1969 – 2019: VMM’s Enduring Mission with the Diocese of Lodwar, Turkana, Kenya

VMM Volunteers Helping to Bring Services to a Forgotten Land


Turkana famine herdsman dead cow

Conditions make life difficult in Turkana

In Turkana county, north western Kenya, since the early days of the Diocese of Lodwar, VMM volunteers have been at the heart of implementing health and educational services and empowering vulnerable members of the community to improve their prospects, in this the most marginalised region of the country.  The community’s circumstances are raised by improved health and education and through livelihoods projects designed to educate those with little education and provide seed capital to those with little means to start their own business or form artisan cooperatives.

This area of the country which receives very little rainfall and suffers regularly from devastating droughts, had been isolated and all but forgotten up to the 1960s. Before the creation of the diocese and the arrival of VMM and other volunteers, the early missionaries to the area had initiated the first public services in the county, many of which are still run through the diocese today.

Missionaries Arrive and Develop the First Mission in Turkana

Medical Missionaries of Mary, Turkana

Medical Missionaries of Mary early Turkana mission reunion, 1984

Up to 1961, Turkana, never administered by the colonial government, had been a wild, closed territory, complete with warning signs of skull and cross-bones at border crossings: “Danger. Keep Out!” In that year, the Kiltegan Fathers were given permission to establish a mission in Lorugumo to administer famine relief, in the newly created parish of Saint Peter. The mission was operated by the Medical Missionaries of Mary (MMM), teaching workshops on health and hygiene and performing medical miracles with sparse, donated resources, determination, spirit and grit. The earliest provisions for the new parish were ferried overland by donkey train from Kitale. This was later followed by the very first MMM Flying Medical Doctors, known as the ABC Sisters.

This award-winning documentary by RTE’s Radharc from the mid-1960s gives an excellent account of life in those early years. Recounting daily trials of four intrepid MMM sisters at the Lorugumo mission: Sr. Bernadette Gilsenan in charge of logistics, food and provisions, and health and hygiene education, along with; Sr. Marie Bernard O’Brien, doctor; Sr. Campion Campbell, nurse and matron; and ‘Flying Nun’, Sr. Michael Therese Ryan, the surgeon and pilot bringing much needed medical aid to this vast and harsh region. Their pioneering, humanitarian services, encompassing all the community’s basic needs, offered through faith and devotion to mission, were all part of the processes, efforts and observations that would later meld, accrue and mature as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): #1 Poverty #2 Zero Hunger #3 Good Health & Well Being and #6 Clean Water and Sanitation; long before such ideas were detailed, collated and categorised.

Diocese of Lodwar Established: Providing Much Needed Services

Turkana in the 1960s

The history of the Diocese of Lodwar and the development of community services grew from this first mission in Lorugumo. The parish split from the Diocese of Eldoret in 1968, officially becoming the Diocese of Lodwar in 1978, with the appointment of the first bishop, Offaly man John Mahon. Turkana is still a marginalised region today and remains the poorest county in the country. In the main urban areas people survive day-to-day from an informal economy, while in more rural areas, people live as nomadic pastoralists, tending small herds of sheep, goats and cows. Household poverty in the capital, Lodwar, is officially considered 94 times the national average, and 76 percent of its child population is considered deprived. Illiteracy among women is about 90% with only 11% of the children who enrol in primary school sitting their final exams.

Although these figures are steadily improving and local infrastructural investment has improved significantly since constitutional regional devolution in Kenya in 2010; given the persistent harsh environment and poverty, humanitarian projects on health, livelihoods, education, human rights and community development are still very much in need from volunteer organisations such as VMM and the Diocese of Lodwar.

In Turkana, Need is Such a Constant, It’s Familiar

In the Turkana language there is no word for “thank you”. Help is expected. It’s family; community. Down to the wire. Everything is shared. On Fridays businesses give alms to those in need and many of the community projects and education facilities in the region are paid for and survive on (through school fees) the donations made by individuals and organisations such as VMM, our volunteers and you. With these funds the number of parishes and missions administering these much needed services has expanded in the last 20 years.

5 Decades of VMM Volunteers in Turkana

Turkana is typical of the types of places that VMM volunteers have served over the last 50 years of mission overseas. The connection reaches back to the early 1970s with the first wave of VMM lay missionaries and continues to this day. A succession of VMM volunteers have given their service and shared their expertise within the diocese down the years from the earliest VMM volunteer groups.

