In this final episode of ‘‘Adventures in the North,’’ we focus on Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Shrine in Lodwar town, Turkana County, that offers a lifetime experience on the ‘‘Way of the Cross.’’
The 2021 Easter season is here with us.
So just like 2020 (which most people wish to forget completely), this year’s Easter is no different.
It takes place against a backdrop of stiffer measures announced by the Government to stem the tide of the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It has been a tough year. Things don’t seem to get any better. It feels like we are in a time capsule.
The new measures announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta have hit virtually every sector hard. Everyone is felling the pinch.
The president declared five Counties as a Disease Infected Area (DIA) with restrictions on movement into and out of this area until otherwise advised.
The DIA comprises Nairobi, Machakos, Kiambu, Kajiado and Nakuru Counties. Religious activities in these Counties remain in abeyance, especially the usual congregational or physical worship.
‘‘That all physical/in-person and congregational worship in ALL places of worship in the Counties of Nairobi, Kajiado, Machakos, Kiambu and Nakuru stands suspended until otherwise notified,’’ said President Kenyatta in his fifteenth address to the nation on 26th March 2021.
With Easter now with us, in ordinary times, worshipers in the DIA would have thronged the churches during this period to mark this watershed moment in the Christian calendar.
The death and resurrection of Jesus is the core of the Christian doctrine.
For the Catholic Church particularly, the Easter season is a solemn period that witnesses a series of activities full of religious symbolism, the most common being the Passion of Christ, where the faithful reenact various significant events of the period.
It is now common to see worshipers walk some distance, with some carrying the cross, and walking the various stages that Jesus walked on his way to crucifixion at Golgotha, which in Hebrew means, the ‘‘place of skulls.’’
In countries like the Philippines with staunch Catholic adherents, they have taken these observances a notch higher. It is commonplace to see people nailed on the cross.
But in Kenya, with the new measures, some of these activities now have to be significantly scaled down. With churches in the DIA now left with no option but to offer services online or through other platforms, it is impractical for some of these spectacles to take place.
However, outside this red area, worship is permitted in line with the Ministry of Health protocols that require places of worship to accommodate just a third of the usual capacity.
The reenactment of the ‘‘way of the cross’’ is a special event in the Christian calendar, especially for the Catholic Church.
In Lodwar, Turkana County in north-western Kenya, the Catholic Church has established a shrine that offers faithfuls and tourists alike, a feel of the real ‘‘way of the cross.’’
Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Shrine is a magnificent attraction is immediately visible as you descend into Lodwar Airport, as it is perched conspicuously on a one of the many hills that shield the town.
That hill and the surrounding area is now simply known as Jubilee Centre (no connection with a political party going by the same name), and is the headquarter of the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar, one of the most influential institutions in the area.
The Catholic church has sponsored the education of many needy students who have gone ahead to make a difference in the area. It oversees several institutions spanning education, health, and social services among others.
It was unveiled in 2011 to mark 50 years of the existence of the Catholic Diocese of Lodwar. The initiative is the brainchild of the then Bishop of Lodwar, Dominic Kimengich, who is currently the Bishop of Eldoret.
According to its website, the Diocese of Lodwar has 30 Parishes within four (4) deaneries, overseen by 15 Diocesan Clergy and 30 missionary priests. In total, there are 50 priests. There are also 15 Seminarians and over 70 religious nuns and 12 religious brothers working in the Diocese.
The shrine is a place of worship, a venue for ordination, family days and a refuge for Catholic faithful to go for recollection and where children are taught how to live meaningful and Godly lives.
At the zenith of the hill is a larger-than-life statue of Jesus Christ, overlooking the town below. It is now Lodwar’s trademark.
It is a spectacle reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty in the USA or the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Jeneiro, Brazil, which is one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
But it is only when you have a personal experience of the place do you begin to appreciate why it is special.
According to Emmanuel Cheboit, a journalist based in Turkana County, the area that presently consists modern day Lodwar town, used to be referred to by locals as Namoru-Kirionok, which in the local dialect loosely means, ‘’a place of hills with black stones.’’
Generally, Lodwar town is surrounded by several hills, and all of them, because of the arid nature of the environment, and probably from the intense heat, have rocks that appear dark from afar, even though at close distance, they are dark brownish.
It is this unique appearance that characterizes most hills in this part of Kenya.
