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Kenyan priests help communities cope with impact of climate change

NAIROBI, Kenya — When needy parishioners come to Father Patrick Ndonga’s doorstep, they leave with a small bag of beans or cornmeal or even a small bottle of cooking oil.

At St. Stephen Catholic Mission in Machakos Diocese, the priest is caring for a congregation suffering chronic food and water shortages due to failed rains. For two consecutive seasons, the rains have been too little to support a harvest or fill up water sources such as dams and pans.

Recently, some of the villagers started appearing at the mission seeking food or manual labor to help feed their families.

“They come every day looking for food and some work. This has been more frequent in the last two years. The people have not seen a harvest since 2019,” Ndonga told Catholic News Service from Yathui. “The environment is very hostile at the moment, and the only hope they keep is in the church.”

The priest — like many other clerics — is helping the community cope with frequent droughts and food shortages. He said when the people arrive asking for food, he shares what other Christians have given. Sometimes the basket is empty, so he assigns them some manual work for a little pay, so they can buy food, at least for that day.

“It’s the poor who come, the old and the orphaned. If I have nothing, as I sometimes do, I tell them the basket is empty,” said Ndonga. “It’s a mystery how people are surviving. I think it is by God’s grace.”

Yet, the situation in Yathui is typical of many areas in Kenya and Africa. In September, the Kenyan government declared an ongoing drought disaster. It said at least 2.1 million people in 10 of the country’s 47 counties were affected by the climate change-induced drought.

In the Yathui area, everything revolves around rain-fed small-scale agriculture, but frustrations have set in as it becomes too difficult to predict weather patterns or rainfall.

While some people might not understand the complex science behind global warming or climate change, they know something is wrong.

Ndonga said when the rains fail — as is happening more frequently — the people become desperate but accept that God is teaching them something. Some who have heard about climate change say new survival tactics are needed but do not offer solutions, the priest said.

“From the pulpit, I am telling the congregations to adopt new farming methods to focus more on the drought-resistant crops, such as millet, sorghum and cassava,” said Ndonga.

“This is semi-arid area, and the people need to be educated on new farming methods and crops so that they can get a harvest,” he added.

The priest is teaching by example, going beyond rain-fed agriculture to tap borehole and dam water for farming. He is using the water to irrigate a small church farm within the mission compound. Although the small dam has since dried up, Father Ndonga hopes when the rains come, the dam will fill up again and support irrigation in the next dry season.

“I have been selling cabbages to the community. The crops were grown using simple drip irrigation, with the water being drawn from the borehole,” he said, adding that the future of Kenya’s small-scale agriculture is irrigation.

This farming method is turning into a learning process for the local congregation, with many coming to see and learn. The food harvested from the farm is used to feed students at a school he runs at the mission, while the surplus is sold in the community.

“Water in the parishes makes a lot of difference,” said Father Gerald Matolo, the priest in charge of Kavatini Parish in Kibwezi East area.

Stephen Kituku, a Kenya country consultant of the Cross Catholic Outreach, also stresses irrigation. The organization is drilling boreholes in Kenyan Catholic parishes to end water shortages and enable the parishes to engage in some form of farming for food sufficiency.

“The rains have become very unreliable. We are helping drill the boreholes so that the parishes can have enough water for use on Sundays and also engage in farming. Some have been depending on the congregations for food,” said Kituku, a former Kenyan national director of the Catholic charitable agency Caritas.

In the Isiolo Apostolic Vicariate, the church through Caritas is moving to cushion the communities and help them survive the prolonged drought. Caritas gives out livestock feed and cash transfers to households as part of its emergency response, with support from Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian agency of Catholics in the United States.

Caritas Isiolo has given out a cash transfer of about $50 to 700 households for four months. It is also rehabilitating boreholes as part of the drought response.

“The drought is continuing and it’s very severe in a couple of places,” said James Galgalo, director of Caritas in Isiolo. “The whole aspect of sinking boreholes is to mitigate against climate change effect.”

He explained that since the people of the diocese are largely farmers, Caritas was trying diversification, putting the people in groups and urging them to save some money as groups. In 12 months, some of the groups have saved between $27,000 and $63,000.

“So, when the saving is shared, it’s a good sum of money that the people can invest. Some are investing in new dairy breeds, while others have bought poultry chicken. Some have established small shops,” said Galgalo.

He said the people know about climate change because they have seen the rains coming late or triggering floods. Caritas officials have explained to them that discussions are ongoing on what each county can do and what each person can do to mitigate climate change.

“So, we encourage them to engage in tree planting or think of what they can do to improve rainfall,” he said.

At the same time, Father Ndonga urges richer nations responsible for gas emissions that cause climate change to show concern for poor communities.

“They should look for other means to run the industries. Climate change impacts are devastating poor communities,” said the priest.

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