The Death of Father Kaiser

Was it a Kenyan assassin who killed the St. Louis missionary -- or was it madness? Seven years later, the verdict is in.

The parties indeed split along tribal lines. The Kikuyu did not support Moi. In order to prevent them from voting, Moi staged a tribal war, hiring thugs to pose as Maasai and attack the Kikuyu. By 1993, when Kaiser became chaplain of the Maela camp, Moi had been re-elected president, and 30,000 Kikuyu lost their homes and were living in squalor.

"The people were in shock," says Carolita Mahoney. "They had to live in plastic huts. The U.N. provided rations, but they were starvation rations. John would secretly load up his truck with powdered milk and maize and soybeans so they would have something to eat. He got in big trouble."

Kaiser appealed to the U.N. to improve the conditions at Maela, but nothing changed. Kaiser believed it was because the U.N. was afraid to antagonize Moi. Looking to shame the relief organization into changing its mind, he took the case to the press. Soon the missionary priest became a national figure — and a target of the Moi government.

"He didn't welcome the attention," Mahoney says. "He was happy being a pastor. He didn't recognize the danger. The Kisii were not having the same problems as the Kikuyu. But he felt he should have spoken up sooner. The most important thing he remembered from seminary was the time a priest had asked his class what was the most important virtue a priest should have. The students said things like humility and kindness. The priest slammed down his hand on the desk and said, 'No! It's courage! If you don't have courage, you will never be a good priest.' John lived it."

It was because of John Kaiser that stories about the harsh conditions at Maela began to appear in American papers. Facing international embarrassment and, more important, the loss of foreign aid, Moi decided to close the camp and disperse the Kikuyu refugees. Government soldiers arrived in Maela on Christmas Eve in 1993.

They came in trucks to haul the human cargo away to empty stadiums and open fields. Kaiser refused to leave. He herded the women and children into the church and stood guard at the door to protect them. For his efforts, he was beaten and dumped out in the bush to die. Somehow he survived. But that was only the beginning.

For the rest of his life, Kaiser was harassed by agents of the Kenyan government. They tailed his car at night and threw rocks through the windows of his house. Once, says Vos, the Kenyan police caught him in the bush and held a gun to his head. Kaiser told them, "Shoot me and my troubles are over, but yours are just beginning." They let him go.

The church began to worry about Kaiser's safety. Bishop Colin Davies reassigned him to Lolgorien, a remote parish in the hilly green Maasai territory near the Tanzania border, and warned him to "go easy." But easy wasn't Kaiser's style. Though he had great respect for Pope John Paul II, he was impatient with the church bureaucracy and believed his first loyalty was to his parishioners.

"John could be quite stubborn when he wanted to be," says his niece Mary Mahoney Weaver. "He was disappointed that people could be so absolutely cruel and disrespectful of life."

So in 1998, when Moi organized a tribunal called the Akiwumi Commission to look into the causes of ethnic violence, Kaiser was determined to testify. He assembled documents and traveled to Nairobi, where he spent several weeks sitting outside the courtroom waiting to be called. When he finally did take the stand in February 1999, his testimony caused a sensation. He claimed the government had instigated the tribal clashes, and he named names: Minister of Defense Julius Sunkuli, Cabinet member Nicholas Biwott and President Moi himself.

"In the constitution of Kenya, it's written that you cannot defame the president," Father Bill Vos explains. "John publicly said Moi should be indicted in the world court at The Hague for crimes against humanity, and he volunteered to testify. It was not the best way to ensure his future."

Kaiser knew what he was getting into, says Bishop Cornelius Schilders, who was then the Regional Superior of Mill Hill. "He said, 'they may well kill me for this, but I am prepared to die for the truth, because God's people are being trampled on and we have to speak,'" Schilders writes in an e-mail. "He was particular in mentioning names, including the president's. He did so because if one remains general, nobody will take it to heart and nothing will change."

The Akiwumi Commission struck Kaiser's testimony from the record — not that it mattered. The commission never bothered to release a report. Meanwhile, Kaiser had found another crusade. Two girls in his parish claimed they had been raped and impregnated by Sunkuli. Kaiser encouraged them to take legal action against the minister, the second most powerful man in Kenya.

By now, Kaiser knew his life was in real danger. A sympathetic government security agent warned him that plans had been made for his assassination. "He was more and more stressed," Vos says. "He was on guard more and he kept his gun with him when he slept."

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