Tag Archives: Monastery

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 12. “Kepkilion Monastery”, Kenya

Kepkilion Monastery
Our Lady Of Victories, Kepkilion, Kenya

Every year we took our novices to experience monastic life at Kipkelion Monastery, Our Lady of Victories, near the city of Molo in eastern Kenya.  The monastery was located high up in the mountains of this area, north of the famous Mau National Reserve and south of the Nandi Hills.  Kisumu, which sits on the bay of Lake Victoria, is due east of the monastery, about a two hours drive.  This may mean nothing to the reader, but this information will help if you are following along with a map to get a feel of the area. Kipkelion lies off the main road and is easily seen as a somewhat moderate town in Kenya, but once off the main road, the real driving fun begins.  Depending on the time of the year, which is usually denoted by the rainy seasons, this road is almost impassable at some points, mainly because it gets washed out in many places and repairs are far and few between.  One year our van had to be towed through the mud by the huge monastic farm tractor, which itself almost got stuck.

The main reason our staff likes to bring our novices to visit the monastery is the beauty of the place where it is situated. We certainly don’t enjoy getting up at 0300 hours a.m. for Vigils and then after that quietly sitting in the dark until the Mass starts at 0430 hours a.m. when some of the local people join us. Even then breakfast is not until after Morning Prayers which begin at 0630 hours a.m. Notice I keep adding ‘a.m.’ just in case you are not quite awake yourself. Of course, being a monastery, the whole day is filled with prayers.  During the day there are only three short prayer times called, ‘Terce‘, ‘Sext‘, & ‘None‘.  One can see there might be a slight confusion if this is your first time at a monastery.  One of our novices didn’t show up for ‘None’ because he thought there was ‘no’ prayer time, even after we explained it very carefully to all of them.  I wonder what he did during ‘Sext’?

banana trees
Bananas of Kepkilion

The beauty of visiting the Monastery begins with the road trip, but since this isn’t a travel guide, I will just begin at the city of Kipkelion. Even though the area isn’t the highest in Kenya, Mount Kenyatta in central Kenya takes that honor, it is the highest in the western part. Not surprisingly, the monastery is located near the highest point. The last part of the drive, beginning at Kipkelion, is up, up, up on bad, bad, bad roads. Usually a good driver is not part of enjoying the scenic views that the rest of us delight in, since the road does skirt the ridges with disastrous drop-offs.  Along the way are several villages with open spaces where banana groves are planted wherever there is a mountain stream coming down from the peak.  Even thought we will climb up to eight thousand feet, we are still located near the Equator where the weather is usually warm.  The landscape changes constantly between little mountain streams with banana groves to hilly country sides planted with maize (corn) with little or no thought to contour planning. Unfortunately, the word has not gotten around yet that planting without contour planning, the roads get washed out with half of their fields.

There are also small and large patches of pine tree groves dotting the landscape, but becoming fewer as we climb. Once in a while there will be some smoke coming from the middle of the pine trees where someone is most likely making wood charcoal. I ran into several charcoal mounds on my hike up to the peak that already had the charcoal removed. As we approached the monastic main road, we were driving on the last ridge that leads to a small valley where the monastery was located beneath the main mountain peak. They owned an incredible amount of land in this area, enough to include the peak, but it was mostly inaccessible only twenty years ago.

The panorama of the monastic grounds took in acres of corn fields and grazing fields for their four hundred or more head of milking cows.  The property also boasted a primary school for the children of the monastic families that worked there and the folks living in the surrounding area, an up-to-date clinic, and housing facilities for the monastic families.  Already encroachment was a main problem from the surrounding Kalogen tribe that was reducing the monastic lands year by year.  Because of the tension in the area, it was difficult to remove the families without serious repercussions breaking out from other tribal members.

The government was petitioned numerous times in the past to bring electricity to the monastery in the hope of installing milking machines.  Such a project would greatly increase the income for the monastery that was already struggling by selling the little milk they did produce. One of the main problems that the monastery faced though was bad management of the farm and their finances. Because of in-breeding, their cows were giving less milk with each generation of cows, which were down to almost a liter (quart) a day compared to seven to ten liters a day per cow that they should have been getting!  Imagine the trip down to the local market on the roads that we came up on.  It is no wonder that some milk was lost in transportation. Because of their poor finances, the monastery depended on monies from outside.  Monies from retreats could not be depended on because of the bad roads.  At one point when the electric line was nearing the monastic border, it took a diversion to a rich and popular politician homestead, who was a member of parliament and obviously had connections with the government of President Moi at that time.  The monastery still does not have electric to this day.