Early VMM volunteer projects, initiating the first public services, focused on the thematic areas of health and education. Volunteers such as Agnes Keenan, Group 5, from Co. Antrim; Elizabeth Franklin, Group 10, from Dublin; and Joan Gallogly, Group 12, from London, all volunteered as nurses. Volunteers like Irene Gilsenan, Group 11, from Meath; Daniel Kennedy, Group 14, from Cork and Monica Connolly, Group 23, from Dublin served as teachers. As time progressed through the 1990s the diocese’s management systems were addressed and livelihoods projects developed, benefiting from the expertise of volunteers like Financial Controller, Ion Power, Group 66, from Waterford; Youth Worker, Louise Keating, Group 60, from Dublin; and Livelihoods Project Manager, Tim Flynn, Group 70, from Tipperary.

Current VMM Volunteers with the Diocese of Lodwar

VMM has two current volunteers in the diocese; veteran and exemplary volunteer, Tony Woods from Limerick (also too, not since some 50 years ago now), who volunteers as Diocesan Chancellor and John Jegede, from Nigeria on a two-year volunteer assignment, who, administering the diocese’s resource mobilisation, manages the diocese’s assets, in addition to project proposals, reports and overseeing projects funded by Friends of Turkana. Both VMs are based in the Diocese of Lodwar offices.

50 Years a Volunteer!

VMs Tony Woods and Ber McGrath, Turkana and Kampala

VMs Tony Woods, Diocese of Turkana and Ber McGrath, Caritas Kampala

Tony Woods celebrated his 50th year in Kenya as a volunteer last year. He had spent most of these as principal of St Charles Lwanga Secondary School, which he built literally from scratch into an academic leader in the country, empowering a production line of exceptionally educated and rounded leaders now prevalent in community, public and commercial life across the country and internationally. So appreciated was Tony’s commitment to his mission in Kitui County that the alumni, coming together to mark his 50th year as a volunteer and, wanting him close to them, clubbed together and built him a spacious retirement home in the campus. However, getting Tony to slow down is not likely.

He has been with VMM in Lodwar since 2010, being funded through Trocaire Kenya for the last six years. Being a Lay-Chancellor of a diocese is a very rare occurrence but such is his charism and devotion to the volunteer ethos, he has held the position since 2002, and the diocese are very happy to have someone of his calibre, commitment and capabilities. Employing the capacity-building model of development Tony, responsible for famine relief, HR and chair of the justice and peace committee for many years, has since handed over these roles to priests within the diocese. Now he is responsible for legal and property affairs and manages the diocese’s social ministry including services to the deaf and blind. Tony also represents the diocese at county meetings and on a number of diocesan boards, as well as acting as local liaison with Irish donors.

Maintaining the Diocese Projects’ Sustainability

John Jegede VMM volunteer in Lodwar, Turkana 2

VM John Jegede

John Jegede began with the diocese as a Development Consultant, exclusively researching and writing applications to foundations, before moving to become the Resource Management Manager upon renewal of his volunteer contract for a second year. In his assignment to support the efforts of the Diocesan Development Office John has also taken on full responsibility for resource mobilization, a fully-fledged position in itself. Working with both the development and pastoral office he connects with every element of the Diocese of Lodwar, including 28 Parishes, Schools, Health Facilities and Caritas Lodwar.

His current role, securing and sustaining funding for the diocese’s pastoral and development efforts, entails the full gamut of: managing current donors; resuscitating forgotten sources; and researching and approaching new funding sources. While work is a whirl of reports and meetings, he has also created funding brochures for 20 projects, established a new website for Cartias Lodwar and established a new strategic plan for the diocese. In managing and juggling these numerous projects and tasks John works with an array of International NGOs operational in the region, including; UNESCO, Misean Cara, Trocaire, Erko, Caritas Lodwar, Aidlink, Missio Austria, among a number of others. John was also successful in securing €1,000,000 of funding from the Kenya National Highway Authority for a programme on gender-based violence and sexual exploitation.

VMM International Turkuna Volunteers

John Jegede, Tim Flynn and Tony Woods at VMM AGM 2017

1969 – 2019: The Connection with VMM Continues

As Turkana strives to lift herself out of her circumstance as the vulnerable and marginalised corner of the country, Tony and John’s management and fundraising capabilities are essential to the maintenance, financial sustainability and viability of the diocese, along with all the community services which it continues to administer, in this hard, sun-baked region where such services are very much needed. Although raising of living standards is being achieved and implemented, slowly, Turkana is such a challenging place that there will be need for VMM volunteers and health, education, human rights, livelihoods and faith-based community development projects for a long time yet.

To hear more on VMM’s volunteers, history, projects and impacts, come to the 50th Anniversary event in Liverpool, September 9th.

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