Encounter with Cardinal Otunga, the prelate who was buried twice

Cardinal Maurice Otunga. [File, Standard]

Recently, I was in Kisii County to take my son to Form One. But do I say? He was admitted to Nyambaria High, the school that had the best national KCSE mean score last year.

On my way back, I passed by the gate of Cardinal Otunga High School, Mosocho. That sent me down memory lane in remembrance of the great man for whom the school is named - Maurice Cardinal Michael Otunga.

Just as well because this year is the 50th anniversary since he was named first Kenyan Cardinal of the Catholic Church. The only other Cardinal Kenya has had is John Cardinal Njue who retired as Archbishop of Nairobi two years ago.

There are only 223 Cardinals in the world today. Cardinal is the next highest rank in the Catholic Church after the Pope. Only 123 of 223 Cardinals are electors - meaning they are only ones allowed to cast votes in determining the next Pope when a vacancy arises on death - and very rare - on resignation of the incumbent.

So far, only three Popes have quit before death - Pope Celestine V in the year 1294, Pope Gregory XII in 1415 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2013.


I met Maurice Cardinal Michael Otunga in 1998, a year after he retired, and five years before his death in September 2003.

I sought appointment to meet him from the Kenya Catholic Church head office at Waumini House in Nairobi's Westlands area. I was directed to the Apostolic Nuncio not far away which is the official residence of the Pope's representative to Kenya. There, I was advised that the media house I worked for must officially write to the Vatican through the Papal Nuncio in Nairobi for me to secure appointment with the retired Cardinal.

Journalists don't like that much red tape on small matters like an interview. Why seek permission from Rome to talk to a person who resided in my neighbourhood right here in Nairobi?

I decided to ignore all protocols and seek out the retired man of God at a home for the aged in the city's Huruma slums where he insisted on retiring against wishes of the church which would have wanted him to live in more comfort elsewhere.

To make it as informal as it could get, I decided to drive alone to the charity home where he lived on a Saturday afternoon. I calmly introduced myself to the tough-talking guard at the gate who was adamant that I must have an appointment to be allowed in.

Italian tigress

After about 10 minutes of tough haggling with the guard, I was allowed in to find another no-nonsense sister-in-charge who threatened to throw me out of her office for walking in on a Saturday afternoon without appointment!

She was mad because, on finding nobody at the reception, I proceeded to her office whose door was wide open only to find her alone at the mirror her head wrapping off. She quickly put it back to face this intruder.

First, she telephoned the guard at the gate to quarrel him on why I had been allowed in without an appointment. Next she asked for my identity and a clear explanation why I wanted to interview the retired Cardinal, and for what gain.


Fortunately, being a Saturday afternoon, I had passed by my 'local' and quickly 'swallowed' one for the road. Just as well because I needed a 'booster' to help me calm this Italian tigress who had denied herself the joys of a marriage to serve Jesus Christ in a dusty and mosquito-ridden African slum. Being a sunny afternoon, the sweltering heat most likely may have been cause of her live-wire temper.

Having been born in a female-dominated family, I learnt long time ago the futility of reasoning with an agitated female. You may not win simply because she won't listen to whatever good reason you may have.

My grandmother - Cucu Beth - once advised me that when caught in an argument with a woman, the best thing is to first walk away from her and reason with her after she has calmed. Otherwise you will waste your time and all the good points you may have.

Good chemistry

I calmly told the sister-in-charge who I was; the media group I worked for, and what good it would serve the retired cardinal, the church and the country at large to have his story told.

To my delight, she gradually calmed down and listened, her facial expression changing from hostility to friendship. She even offered me a drink from a small fringe behind her. I was tempted to ask for a glass of nice Italian wine I could see in the casing but I tamed my thirst for the 'evil' drink and asked for a soda much as I salivated for the alternative in the shelf.

My humble demeanour - real or pretended - must have prevailed over her tigress self. She asked me to give her five minutes to wake up the Cardinal-emeritus from afternoon siesta and prepare him for the interview.

But as a condition, she said she would sit in the interview and interject where she thought it was in the interest of the Cardinal-emeritus and the wider Church in general. I had no objection.

Gems of wisdom

Since there is no space to reproduce verbatim all he said in the interview, I will cherry-pick excerpts from it.

On why the man of God choose to live with the aged at the charity home against wishes of the Church, he explained: "I love my Church and I am so humbled that they wish and want me to have the very best in my retirement. But there is nothing wrong living with these old people. I am old. You will be some day. After all we have come from these people."

Ecumenical as he was, Cardinal Otunga was also very much alive to and concerned about what took place in the worldly scene. He never hesitated and neither feared to speak his mind.

Just before his death, he publicly spoke out what he thought of Kenya. This is what he said:

"...There is no love among us. Poverty is a major problem. ...So much greed and so much corruption by a few individuals. People have got to learn to change their ways."

His parting shot was: "My spirit is willing to stay longer but my body is weak ... There is nothing greater than true love ... Love that knows not gender, tribe or race..."


I am sure God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit dwells with and comforts the departed Cardinal where his soul is. Pray we shall all join him when the day comes. Amen.

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