An unlikely friendship

My sheltered kids have formed a strong bond with our missionary friends from Kenya, who are devoting their lives to helping others improve theirs

In June, my husband and I visited a Catholic missionary community based in a poor, parched region in Kenya for two weeks and returned with memories to last us a lifetime.

Since then, my two kids have been hearing stories about the things we saw and the people we met there.

Their reaction so far has been one of polite interest. The setting and characters are so far removed from their lives, we might as well have been feeding them fiction.

Told about the various times we had to jump out and push whenever our jeep broke down on the deserted dirt tracks, my son thought the solution was obvious. "Why didn't you call for a tow truck?" he asked.

My 10-year-old does not yet realise how blessed we are to live in a place where help is always just a phone call away and mobile network coverage a given.

Then, last month, the stories came alive for them when some of the missionaries whom we met in Kenya were in town.

Of the five - two priests and three seminarians - only Father Francis was familiar to them. They had met the Malaysian priest when he came for a brief visit earlier this year.

All five belong to the Missionary Community of Saint Paul the Apostle (MCSPA), which has 10 missions in four African countries served by priests and lay volunteers from around the world.

Father Francis and Spain-born Father Antonio, who have long called Kenya home, were ordained as priests there on the same day 20 years ago.

They were accompanied on this trip by three Kenyans in their 20s, who are set to enter the priesthood when they complete their study in theology.

Given the rich life experiences of these men, I knew my kids would find them interesting company. What I didn't expect was how attached they would grow to these visitors, especially the young Africans.

Over the two weeks that they were here, we invited them to our place, took them out for meals and attended mass together on weekends.

Each time, my kids would run to hug the affable Kenyans and jostle to sit next to them. "I just like them," said my son when asked why he was drawn to them.

"They are so friendly," his sister added. Far from being embarrassed, my seven-year-old was eager to show them her gappy grin when she lost two of her incisors.

My children were fascinated by the vocation stories and personal anecdotes that the three - Brian, Sammy and Stephen - shared.

Hailing from different parts of Kenya, they left their families to join MCSPA in their late teens. Its objective of spreading the love of God through helping marginalised communities in far-flung areas had moved them.

For the last few years, MCSPA's no-frills headquarters in Nariokotome has been their home. The remote village is in Turkana, one of Kenya's poorest and hottest regions.

The road to priesthood for these young men is a long and sometimes trying one. If they are deemed a good fit for MCSPA after living and working in Nariokotome for a few years, the priests would raise the money for them to pursue a degree in philosophy.

After that, they would be assigned to the different missions for a pastoral attachment lasting another few years. This is when they are expected to come up with "development projects" to help the locals and for ways to sustain these programmes.

Along the way, they also have to seek financial support so they can complete their theology studies - the final stage before ordination. The donors are usually friends of MCSPA from overseas, who have visited the missions and seen first-hand what is being done and what else could be done.

The MCSPA priests serve as mentors, dispensing tough love as they prep their young apprentices for a life of always putting others first. The formation process is vigorous for a good reason. Out there in the remote, impoverished corners of Africa, you can rely on nothing but your bare hands and native wit to survive and get things done.

Not surprisingly, few young men can go the distance. Some leave MCSPA after a year or two. Others stay on but decide that priesthood is not for them.

Our three Kenyan friends, however, have no doubts about their vocation.

Stephen, 25, is attached to the Benga mission in Malawi, where he has started a project to help feed babies whose mothers have trouble breastfeeding.

Easy-going and unflappable, he is a natural with kids. Mine, for instance, listened with a mix of revulsion and fascination as he regaled them with tales about a popular local delicacy - fried mice skewered on sticks.

Brian, 27, whose glasses lend him a scholarly air, is surviving on far less in war-torn South Sudan, over which the spectre of famine looms large. Despite a nut allergy, he has no choice but to eat groundnuts as it is one of the few crops that grow well there.

In a bid to feed the locals some meat, he has come up with a plan to rear ducks and chickens.

In Nariokotome, Sammy, 27, helps to give the children who attend the school run by MCSPA at least one decent meal each day. He looks after the cows raised in the base and makes sure there is enough milk for all the kids.

Just as how our trip to Kenya has reshaped our perspective on life, meeting these missionaries has been an eye-opener for our sheltered kids.

They grew so fond of their new pals that they could not bear the thought of them leaving.

On the eve of their departure, my son broke down as he said his goodbyes and pleaded with me to take him to Africa soon.

He had dug into his treasured collection of country erasers - those printed with the flags of various countries - to give each of them a pair showing the flags of Singapore and Kenya. "To mark our friendship," he said.

In return, Stephen and Brian also gave my kids something to remember them by: photos of themselves and currency notes from Kenya, Malawi and South Sudan.

The other day, I found these items in a keepsake box I gave my son last year. The wooden case is personalised with his name and the words, "D's heroes", are engraved on it. It had come with pewter figurines of six saints, which have since been displaced by the mementos from our Kenyan friends.

"They are my real heroes," he said. "I hope to be like them and learn to help others."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 26, 2017, with the headline 'An unlikely friendship'. Print Edition | Subscribe