Two weeks before last Thursday’s repeat presidential election, Eldoret Catholic Bishop Cornelius Korir implored the rival Jubilee and Nasa alliances to soften their hard-line stands to help ease the political tensions that were rising to a deafening crescendo.
While he was against the timing of the proposed changes in electoral laws championed by Jubilee, Bishop Korir was, in equal measure, critical of Nasa’s repeated calls for anti-establishment demonstrations.
The hallmark of a truly neutral arbiter.
“The laws were not necessary now, but could be changed later so as to reduce tension in the opposition,” he told journalists after celebrating mass at the Majengo Catholic Church in Uasin Gishu County.
“I also appeal to the opposition not to demand so much from the IEBC. They should see what they can take to cool down the nation,” he added, appealing to both parties to allow the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) “to conduct elections in a conducive environment”.
That was vintage Bishop Cornelius Kipng’eno arap Korir who died in the early hours of Monday at the age of 67 and who will be best remembered as “the peace-making bishop”.
ELDER AND COUNSELLOR
“I’m shocked to learn of Bishop Korir’s death,” Bishop Joseph Obanyi, Kenya’s youngest Catholic Bishop, said from Rome Monday, describing Bishop Korir as an “elder and counsellor”.
“We have lost a great shepherd at the time we needed him most,” Bishop Obanyi, 49, said.
“Every Kenyan has come to know him as a humble servant of peace and reconciliation.
“He has been our elder and counsellor. He has helped me as a young Bishop. He earned the respect of all people who worked with him. Above all he worked tirelessly for peace and reconciliation. We shall miss him a lot. May God receive him in eternal peace.”
Besides his vocal stand against injustice in national politics, the late Bishop Korir’s 27 years of episcopal ministry in Eldoret stand out for his efforts aimed at keeping peace among the warring pastoralist communities of the north.
“Three quarters of my life has been about peace building,” he told me in an interview on the eve of his Silver Jubilee celebrations as Bishop of the Eldoret Catholic Diocese in June, 2015, noting that his first major peace-making role was in the height of the 1992 inter-tribal clashes.
“The 1992 clashes were political violence coupled with ethnicity as the political parties then were rallied along tribal lines,” Bishop Korir reminisced.
“Politics rekindled old enmity in the pastoral areas, and it was a sad situation when you see people killed, property destroyed and people burnt inside their houses.”
Bishop Korir was instrumental in the distribution of relief food to families affected by the 1991-92 clashes, but no sooner had peace prevailed than there was another flare-up between the Marakwets and Pokots in 1996.
“It was a war between pastoralists,” he recalled.
“They were all within our diocese, and so I went to them to console them and ask what the church could do for them.
“They told me to help them talk to each other, and that’s how I really got into peace-building.”
Unlike the politically instigated clashes of 1991, the Pokot and Marakwet people were fighting over livestock.
“Some of the Pokot people were armed while the Marakwets really didn’t have firearms but soon started acquiring arms.”
To help ease the tension and stop the fighting, Bishop Korir led the Catholic Church in building schools and cattle dips along the common border between the Pokots and Marakwets.
“We also dug two dams in East Pokot, and donors came in to utilise River Lelan, which is shared by the two tribes.”
The Lelan developments will remain among the biggest legacies of Bishop Korir’s peace-keeping ministry.
“By good luck the foundation run by (American billionaire) Bill Gates helped put up milk cooling plants, which helped both Pokots and Marakwets concentrate on milk production.
“The fighting has since stopped, and Lelan now is a leading producer of milk with up to 20,000 litres of milk daily.
“They have even formed a co-operative society jointly, and members of both communities are sitting on its management board.
“It’s the most successful peace-building initiative that I’ve been involved in. The Pokots and Marakwets are earning as much as Sh20 million a month from milk production.”
A church was also built at the foot of Kapsait Hill following efforts by the bishop who camped in the war-torn region, often risking his life, to secure the much sought-after peace.
Bishop Korir said through dialogue, a lot was achieved among the warring communities, and this was the subject of a book he wrote in 2014 titled “Amani Mashinani” (Peace at the Grassroots).
The fourth-born in a family of eight, Bishop Korir was born on July 6, 1950, and while bringing prosperity to the Pokot and Marakwet neighbours will remain his highest point, the late bishop’s lowest was dealing with the post-election violence of 2007-08.
“In 2008, I had to go from location to location bringing people together. I organised dialogue between the Kalenjin and Kikuyu people at the cathedral, and our major rallying point was to call for a ceasefire that would allow farmers to plant as it was the planting season.”
