By Giada Aquilino
Nyahururu is only 3 km from the Equator and 200 km from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. With 100,000 inhabitants, including the hinterland and rural area, it lies in the heart of the Rift Valley, the world's largest tectonic trench that stretches about 6,000 km from Syria to Mozambique. The Saint Martin social apostolate opened here in 1999. It was founded by Fr Gabriele Pipinato, an Italian priest and fidei donum missionary in Kenya. Work has continued with the collaboration of the Fontana Onlus Foundation and the diocese of Padua, which has been active in Kenya since 1965. Saint Martin assists different categories of vulnerable people: street children, people with disabilities, and drug addicts. With the involvement of the local population, it includes 700 volunteers and 65 employees. "Only through community" is its motto. On 11 November, the feast of St. Martin, it celebrated its 20th anniversary.
The story of an Italian priest in Kenya
Another fidei donum priest in Kenya, also from the diocese of Padua, Fr Mariano Dal Ponte, headed the organization from 2012 to 2019. He recently returned to Italy and spoke to Vatican News saying he is “still in love” with the most beautiful gift he could have had in my life: “the fact of spending those years as a priest in Kenya", according to the "call of the Gospel to live solidarity and fraternity". He explains that Saint Martin is a reality that involves the local community, and that volunteers "are fundamentally committed to encountering the weakest, the poorest, not only to help them but to let themselves be transformed" by them.
The birth of Saint Martin
It was from an encounter that the story of Saint Martin began in the late nineties: Fr Gabriele Pipinato met Thomas, a disabled boy who lived, literally "locked in a room". People like him, says Fr Mariano, "were hidden and even considered cursed, for the very fact of being disabled". The priest was invited to visit the boy’s house and to bless his family, the rooms, the animals, the farm, the surrounding fields – but not Thomas. It was by chance that Fr Gabriele happened to open the door of the room in which Thomas was kept, and saw him. That is when he realized he had to do something. Today, the organization is active in three areas of Kenya: Baringo, Laikipia and Nyandarua. Everything started with a project for the disabled, recently entrusted to the l’Arche Community, founded by Jean Vanier - and then progressed with projects for street children, drug addicts, peace and reconciliation, and those suffering with HIV Aids. The most recent project is devoted to people with intellectual disabilities.
"Our apostolate is of a social type", says Fr Mariano, a sign of belonging that goes beyond any distance. They welcome street children in three centers and run a rehabilitation process with them, before trying to involve the family of origin, trying to understand if the family can reintegrate them or not – in which case they look for foster parents. The organization continues to follow the children for several years. This project now concerns all children in difficulty. Through the Juvenile Court of Nyahururu, cases of girls who are victims of violence are also reported to Saint Martin. “And so we have a women's centre that hosts all these little girls". People with intellectual disabilities are still considered "poor among the poor", they are marginalized and given no attention, Saint Martin offers a "path of formation of the community on what constitutes mental illness and how to approach, how to accompany, people who suffer from it". Special attention is given to "the relationship with the family, the dignity of life".
The return of Lawrence
There are many stories to be told about the twenty years of Saint Martin. Fr Mariano remembers that of a street boy, whom he calls Lawrence, so as not to violate his privacy. The priest met him at the beginning of his experience as director of the organization and noticed that he had a physical disability that forced him to use a crutch. "He didn't actually have a family, he was welcomed into our rehabilitation centers, he was helped to study and, with the involvement of his neighbors, he went ahead and became a teacher. Last year, a person who none of us recognized came to morning prayer at the beginning of the week. As always, all the guests said hello and he did too, saying, 'Maybe you don't remember me, I am Lawrence, I came to thank you because you believed in me when no one did and I became a high school teacher. Now I'm getting married. I've come to bring you the invitation to my wedding. I don't want any presents, but I am committed to supporting Saint Martin's, so that another street boy you welcome can study and have the same chance as I did”. This is just one example, says Fr Mariano, of a good gesture that "transforms not only the life" of those who are helped, but that creates a different approach in that person, and in others.
Only through community
This daily commitment focuses on the beneficiaries of the project, with the aim of promoting the inclusion of the most vulnerable in society and, if possible, in the workplace. But the commitment does not end there. The motto "Only through community" pushes operators to involve schools, institutions and the Christian community, around vulnerable people, taking care of them free of charge as volunteer teachers, doctors, lawyers, so that they are not left on the margins. “Inclusion” for Saint Martin means being at the side of those in need, but "the people who are involved in these situations of need are also transformed when they encounter the healing we all need: the healing of the heart". This means taking on every fragility by involving "families, neighboring communities, the Church to which they belongs, so much so that Saint Martin is an ecumenical organization”, says Fr Mariano. “We involve the Church to which that person belongs so that it may commit itself to welcoming him or her and to taking the necessary path towards inclusion".
Inside situations of need
Every morning the social workers of the organization leave the Nyahururu headquarters and move within a radius of about 80 km. "They go to meet volunteers or those in need, depending on the area, and then involve the community in those situations". Saint Martin, says Fr Mariano, is in the community, in the villages. “It is not an organization that institutionalizes the care it provides. Instead, it reaches families, even in small rural centers, tries to involve people around the person in need, appoints volunteers on the spot. The organization provides these volunteers with professional training about disability, the specific needs, and spiritual preparation. Then the project is followed and monitored. When hospital care is required, the patient is supported or treated in appropriate centres".
Shabaab and locusts
The area in which the organization operates, in the central part of Kenya, "is a rural reality, where material poverty is encountered, especially in the areas farthest from the centre of Nyahururu". An example of social vulnerability might be that of an alcoholic father or mother who abandon their children, leaving them without a home or food. The broader context in that of a country that still suffers from corruption, social inequalities, unemployment, and the violence linked to jihadist attacks by the al-Shabaab group. Recent weeks have seen huge losses of forest reserves and animals due to the invasion of millions of locusts.
The future in the hands of a woman
According to Fr Mariano, Kenya is still "a beautiful country” from the point of view of nature, potential, and the people who live there. He hopes these people may “continue to cultivate all the beauty and goodness that it carries within its roots, within its culture". He hopes they won’t give in to the "dazzle of becoming an emerging economy - because it is becoming one - in which the temptation to run after Western model risks diminishing, or watering down, the uniqueness and originality of its people". The rural reality is a healthy one, he says, in which it is easy to involve the community" around projects like those of Saint Martin. When Fr Mariano returned to Italy, the direction of Saint Martin passed into the hands of a lawyer who works for the Supreme Court of Kenya. Her name is Irene Whamiti. She is 55 years old, and was one of the first to become a volunteer at Saint Martin twenty years ago. Now she is in charge of the dozens of boys and girls, men, women, and elderly people who are not self-sufficient, along with their families who, without any help, would be abandoned to their fate.
"She has taken the reins of Saint Martin as director and as a volunteer”, says Fr Mariano. “Irene does not receive a salary for the work she does and is a person who not only knows the history of Saint Martin and cares about her mission, but is also a woman and a trained professional. It is a beautiful sign of gender equality, of what it can mean within the Church of Kenya and society in Kenya". For Fr Mariano, Saint Martin can now walk on its own legs, entrusted to the local African community. At the same time, he cannot forget his own experiences in Nyahururu. He promises to return to Kenya, even if only for a visit. "It would seem rude not to," he says. After all, he has friends there with whom he "suffered and rejoiced for twenty years". "And friendship”, he concludes, “lasts forever”.