“The best thing that has happened to me as a priest”

Father Kenneth Iwunna works as a missionary among the tribe of the Borana, traditionally a nomadic people, in a remote area of Ethiopia. For five years now, the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has been supporting the pastoral work of his parish with annual donations of 5,000 euros.

Father Kenneth Iwunna always wanted to become a priest. When he was a child, he attended Holy Mass every morning. There were even days on which he was late for school because of it. He was punished, but this did not stop him from going to Church. He also loved being an acolyte and the priest was his most important role model. “I liked everything that the priest did,” he explains with a smile.

His dream came true when the Nigerian, today 45 years old, joined the order of the Spiritans and actually did become a priest. He is now working in Ethiopia as a missionary. This was also a dream come true for him. “When I was still in formation, a priest returned from Ethiopia. He was a very good and modest person and I realized that I also wanted to go to Ethiopia. I knew nothing about the country, but still I wanted to go there. Before we were ordained to the priesthood, we were allowed to choose three places in the world where we would like to serve. I wrote Ethiopia as my 1st and 2nd choice and Nigeria as the third,” the priest remembers.

Father Kenneth Iwunna
Father Kenneth Iwunna

For seven years now, Father Kenneth Iwunna has lived as a missionary among the tribe of the Borana in southern Ethiopia. The Borana are traditionally a nomadic people, although many of the families have now become sedentary. However, a number of them still travel through the region with their herds. Father Kenneth recalls, “My first impression of the region was that it was truly extremely remote. But to work in remote regions where the Church is struggling is part of the charism of our order.” Today, he is priest of the Holy Cross Parish, which has its seat in Dhadim. Today, 5,000 of the parish’s 9,000 residents are Catholic – and their numbers are growing. A large number of people want to be baptised.

“One of the main attractions of Christianity for the Borana people is that each and every person is loved. Furthermore, they are impressed by the universality of the Church and want to belong to it. We celebrate Holy Mass here the same way in which it is celebrated in Rome or other places,” Father Kenneth reports.

The parish is quite vibrant. Catechesis and Bible studies are held and Father Kenneth Iwunna has begun a vocation ministry, which has already borne fruit: two girls from the tribe of the Borana would like to become religious sisters, and five boys have expressed an interest in the priesthood.

The youth is particularly active: 250 young people are regularly involved in parish activities.

Thanks to the aid granted by ACN, each year, 65 to 100 young people can take part in a three-day pastoral programme that is held in another diocese. “Most of them have never been anywhere other than their own village. For them it is an important experience to get together with young people from other tribes and talk about what they know. They may not speak the same language, but we make sure that someone is there who can interpret. The young people grow in their faith and experience the Church in a new way. However, another advantage is that they are more motivated afterwards to learn another language such as English and to go to school. These days are not only of benefit to them, but to the entire community. Because when the young people come back, they talk about their experiences at Church. And the older people are also very interested in this.”

Thanks to ACN’s support, it was also possible to initiate a programme for married couples who have accepted the Christian faith. Father Kenneth explains, “The newly baptised adults are faced with the problem that they were not married in the Church. This means that they cannot receive Holy Communion. However, many do not have the money for the rings, the formal attire and the celebration that they must hold. And so we hold marriage ceremonies for several couples at a time and buy everything that they need for the celebration. It is a great relief for the couples when they are finally wed by the Church and can receive Holy Communion.”

Father Kenneth Iwunna works as a missionary among the tribe of the Borana
Father Kenneth Iwunna works as a missionary among the tribe of the Borana

The situation of the women has also improved. “Traditionally, the Borana women are very shy. Tradition prohibits them from doing anything outside of the home. The Church is trying to help them get out of the house more. We offer them an opportunity to become catechists and to teach. The people have accepted this and now find it good. We also encourage the girls to go to school. This has led to a sharp decline in very early marriages. We believe in evangelisation through education.”

Overall, many things have improved. In the past, feuds often broke out between the tribes living in the region. In the meantime, the situation has vastly improved – also thanks to the presence of the Catholic Church. “Only in times of drought do conflicts sometimes arise between the farmers and herdsmen who are looking for pastureland,” the priest reports. “In order to improve the situation even further, we would soon like to offer courses in peace, reconciliation and interreligious dialogue at the church.”

However, there are still enough challenges to be faced. “The roads are in poor condition and most places can only be reached by foot, moped or bicycle. I sometimes have to travel 25 to 30 kilometres. When I am traveling alone and have to go through the forest, I am sometimes afraid. There are leopards, huge snakes and large numbers of hyenas. When I am called out for an emergency, I often have to travel by myself at night.”

Father Kenneth would prefer to spend his entire life in Ethiopia. He is happy in his role as missionary among the Borana people. “For me as a priest, this here is the best experience ever. My faith has grown even stronger by being here. I can help people who are not able to help themselves. I can help them get to know God better and through this, I give them life. This is the best thing that could have happened to me.”

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