FARMING FOR PEACE
Bishop Korir and the Catholic Church then helped acquire seed, fertiliser and inputs to plant 1,500 acres of maize in the midst of the clashes.
“We were planting and talking,” he recalled.
“It was all about consensus building, and so we also trained peace-builders to own the process.”
At one point, Bishop Korir accommodated 10,000 IDPs in the Eldoret cathedral’s compound.
It was a dark period he would never have liked to live through again.
In his final days, Bishop Korir helped organise several peace meetings between warring pastoralist communities, coming up with a number of resolutions, among them the 2015 peace caravans that brought together leaders and opinion shapers from Turkana, West Pokot, Baringo, Samburu and Baringo counties.
A firm believer of the importance of mass media, in October, 2013, the late bishop launched a radio station run from the diocesan offices in Eldoret.
The Upendo FM radio station, which broadcasts on the 89.4 FM frequency in the North Rift, was in 2015 voted the best Catholic radio station in Kenya.
The late bishop was also optimistic that faith was growing in Kenya.
“The faith here is growing. Young people are coming to the church. The decline in numbers in Europe and the west is largely because of materialism and commercialisation, which is also destroying the family unit.”
For his peace-keeping and peace-building efforts, Bishop Korir was in 2006 awarded the Moran of the Burning Spear by President Mwai Kibaki and also earned the Milele Lifetime Award in 2009 from the National Commission of Human Rights.
In 2012, Moi University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.
Before he was ordained in 1990 as bishop of Eldoret, Bishop Korir had been ordained priest by former Nairobi Archbishop Ndingi Mwana’a Nzeki on November 6, 1982, and served in Molo, Kituro and Nakuru before taking up the role of Vocations Director and Episcopal Vicar in the Diocese of Kericho.
LONG WALK TO CHURCH
Growing up in Bomet County, Bishop Korir had to walk long distances to get to church each month.
His Segutiet home was 23 kilometres from the nearest Catholic church at the Mill Hill Missionaries-run Kaplong Mission, and his parents could only afford to attend mass once a month, braving a gruelling 46-kilometre return journey on foot.
It was these long “walks of faith” that brought Bishop Korir close to the church, a journey that would ultimately see him emerge as the pre-eminent peacemaker in the troubled North Rift region.
“My mother (the late Blandina Chepkoech) was a strong Catholic,” Bishop Korir said during the interview at his diocesan offices located next to Eldoret’s Sacred Heart Cathedral a day after he celebrated special mass to mark 25 years as bishop in June 2015.
His Silver Jubilee party was held at the Mother of Apostles Seminary in Eldoret.
“Responding to a vocation is not an easy thing, but I guess these long walks brought out the true faith in me. They were the strengthening factor,” he said.
His interest in priesthood developed while he was still a pupil at Chesoen and Segutiet primary schools between 1959 and 1970.
“I became a catechist and went to the seminary. I liked the church and it was not easy those days,” said Bishop Korir who schooled at the Mother of Apostles Minor Seminary in Eldoret before joining St Augustine Major Seminary in Bungoma in 1976, graduating with a diploma in philosophy and religious studies.
In 1982, Bishop Korir attained another diploma in theology from Nairobi’s St Thomas Aquinas Major Seminary which he followed up with a licentiate degree in sacred theology from St Patrick’s College in Maynooth, Ireland, in 1989.
Bishop Korir was ordained Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Eldoret on June 2, 1990, when the diocese, which then included Kitale, had 50 parishes.
“When the Eldoret diocese was split in two in 1998, the new diocese of Kitale had 16 parishes and Eldoret 34, and I have since seen Eldoret grow from the 34 to the current 51 parishes,” he said.
Bishop Korir presided over an unprecedented increase in church membership along with growth in the education and health sectors with the Catholic Church putting up several schools and hospitals in his region.
“I thank the government most sincerely as we have worked together closely despite the financial challenges in the last 25 years,” he said then.
Speaking Monday, Fr Sospeter Kangogo said it will be difficult to replace the bishop.
“He was a peace ambassador who tried to bring people together,” Fr Kangogo said at the Eldoret Cathedral in the company of the Kenya Council of Catholic Bishops head, Bishop Philip Anyolo, shortly after confirming Bishop Korir’s death.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who will fill his shoes easily. Even to the last moment, he wanted to go out there and meet the people,” said Fr Kangogo, who is in charge of pastoral affairs in Eldoret Diocese.
Villagers flock bishop’s native Segutiet home to console with the family.