Have you ever met a Bishop in person? Me neither. But last month I had the pleasure of traveling around Kenya with the “wild bishop”. Bishop Virgilio Pante is the head of the Catholic Diocese of Maralal – and he was our personal tour guide and chauffeur in Kenyas remote north for 10 days.
Most tourists head to the Masai Mara to experience wildlife in Kenya. Our aim is different. We wanted to visit the north, Samburu County, to get in touch with remote villages and learn more about the Samburu and Turkana tribes, in order to organize our Cause Photo Travels in Kenya. These photo travels have a humanitarian background. The images produced on these travels will help our NGO Partners, like the Diocese of Maralal, to raise funds for their projects (building schools, supply materials etc.) and in addition, we bring Clothes, Shoes and more materials directly into the villages.
From Nairobi, we travelled up north, in the 4×4 Toyota of the Bishop, with him behind the steering wheel. First stop was his house in the mission of Maralal, his base and office. The Bishop has been in this area for over 40 years – first as a missionary and since 2001 as Bishop. He is a part of the Missioni della Consolata in Italy. Never would we have guessed to have him as a tourguide, and even more surprising: he was terrific as tourguide. He told us interesting informations about all the areas, historical facts and named all the animals we saw along the way.
His luggage mainly consisted of many bottles of water. At least 5-6l per day. While on the road, we stopped from time to time when we met farmers on the way. While we engaged with the people and taking images, the bishop gave them water to drink. In these areas, running water is scarce, so farmers usually walk for miles to get water for themselves.
Travelling in the north of Kenya is not too easy. One hour from Nairobi and you are already very remote. Dirt roads in not the best conditions and no traffic signs whatsoever. So, without the bishop who knew all roads by heart, we surely would have gotten lost. Our travel saw small towns and villages like Baragoi, South Horr, Tuum and Sererit, towns hardly known to usual tourists. Mzungu, a word we heard many times a day. White person! Most of these areas have not seen white people in years (or at all), except for the missionaries maybe. Babies usually started crying or staring at us in disbelieve when seeing us first, but the curiosity quickly took over and then they engaged with us. When they saw their images on our cameras, the smiles and laughter started, and the happiness spread quickly. I am always amazed how these smiles and expressions go directly into your heart. Most of the people were a bit shy at first but very friendly and warm after talking to them But of course, there are also the people who start throwing stones at you when aiming the camera at them. For this reason, the bishop strongly advised us to not take pictures of the farmers carrying guns. And there were quite many of them, all ages.
Having the Bishop with us all the way had another bonus – he is fluent not only in kisuaheli but also in the Samburu dialect, helping us with translations. He brought us to his parishes and we have been blessed to meet other missionaries who dedicated their life to help the people in Africa. The biggest surprise was Sererit. Far away from anything and no phone network, the mission in Sererit swept us off our feet. The whole mission has been built by Aldo Giuliani, the missionary on duty, including the chapel, the gardens from which they harvest all their fruits and veggies up to the many kilometers of water pipeline from the mountains to the mission and the village. But he also built the roads and schools in the area. He is now 78 and is working on a second water pipeline from the (mostly dry) river to the village, as a backup. The Bishop opened up a new world and an amazing experience to us. We got to visit places we would not have had access to as normal tourists, we stayed in missions and convents and had lunch and dinner with priests and nuns. But most of all, we had the pleasure to meet this “wild” bishop with a deep love for Kenya and the people, who turns a Sunday mass at church into a happening and who can tell you exactly where to get the best food or which nun to ask for homemade mango icecream. Kenya for sure was an unforgettable experience and also changed my view on missionary work and the catholic church.