Nandi Hills
Nandi Hills of Kenya

Our stay there this trip was peaceful and quiet.  We took many walks around the property, especially up to the peak where one could see for miles around.  Along the way many different types of flowers could be spotted, even those not indigenous to the area, but may have been brought in by the English or Dutch monks.  I remember spotting a beautiful wild gladiola and wondering how it had gotten here in the middle of Africa?  In some of the glens and groves where the numerous mountain streams passed were several groves of fig trees and banana trees.  Of course, banana trees were everywhere, but at least five different varieties!  The monastic grounds were well kept with a few small flower gardens here and there where the old monks from Europe still kept them up.  In the court yard of the enclosure, closed to the public, were the best of the gardens.  The monks kept a small but exquisite gold fish pond.  Several times a hale storm that is common in the area almost killed the fish due to the quick temperature drop in the water.

One day I was resting under a kibanda (a thatched roof shelter for sitting).  Not far from the kibanda, was a sturdy split rail fence where the monastery kept their two breeding bulls. They were huge animals, the likes this city boy has never seen before!  I noticed one of the bulls was missing.  I was planning on spending several hours in the kibanda reading and writing, I was able to find out what happened to it.  I saw a young man in his twenties, large and powerful as his bulls, slowly leading the delinquent bull back to his pen.  The bull had escaped and had wandered over to where the young females were kept, hoping to get in a few unauthorized visits until he was caught.  The sight was very impressive.  Here was this huge bull humbly walking behind with his head down, being led back to his pen by the man, who was walking in front of it, straight and tall without any fear.  The bull could have easily horned the man in front of him and gone back to the females to continue his escapades.

I guess I better talk about the monks before I close, since that is the reason we went to the monastery in the first place.  I have to admit, my favorite prayer time of the day was the Vigil Prayer in the middle of the night.  Even though it was an ungodly hour, at least for us, a loud clanging bell wakes the monks at 0300 hours. It was an almost mystical non-time where half-awake from our sleep, we move like zombies towards the large church which connects the other three sides of the monastery to form a square, enclosing the courtyard.

We have to cross the courtyard which is open to the stars above, getting a glimpse of the heavens, so clear this night and open to so many uncountable stars that they confuse the consolations. Another novice bumped into me, a reminder to move on.  Across the courtyard we enter the dark, silent church and try to find out way to the choir where the Vigil chants will be sung.  If you can imagine the large rectangular floor of the church, one third at the front of the building is an area for the congregation, another third in the middle of the church with the floor raised above by several steps, is the sanctuary and large enough to accommodate about fifty people. The last third, the choir with the floor sitting below the sanctuary, is itself divided in half where three tiers of prayer stalls holding ten monks each are located on each side of the wall facing each other.

The only light in the building this night is a candle, but some of the monks enter with their own flashlights, like a scene out of Star Wars.   Eventually two small gas mantle lanterns are lit that surprisingly give off quite a bit of light.  Eventually they will get florescent lights lit by solar.  One monk begins the chants from one of three books in front of us.  Fortunately we know the routine by now, otherwise a newly arrived visitor would have a difficult time negotiating the books, and in the dark.  The Vigil Prayer time lasts over an hour, and at the end we sit in the dark for half an hour until the bell for Mass is rung.  We don’t have any choice, since the building is dark and any movement is discouraged except for those preparing for the next service. The monks sing in a clear Gregorian chant with a prayer leader for the day, usually someone who knows the chant.  Some of the voices are strange to us, or I should say.  The English is difficult for the African tongue to pronounce and sing at the same time.

When the post-election violence broke out after President Kibaki’s election for a second term, the monastery had sheltered non-Kalogen people from tribes not friendly with them or who are traditional enemies.  Their neighbors almost burnt it down!  Conditions became so bad that the monks had to find safe haven in Uganda at another monastery.  The monastery and land was eventually sold to another religious order.

We will miss this wonderful place that holds many good memories, but we have learned that eventually everything changes with time here in Africa.

READING CHAIR – Missionary: 10. “Askari Ants”, Kenya

10. “Askari Ants”, Kenya

Everyone who lives in Africa for any length of time will eventually experience the Askari Ants, at least that is what the Kenyans call them. They are different from

askari ants
Askari Ants – Kenya

any ants one may experience elsewhere. They seem like two species of ants since the ‘Askari Ants’ or guard ants do just that, they guard the other light brown smaller type.

The Askari Ants are larger and a darker brown color, but they also have a very large head with mean looking mandibles or pincers! It is their pincers that cause the problem and pain. Anything and anyone that gets in their way or attacks the other ants, the Askari Ants will quickly attack, but in a way that is slightly different. They wait until several thousand of their members are assembled in a specific area and then they bite! Somehow they give out a signal when all are ready and then bite, that is, they pinch their victim and will never let go. One has to physically remove the head of the ant with the pincers.

There has been some recent research using this ant to suture cuts by getting them to pinch the two portions of skin together and then cutting off the rest of the body and leaving the head with the pincers in place. It seems to work, but convincing the locals to go along with the procedure will take some time yet.

