Distillation of insights from 50 years in East Africa

Friday March 18 2016

Peter Hildebrand Meienberg’s new book, Africa My Destiny: 50.

I found it quite serendipitous that Peter Hildebrand Meienberg’s new book, Africa My Destiny: 50 found its way to me at a time I was having anarchist and subversive thoughts about the general Kenyan worldview and ethos.

Better known as Father Peter, Meienberg is an 84-year old Catholic priest who has spent more than 50 years in East Africa. He has led an inspiring life, travelling from Switzerland for a life of service in East Africa. As a missionary, his life effectively offers a perspective that deconstructs the Kenyan ethos that views life as simply being about the making of money, and then dying.

His work saw him move from Perahimo in Tanzania to Kerio Valley, Eldoret and later Nairobi. In Africa My Destiny: 50, he tells the story through personal narratives, anecdotes, letters to church superiors, congregation and family members, diary entries, annual reports to the Swiss monastery, magazine articles he sent out for publication as well as speeches given at events.

Arriving in Tanzania as a young missionary aged 32, he enables us to see the history and development of the region through his eyes: the coming of Independence, the adoption of western culture, the growth of education, women’s liberation taking root, the growth of national institutions and wars in Africa.

We also see the monumental contributions of the church to the founding and westernisation of modern Africa (something that we take for granted today), the ideological debates that were rife in the 1970s and the unfolding of different social fabrics in Tanzania and Kenya.

This last observation is no idle one as it is related to current questions of social ethos and worldview. Notice the more unified social fabric of Tanzania compared with that of Kenya, and look back to the ideological orientations that informed their national policies (socialism and capitalism respectively).


Father Peter’s letters are chillingly prophetic in some of their observations. For instance, when writing to the Swiss congregation, he records the tribalism in Kenya vis-a-vis Tanzania and the gap between the rich and the poor in the former; and the potentially explosive situation occasioned by the Kikuyu community buying land in the Rift Valley as far back as 1973.

And he writes of the demography of Eldoret at the time: “Of the 30,000 inhabitants of the city, half of them lived within my parish boundaries. The most influential and industrious Christians were the Kikuyu, who by hook or by crook were fast expanding into western Kenya and acquired land in a manner which could easily lead to a politically explosive situation.” It came to pass in the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

Two chapters in the book, The Genocide in Rwanda and its Consequences and Kenya: Nairobi, which detail the narratives of refugees are heartbreaking. In their own voices, we hear what the Rwandan people endured in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, making the stories more personal than mere news item from the past.

The author writes of personal efforts and interventions in helping Rwandan and Burundian refugees by putting them up at his house, renting apartments for them, reaching out to international groups for help and sending them for resettlement in other countries. He travelled to Rwanda just as the genocide was petering out and on his return to Nairobi gave lectures in the hope that people would learn from the situation.

It was at the point that he found himself in Nairobi with no parish and got into full time philanthropy with his organisation, Faraja Trust, carrying out prison visit programmes in Nairobi. He changed the lives of prisoners, especially at the Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi. He rehabilitated buildings, introduced computer literacy and dressmaking courses, counselling, free legal advice and representation programme for the inmates.

From the book, one learns that bar the church, humanitarianism as not yet been institutionalised in the region.

While we are horrified to read of the lives of prisoners in Kenya, genocide and the plight of refugees in Rwanda and Burundi, the rape of women and famine, Father Peter juxtaposes this with the work he and his team do, effectively making us feel that the world is not as dark as it seems.

Peter Meienberg is a prolific writer, having published more than 18 books. Africa My Destiny: 50 was published in Kenya by Written Word publications in late 2015, and will be launched on March 28. The book is available at Catholic Bookshop in Nairobi.