All Africa Press Service

1 September 1997

Kenya: Nairobi's Street Children Mourn Their "Father"

Nairobi (APS) — Nairobi's street children turned out in force to bid farewell to the remarkable padre who dedicated his life to rehabilitating street children and helping the marginalised in society.

Father Arnold Grol, the founder of Undugu (Brotherhood) Society of Kenya died on August 18 in his sleep in the coastal city Mombasa, following a massive heart attack. He was 73.

Besides street children of Nairobi whom he helped rehabilitate for 20 years, Fr. Grol expanded his caring apostolate to include street girls, the sick and those incarcerated in Kenya's prisons. But it was his work among street children and slum poor that was most publicised. In Nairobi, street kids are called "parking boys/girls" because of their habit of guiding cars into parking bays in return for a coin.

Many among them shed tears as they shoved the earth into the grave from start to finish. In their farewell song they asked "What can we ever do to repay your kindness to us?" In Swahili they said "Shukran Baba Kwa Ulinzi Wote") Thank you Father for all the Security and Generosity.)

Father Grol's nephew, Cees Grol 45, who represented the family in Holland and America said he was very happy that his uncle had been buried by the people he cared for. "It was wonderful he was buried by street children he liked so much," he told this correspondent.

Before his body was taken for burial in the serene resting grounds for White Fathers in the Msongari suburbs of Nairobi, far away from the city's teeming slums of the Eastlands Deanery, where he lived and worked for 25 years, a requiem mass was held at his own church, St. Theresa's in Eastleigh (named by the British who had a large airbase in the area during the Second War).

The mass was conducted by the Archbishop of Nairobi and head of the Catholic Church in Kenya Raphael Ndingi Mwana a' Nzeki, who described Father Grol as a very remarkable man who was humble and ordinary. "He was a simple priest who lived a simple priestly life and who is being buried in a simple coffin which portrays what he was," added the Archbishop. Even Ndingi was surprised by the extraordinary crowd that turned out to bid farewell to the late Grol.

Though ailing, Ndingi's predecessor as Archbishop of Nairobi, retired Maurice Cardinal Otunga came in person to underscore the importance of continuing the work of the departed White Father among the slum poor of Nairobi. He emphasised that his projects must carry on and not be allowed to falter now that the person who began them was gone.

Many others who spoke at the service paid glowing tribute to Grol and his legacy among society's poor and others who previously felt they were hopeless cases.

Ambassador Dennis Afande, the Chairman of the Undugu Society of Kenya said as a result of the priest's work "there are now many families in the slums with access to clean water, basic shelter and regular nutrition and income. The lives of countless people will never be the same again, thanks to Fr. Grol."

Afande said Grol taught people to address the root causes of slum poverty and sought simple ideas that the poor could manage. A good example was the Undugu Basic Education Programme (UBEP) which Fr. Grol initiated to give children straight out of the street basic skills in reading, counting and writing. Grol knew that otherwise these children would reject the standard curriculum style education and return to the streets.

He emphasised human dignity and self reliance as fundamental principles in all rehabilitation work, for example in his work with prisoners.

In his tribute, the Commissioner of prisons in Kenya Mr. E.P. Lokopoyit,who was represented at the funeral by Senior Superintendent Makathimo, said Grol's legacy in Kenya's prisons was extensive. Among them, he started library services in most of the largest prisons in Kenya and paid for prisoners trade tests and professional exam fees.

To help their mental health and recreation, he provided items like televisions, radios, balls, guitars and indoor games. Grol also bought medicines for sick prisoners while his Undugu Jazz Band often entertained inmates.

Indeed after his death, the head of the Missionaries of Africa in Nairobi, Fr. Roger Tessier found among his papers newspaper cuttings relating to the high mortality in Kenya's prison system. Between May 18 and June 20 more than 18 prisoners died at Shimo la Tewa Prison in Mombasa due to various illnesses. Fr. Grol was completing a borehole at the prison at the time of his death.

The late Grol was born in Groningen, Holland, on February 6, 1924, and joined the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) in 1943, at the age of 19. He was confirmed priest in 1950. His first missionary posting was in the diocese of Sumbwanga along Lake Tanganyika, a year later, where he was to stay for 20 years.

Apparently dissatisfied with his parish work in Tanzania, he went for a one-year sabbatical at the Ggaba Pastoral Institute, then based in Uganda.

Prof. Alyward Shorter, Principal of Tangaza College in Nairobi, who was Grol's teacher at Ggaba 25 years ago, during which he decided to chart a new apostalate for himself concerned with Nairobi's poor, says he was happy "I had a little hand in his transformation." He described the late missionary as "a man with terrific creative imagination. He would come down to breakfast with a new idea everyday."

For example, some years ago, Grol told this APS correspondent of a brilliant idea he had to stop street children sniffing gum/glue (the solvent in gum makes them high but it also damages their health and could render them sterile. The children made some money foraging scrap metal and selling it to dealers but soon, gum merchants established little shops next to the scrap yard so they could profit from the money that the kids made on a daily basis.

To solve this problem to a degree, he established "Machuma schools" (machuma in Swahili means scrap metal) working on the basic UBEP scheme, but encouraging "machuma" or scrap metal - selling youths to attend classes for a few hours each day when they were idle rather than spend their money and time sniffing glue.

In his later years, Fr. Grol paid a lot of attention to the plight of refugees and the sick, particularly after he retired from Undugu chairmanship in 1994.

One brilliant idea he developed to help refugees was the "Happy Mixture" programme whereby people with different backgrounds and ethnic origin were encouraged to live together in a true Christian style.

"He taught us about unconditional acceptance and love of others. He never tried to convert Muslims in the Happy Mixture programme but accepted them as they were," says Johnson Maundu, a long time aide of Fr. Grol on the programme.

Gerome Karume and Mine Muhirhi, both Congolese beneficiaries of the programme, paid tribute to Grol saying when they return to Congo, they would always remember to live as he had taught them.

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