for taking on an expensive housing project on public land with little public participation, and without consulting the communities affected. Joho called Dolan “an enemy of development” even though it was clear that the project would have benefitted very few people and that private developers would be the biggest beneficiaries.
It is quite obvious that Father Dolan has been inspired by another Catholic priest in Kenya who was murdered for defending the rights of the poor. Although he barely knew John Kaiser, the American missionary whose mysterious death in August 2000 led to public outcry and a botched Commission of Inquiry, Dolan sees in Kaiser a man of God who was not afraid to speak truth to power, even if it meant exposing some of the country’s most powerful politicians. Father Kaiser’s revelations cost him his life, but as Dolan says, his death did not end the struggle for truth and justice in Kenya.
While reading the book, I couldn’t help wondering if it is Father Dolan’s deep faith that propels him to work for the voiceless or whether he is an iconoclast who uses the Church to carry out his rebellion. My feeling is that it is both – not only do Jesus’s teachings motivate him but Kenya’s highly unequal and unjust society provides him with a just cause. He is deeply inspired by Catholic priests in Latin America who laid down their lives to protect the poor, and by Pope Francis, who comes from the same tradition.
I envy Father Dolan’s faith, because those of us who work in the arena of human rights struggle with issues to do with religion. Many, like myself, abandoned organised religions years ago because we could not reconcile these religions’ deeply patriarchal and hierarchical structures with our advocacy for a just, egalitarian, and non-sexist world. So I expected a book that, while speaking for the poor and voiceless, would also be reverential towards the Catholic Church in Kenya. But Father Dolan has few kind words to say about Kenya’s clergy that he believes has been almost completely coopted and compromised by a rapacious political establishment.
“For the last ten years, politicians have been donating millions of shillings to Catholic churches and institutions in Kenya. Most of these ‘generous’ men – always men – have never explained the source of their massive wealth yet they have been linked to mega corruption scandals and land grabbing as well as the looting of the public coffers for decades,” he writes. As a result, Christianity has become an integral and vital part of a dysfunctional society and priests have become “commodities for hire”.
In defending his position, he quotes Pope Francis, who said: “The scandal of poverty cannot be adequately addressed by promoting strategies of containment that only tranquilize the poor and render them tame and inoffensive.”
He is also not afraid to criticize the global Catholic Church, which he thinks has veered off its original path of charity and mercy and become an extremely hierarchal, male-dominated institution. “If the Church had a more open, accountable and democratic structure for engagement with the public, would the evils of sexual abuse not have been avoided and the lives of thousands of children been better protected?” he asks.
Gabriel Dolan is a man of rare courage. I suppose one of the advantages he has over Kenyan writers and commentators is that he represents a powerful international religious institution that few Kenyan politicians would dare to take on. But as the case of Father Kaiser (who Dolan describes as a martyr) shows, even men of God in Kenya can be eliminated if they pose a threat to the status quo. By documenting his experiences, Father Dolan has done this country a huge favour. Present and future Kenyan generations will get to understand how and why we got to the place where we are at now.