Maurice Michael Otunga was the first Roman Catholic cleric from Kenya to attain the status of cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. One of East Africa's most respected religious leaders, Otunga belonged to just a select number of men who would meet in a closed-door session known as the conclave upon the death of a reigning pope, or titular head of the Roman Catholic Church, to choose a new leader from amongst themselves. When Otunga died in 2003, he was buried in a humble cemetery, but re-interred in a more lavish tomb two years later, prompting speculation that he could become Kenya's first Roman Catholic saint.
Otunga was born on January 31, 1923, in Chebukwa, in western Kenya. His family belonged to the Bukusu ethnic group, who were Bantu-speakers and cattle-herders by tradition. They also practiced polygamy, and Otunga's father was a chief who had at least 40 wives. Kenya was a British colony when Otunga was born, and Christianity had gained a foothold thanks to the work of Protestant missionaries who began converting the Bukusu as well as the Kikuyu, Luo, Kisii, Meru, and other indigenous ethnic groups in the nineteenth century. Roman Catholic missionaries came next, and that creed gained further members through the first-rate schools its priests and nuns ran for African youth. Otunga was one such convert, and was baptized in 1935, the year he turned twelve.
Otunga attended went on to a Roman Catholic seminary, or training ground for priests, in the western Kenyan town of Kakamega. He also studied at a seminary in Uganda, which bordered Kenya. From there he went on to Rome, Italy, where the Vatican—an independent city-state as well as the administrative seat of the Roman Catholic Church—is located. There, he studied theology at Propaganda Fide college, and was ordained in 1950. He returned to Kenya in 1953, and served as a professor of theology at the Kakamega seminary before being consecrated a bishop on November 17, 1956. At the time, he was the youngest man to achieve that ecclesiastical rank in the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church in Kenya had been part of the vicariate of Zanzibar after 1906, but was made its own archdiocese in 1953, with Nairobi as the seat. Otunga emerged as one of the Kenyan church's most dynamic leaders, and was known to have converted many members of his large extended family. When Kenya achieved independence from Britain in 1963, Otunga was the Roman Catholic cleric who blessed the new flag during the official ceremony. He was made named archbishop of Nairobi in 1971, which marked a new era for Roman Catholicism in Africa: he was the first Kenyan-born priest to serve as head of the metropolitan Archdiocese of Nairobi. Prior to this, foreign-born priests from Europe or North America had generally held such positions of authority in Catholic Africa.
Otunga was elevated to the Sacred College of Cardinals by Pope Paul VI in 1973. This gave him the title of "cardinal" to his name, and also made him one of the 117 or so men who were called to a papal-election conclave at the Vatican five years later upon the death of Paul VI in 1978. Otunga was the first Kenyan to achieve the status of cardinal, and theoretically could have been chosen from amongst his colleagues. He returned to Rome later that year to participate in a second papal election, when John Paul I died after a reign of just 33 days.
Back in Kenya, Otunga was a revered and much-loved leader of Kenya's Roman Catholic community. He lived in humble quarters, and could have enjoyed the official perk of a car and driver; instead he drove his own Peugeot 304. He also occasionally became involved in politics, and was known to have visited Kenya's longtime leader, President Daniel Arap Moi, to urge him to implement democratic reforms. On the whole, however, Otunga disapproved of the priests in his archdiocese becoming involved in political or social controversies.
Otunga was a strict adherent to Pope John Paul II's teachings against birth control and the limited role of women in the church. When Moi ended the sex-education curriculum in Kenyan schools, Otunga publicly supported the decision. Similarly, the Cardinal opposed distribution of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, which had decimated Kenya and much of East Africa. Urging abstinence instead, Otunga even met with local Islamic leaders for a ceremonial bonfire that burned boxes of condoms in a Nairobi demonstration.
Otunga retired as archbishop of Nairobi in 1997, and was made archbishop emeritus on April 21 of that year. His final years were spent at the Nyumba ya Wazee home for the aged in Ruaraka. This was a humble facility, run by the Little Sisters of the Poor, which took in charity cases. Otunga might have instead spent his remaining years in relative luxury, either in a staffed villa in one of Nairobi's suburbs, or even in a Vatican City apartment. "My body says it is tired," he told the congregation at Nairobi's Holy Family Minor Basilica who gathered to hear his last sermon in September of 1998, according to David Mugonyi and Macharia Gaitho of the Africa News Service. "I am joining sisters whose calling is to care for the old and the deprived. There, I will continue with my prayers."
Otunga made his final public statement at a Mass honoring his 50 years as a priest. "The only command I leave you with is the command to love one another," he told Kenyans that day, as the Africa News Service reported. "If you love one another, that is enough." He died three years later, on September 6, 2003, and was buried in St. Austin's, a Roman Catholic cemetery in Nairobi, as his last will and testament had specified. This was the traditional burial ground for simple priests or deacons in the church, and the late Otunga was the highest-ranking cleric ever to rest there. Two years later, his body was exhumed and re-interred in Nairobi, at a chapel in the Resurrection Gardens specially built to honor him.
The move was a somewhat controversial one that stirred Kenya's Roman Catholic community as well as members of Otunga's extended family. The exhumation and reburial had been carried out in secret, church officials claimed, in order to avoid public spectacle. His surviving relatives and some in the Bukusu ethnic group were upset, believing that disturbing the dead can bring a curse upon the community. But most agreed that the move to a more elaborate tomb represented a move toward sainthood for Otunga. Church leaders in Kenya had asked Pope Benedict XVI, who succeeded the late Pope John Paul II in 2005, for approval to begin the official inquiry necessary for the beatification and sainthood process.
At a Glance …
Born on January 31, 1923, in Chebukwa, Kenya; died of a heart attack, on September 6, 2003, in Nairobi, Kenya; son of Wasike Lusweti Sudi (a chief) and Rosa Namisi (a diviner) Otungo. Education: Received degree from Propaganda Fide College. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Ordained Roman Catholic priest, October 3, 1950; consecrated bishop on November 17, 1956; bishop of Kisii, 1961, titular archbishop of Bomarzo, 1969, coadjutor of Nairobi, 1969–71; archbishop of Baitobi, Nairobi, 1971; elevated to Sacred College of Cardinals, 1973; primate of Kenya, 1983; archbishop emeritus of Nairobi, 1997–2003
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