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Faith in Action : Kiltegans in Turkana Kenya

Our own Father Tony Barret spent more than 30 years as a missionary priest in Turkana, Kenya. He is well known by the people of Turkana as a man who has made a great difference for good in this area of Africa. He is a highly respected and well known anthropologist in the world beyond our parish.

Turkana is a district in the north west of Kenya and at 77,000 square kilometres – about 33% of the area of the UK - is the largest district in the country. It is in the Great Rift Valley and is one of the hottest and driest regions on the planet where famine is a constant threat. Some anthropologists believe that Turkana is the cradle of mankind.

The Turkana district includes Lake Turkana, with a surface area of roughly 6,400 square kilometres (about 400 times the area of Lake Windermere), it is the world's largest desert lake and the world's largest alkaline lake.

Turkana has an estimated population of about 460,000 people and has borders with Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia. Most of the people in Turkana (74%) are nomadic pastoralists. Livestock is an extremely important aspect of Turkana culture. Goats, camels, donkeys and zebu (oxen) are the primary herd stock utilised by the Turkana people. In this society, livestock functions not only as a milk and meat producer, but as a form of currency. Agriculture has been very erratic because of the lack of rainfall but recently a focus on improving water storage techniques and digging boreholes is slowly improving the water situation. The result is that agriculture is now on the increase which will help keep famine at bay. Not so long ago the Turkana people did not fish in Lake Turkana as they relied on their livestock for protein, fishing was even viewed as taboo at one time. However, with the increasing frequency of famine and the unreliability of agriculture, fishing is growing. There are now about 350 fishing boats on Lake Turkana. These boats have been built under the guidance of charities who have trained many local people, men and women, in the art of building fishing boats and making and mending nets.

The improvements in water storage techniques, improved agricultural techniques, the building of boats and the making of nets have been facilitated by charities who were encouraged to come into Turkana by Catholic missionary religious, mainly by the Kiltegan Fathers, the Ursuline Sisters and the Sisters of Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Turkana was amongst the last places in Africa to receive the Good News of the Christian gospel. In late 1961, two Saint Patrick's Missionaries (Kiltegans) arrived to manage a famine camp to house the thousands of Turkana nomads who were already dying of hunger. They had been reduced to about 35,000 desperate hungry people. They had no health services and no schools, and their monotheistic religion had no real contact with Christianity.

Since those early days the Catholic missionary community hase done wonderful work in Turkana and has brought in many charitable organisations. Where there were no schools then, today there are 70,000 children in school, where there were no hospitals or medical centres then, there are now hundreds. Where there was no viable and sustainable agriculture there are agricultural projects springing up everywhere. Where access to water has always been problematic – and still is today – there are now water conservation projects and very successful well drilling projects right across Turkana. Where fishing was viewed as taboo there is now a lot of fishing, even to the point of becoming an industry. Where the women had few skills beyond basic survival skills they are now involved in boat building and net making, they also have a basket weaving industry that is growing.

A region that was literally dying is being turned around and this is thanks, in a very large part to the fantastic effort, dedication and self sacrifice of Catholic missionaries such as the Kiltegans, the Ursulines, the Medical Missionaries of Mary, the Mercy Sisters and other missionary groups. They depend entirely on the charity of others to be able to continue their work, without which the great work done by these missionary priests and sisters would not be possible.

Today, 2011, we have Father Tony Barrett with us here in Epsom. His friend and fellow Kiltegan, Father John O’Callaghan carries on the missionary work in Turkana.