‘‘All those hills surrounding Lodwar town don’t have a particular names. They are described by their appearances. It is the same case with other areas of Turkana County like Loima, which are also quite hilly, but all those hills are generally referred to as Loima hills,’’ says Mr.Cheboit.
Last December, my colleague and I decided to visit the ‘‘Way of the Cross.’’ Like curiosity that killed the cat, we were anxious to find out exactly what the place looks like.
Many questions lingered in our minds. What must it feel like to take the same journey that Jesus took in his last moments on earth?
You see, some of these questions do not have easy answers. While it is one thing to read stuff in the Scripture, it is another to be called upon to live through the experience, or walk in the shoes of those who underwent the actual experience.
So one evening we decided to go. It was about 6 pm. The sun was feebly splashing its last rays on the horizon yonder, and Lodwar township, which feels like a kiln by the day, was now experiencing some calm relief.
For a place that can witness temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius, it takes a lot of adjustment for newcomers, to fully appreciate the way of life there.
But we weren’t successful on our maiden attempt. We were late. The guard advised us that people aren’t allowed at the premises beyond 5pm.
So we planned to be there at about 10am instant the following day.
The sun was hot. We were literally melting and soaking in sweat. The journey to the hill is no mean feat. You have to withstand the steep climb, weather the rocky ground, as the sun batters your head.
For a pleasurable experience, it is advisable that you have the right shoes on. And a bottle of water.
According to Jacinta Kanini, the ‘‘Way of the Cross’’ has 14 stops, each signifying a milestone in the long, grueling journey that Jesus was subjected to on his way to crucifixion.
The 14 stops are modelled along the Via Dolorosa, a Latin word meaning “Sorrowful Way” or “Way of Suffering” a processional route believed to be the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. In the Old City of Jerusalem, this stretches covers about 600 metres and attracts Christian pilgrims from far and wide. It starts with the condemnation of Jesus by Pontius Pilate to his death and being laid in the tomb.
These are the 14 stations: (1) Jesus is condemned to death, (2) he is made to bear his cross, (3) he falls the first time, (4) he meets his mother, (5) Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross, (6) Veronica wipes Jesus’ face, (7) he falls the second time, (8) the women of Jerusalem weep over Jesus, (9) he falls the third time, (10) he is stripped of his garments, (11) he is nailed to the cross, (12) he dies on the cross, (13) he is taken down from the cross, and (14) he is placed in the tomb.
At every stop, you are expected to make your intentions known. Here, there are also verses from the Scripture that speak to various issues.
The moment we arrived at the first stop, my colleague, whispered some prayers and intentions. I watched, almost feeling guilty myself, for not mumbling even a word. It was beginning to be a humbling moment right there.
We then inadvertently took a route, which we felt was the shortest to the top of the hill. We eventually came face to face the imposing edifice of Jesus that stands majestically at the apex of the hill, about 10 metres high, almost in supplication to the town below.
At the tail end of the 14 stages is the holy water, which is replenished by the Bishop from time to time.
The top of the hill is exhilarating. The view of Lodwar town below is exhilarating. It is not for the faint hearted though. Those with acrophobia may not find it a pleasurable experience.
For about two hours, we delight ourselves at this wonderful piece of art. By the time we made our way down, the fatigue was real. Our feet were already manifesting the vagaries of climbing the rocky hill.
Ms.Kanini tells us that the majestic spectacle is the handiwork of a priest, known as Father Simon, a Malawian a priest in Kenya.
He is the one who conceptualized and moulded the statues on the hill using cement, sand and iron rods. Due to wear and tear from exposure to the elements as well as vandalism from nefarious guests, Father Simon has the added duty to regularly maintain the premises.
‘‘There are people who go up there and are reckless. Some of them vandalize the statues and these have to be restored from time to time,’’ Ms.Kanini says.
It is for this reason that the Diocese resorted to charging a nominal fee for people visiting the place, as a means to get funds to carry out repairs from time to time.
They also sell some souvenirs to guests who may wish to carry a piece of the shrine and keep the memory for long.
Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Shrine a favourite spot for the hospitality industry in the region, that now serves their customers a one in a lifetime walk in the footsteps of Jesus. It is now one of the must see places in Turkana County.
So next time you are in Turkana County, don’t miss a walk in the footsteps of Jesus!
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