My first encounter with the Askari Ants was in our garden where we grow a variety of fruits and vegetables. After cultivating an area for a while, I decided to weed a section of the garden just for a change. After a few minutes I had this horrible burning, biting sensation in my crotch and screamed out for help. Our neighbor came to my aid and pointed out that I was covered with Askari Ants, and that the only solution was to remove all my clothes and pick off the ants by hand, one by one. Naturally I ran for the nearest place that I could get undressed.
The pain was excruciating and even after the ants were removed, their bites still left a burning sensation that took a while to wear off. The Askari Ants would explain several unexpected sightings of native workers in their field suddenly getting naked! The really mystery to date would be how the ants knew to bite all at once only after several hundreds of them were in position in my crotch?

We raised rabbits on our compound in Limuru and when any of my does were ready to give birth, I would get up early and go visit her to see how many babies she gave birth. There was one such doe I was waiting for her to give birth at any time, and when I went out that morning, I saw that she had given birth to eight babies, but they were all a dark brown color. Upon closer inspection, they were not brown but covered with Askari Ants. The mother was quietly sitting near by not moving a muscle. It seems that her fur had saved her from the ants. Somehow the ants had crawled up the long legs of her hutch and into her cage, literally covering her babies with Askari Ants, killing them by their hundreds of stings. I was devastated and was determined to make sure it would not happen again.

I had just read a great story that took place in Africa called, “The Wormwood Bible” where one of the protagonists had failed to listen to the native and planted his garden his way. He of course lost it all to the rains.  I was very much interested in how folks did things here in Limuru.  I was told that one had to sprinkle wood ashes around the cages to keep the Askari Ants away, and if your hutches were build with legs, you had to oil them down or at least put each leg in a small can filled with oil.  I did both and never had problems with those damn Askari Ants again, at least concerning my rabbits.

A new member of the community arrived and had to learn the hard way, like the rest of us, about all small intricacies of African life and landscape and insects. Brother Tom was a fast learner, but one can not foresee everything. Every Sunday evening our community would split in half and have a sharing on the week, talking about the challenges and the blessings of the past week.  Tom tended to be dramatic at times, especially when it was his turn to share his thoughts on the gospel readings for the day.  This evening, as we lit the candle and everyone settled themselves and we turned off the lights, all of a sudden Brother Tom got up and started dancing.  I thought to myself, here we go again!  But then he just as suddenly exited out the door and headed for the toilet.  When he got back quite a while later, he said that he was attacked by Askari Ants!

I thought that would be impossible, since the ants rarely come inside the house. The good thing about the ants is that they are constantly on the move. When they appear in the garden, no sense in trying to kill them, since by tomorrow they will all be gone. We all looked at the couch that Tom just happened to be sitting on by himself, and sure enough, there were the ants. They had come in a small opening by the window, headed for the couch and climbed up a leg and up to the top and across, then down the other leg and out another little opening by the window. Tom just happened to sit right in the middle of their path with his arms spread out across the top of the couch. The path of the Askari Ants can be about one to two inches wide with literally thousands of ants quickly moving to their next destination. Outside, the ants can literally wear a path through the grass, eating anything that gets in their way, even humans!

My last encounter with the Askari Ants was at the burial of our good friend, Dom Pohl, a Cistercian monk at Our Lady of Victories Monastery in Kipkelion, Kenya. He had been the Abbot there for several years, and now in his eighties and in perfect health, he was the novice master of the monastery with a good number of monks from Kenya and Uganda. During our yearly visit to the monastery, he would usually give us spiritual talks.  Every once in a while he would show up at our novitiate in Limuru after doing business in Nairobi, and we would invite him to stay and spend the night, but always he would refuse and head back to his monastery as soon as he could take the next local train. On one occasion, when the trains stopped running from Limuru to Kipkelion, he took us up on our offer, and found a way to get back to his monastery the next day on his own.

As it turned out, during our last stay at the monastery before the post-election violence eventually closed it, we just had our talk by Dom Pohl.  The next day he headed out to say mass at a local parish but felt bad and turned around and came back.  Another monk realized that he was in pretty bad shape and headed out to the doctors with him, but Dom Pohl died on the way. We were at least fortunate to be able to attend his funeral.  It was quite an affair, since he was well known in the area. Unfortunately, the funeral lasted forever, but at the end, with the commitment at the burial site, we were given a break, at least those standing at a particular spot at the grave site.

Kipkelion Monastery
Cistercian Monastery in Kipkelion, Kenya

The people near by kept mentioning Askari Ants, but we didn’t connect until it was too late and the ants started biting us two white folks.  So we had to leave the burial and head back to the nearest outhouse, or choo, as they call it, to remove the ants.  We were able to beat the crowd and eat our lunch early.  Thank you, Dom Pohl, for still watching over us.  He was sort of the no-nonsense monk anyway and would have been perfectly happy to just have the monks put him into the ground without all the pomp and ceremony.

So if you ever visit this wonderful continent, now you know to look out for those Askari Ants, especially if you decide that it would be a nice idea to have a pick-nick in the middle of Africa.