The hundreds of miles of Kericho’s tea plantations in the Kenyan Highlands, 190 miles west of Nairobi, evoke peace and beauty. In the 2008 post-election violence, however, this multi-ethnic area saw some of the worst violence, and the violence and tension is not over yet. Leaflets have recently been distributed in Kericho town telling people from outsider ethnic groups to get out or else. On the night of December 10th, in the priest’s house of Keongo parish, Fr. Jeremiah Roche, a Kiltegan missionary from West Limerick, Ireland, who was living alone, was brutally murdered.
Fr. Roche was 68, and had been in Kenya for over 40 years. His heart was for the poor, and whenever he went to Ireland he came back with funds raised for schools and churches. He was popular and had made the Kenya Highlands, where for many years the Kiltegan fathers have done good work in schools and parishes, his new home.
But people are saying this was not a simple robbery, but a “well-planned execution”. The thieves took a CD player, or laptop, and one or two mobile phones, according to different reports, land documents and his blood-stained clothes, which they dumped a few yards from the murder scene. In the usual Kenyan robbery-with-violence, the murderers summarily shoot the victim and take away all valuables. Father Roche was stripped naked and tied to a chair, hit on the head and his throat slit, and left to die. Money and other valuables, there for the taking –since Fr. Roche suspected no-one and didn’t even have a guard-were left untouched.
At the Requiem Mass in Kericho’s Sacred Heart cathedral, one eye-witness pointed out, the politicians who spoke asked for forgiveness for the culprits; no-one disagrees with that. But none asked for justice and proper investigations.
Kenya’s poor have long memories, and now that the police say they have found the weapons used for breaking in and have three suspects, they want action. They, Catholics especially, have not forgotten the murder of the US missionary, Fr. John Kaiser, in August, 2000.
Fr. Kaiser belongs to Kenya’s growing list of unexplained political murders. The official explanation issued at the time of his death was that he had driven to a lonely spot, got out of the car and shot himself in the back of the head. An FBI expert from Texas was called in and, without examining the body, concluded that it was suicide; arguments were then floated that the priest had been of unsound mind for some time, a fact denied by both his family, and the Apostolic Nuncio, who had been with him some hours before he was murdered.
In 1998 he had given damning evidence in the Akiwumi Commission inquiry, accusing government ministers of fomenting violence as part of a land-grabbing strategy. The following year the Kenya government refused to renew his work permit, but US ambassador, Johnnie Carson, intervened. Fr. Kaiser also helped two schoolgirls who said they had been raped by a government minister close to the then-President Moi.
Under the new government of President Kibaki a proper investigation took place, with 111 witnesses, and the presiding magistrate, Maureen Odero, ruled out suicide, saying the missionary had been murdered, but she couldn’t say who had done it. In his autobiography, “If I Die”, published in 2003, Fr. Kaiser stated very clearly that he had no intention of taking his own life. “The bush is big, “he wrote, “and the hyenas many….!”
Kenyans fear cover-ups, especially those murders left unexplained by the previous regimes: Tom Mboya, J M Kariuki, Robert Ouko…. Fr Roche’s murder –and clearly it was murder, and not suicide- may have been a straightforward “hit-and-run”, but the “hit” was unusually bloody and cruel.
Nothing points to an assassination. However, the murderers did take away land documents. Fr. Kaiser had vital documents in his possession when he was murdered. Kenyans just want to be sure that Fr. Roche’s was a case of murder that turned foul, and nothing more.
Martyn Drakard is a writer based in Kenya and Uganda.