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A Kenyan mystery

21 February 2012

Unsolved, Alexander Lucie-Smith finds

You Will See Fire: The life and death of an American priest in Kenya
Christopher Goffard

Collins £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

THIS book is an account of the life and death of Fr John Kaiser, the American Roman Catholic missionary who met his end in mysterious circumstances in Kenya in 2000. Fr Kaiser opposed the human-rights abuses of President Daniel arap Moi’s regime, focusing particularly on the Maasai politician Julius Sunkuli, alleged mastermind of a campaign of internal ethnic cleansing and multiple rapist.

Kaiser’s body was found by the side of a road with a gunshot wound to the back of his head. The scene was compromised by numerous people’s trampling over it, and so it is now impossible to know for sure the exact circumstances of his death. The FBI, who collaborated with Moi’s police, concluded that the priest had been a manic depressive and had shot himself.

This was greeted with disbelief by all who knew the priest, and all who knew the history of Kenya, where staged suicides are not unknown. An inquest was finally convened after Moi’s retirement. It found that Kaiser had been murdered, though it did not indict either Sunkuli or Moi.

This book, which does give the discredited FBI investigation a fair hearing, works best as a forensic drama. It proves beyond doubt that the Kaiser affair is destined to re­main one of Kenya’s enduring mys­teries: not only are many of the key witnesses now dead, but the ballistic evidence is now irrecover­able.

The book also opens up some interesting questions — not about Moi, whose brutality was well known, but about the religious life. Kaiser was a Mill Hill missionary, and he felt that his order, with which he had had a troubled relationship, had failed him.

Even ruling out the suicide theory, there are still questions to answer about how the Roman Catholic Church supports her often lonely and vulnerable celibate priests.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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