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Kenyan-born priest refuses to settle for average

THEO PANAYIDES meets a priest from Kenya, now in charge of a small flock near Pyrgos, who had a lifetime ambition to become a member of the clergy and wanted to live in a monastery to concentrate on God, both of which he has realised on the island

The Dependency of Kykkos Monastery in Nicosia is a tranquil, birdsong-enchanted place; the cop at the gate doesn’t look like he sees many visitors. This was once on the outskirts of town, and the scale of the place reflects that freedom to build (not that the Church ever needed much of an excuse to go big): a handsome quadrangle of arched, sandstone buildings, elegantly perched around a courtyard with a chapel in the middle. I pass a storeroom full of icons, neatly stacked on shelves running the whole length of the room. An old man in priestly robes walks unhurriedly towards a staircase in the distance, then laboriously starts climbing the stairs.

Despite its size, the Dependency is mostly offices, housing only a handful of people (five priests, three monks and two bishops), so it takes a while to find the room belonging to Father Panaretos; even as I knock, I’m not sure I’ve got the right door – but at least I’ll know straight away if I’ve made a mistake. He’s not the only Kenyan-born Orthodox priest in Cyprus (there’s apparently another one in Lakatamia), but he’s surely the only African in this quiet quadrangle. Even the cop at the gate referred to him – with the slightly hushed respect due a priest – as “o ksenos”, ‘the foreigner’.

The young man who answers my knock is pleasant and bespectacled, with close-cropped hair and a thin beard. He’s been in Cyprus for 10 years, the first two at Machairas Monastery where he was ordained on May 1, 2010 – the feast day of St Panaretos, hence the ecclesiastical name chosen by the bishop who ordained him. He was actually born Samuel Kimani in Nairobi 34 years ago, and graduated from the Makarios III Seminary there. Is it quite unusual, for a Kenyan to become Greek Orthodox? “It is very usual,” he replies, surprised by my question. “In Kenya now, there is about one million Orthodox Christians.” It all stems from the friendship between Archbishop Makarios and Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta, which in turn stemmed from the two countries’ parallel wars of independence in the mid-50s. The Mau Mau – Kenya’s version of Eoka – rejected the Protestant churches which supported the colonial government, looked around for a more acceptable alternative, and here we are.

‘Here’, in this case, is a rather spartan room, its bareness accentuated by the fact that the windows are closed, shutting out the daylight which might’ve softened it. There’s a desk, a small chandelier, stuffed armchairs in a green-yellow chequered pattern, an unseen bedroom and bathroom down a short corridor. This is where Father Panaretos (we’ll call him that, rather than ‘Samuel’) spends his time – though, crucially, not all his time. Every weekend he performs church services at Mosfileri, also known as Mosfili, a tiny village near Kato Pyrgos with around 20 permanent residents – and almost every weekday he goes to university, the European University just down the road, where he’s doing a Master’s in Business, currently writing a dissertation on the wellbeing of employees in the Church of Cyprus. It’s his second Master’s degree; the first was in Theology (from the University of Nicosia), which in turn was preceded by a Bachelor’s in Psychology. “I like to explore things,” he replies when I ask about his studies, then thinks about it: “It’s not just that. You learn when you study. Education helps you to think… Actually, I want to do many things – because it’s interesting how things connect to each other”.

He’s not just another priest. That’s the temptation, given his particular circumstances – to think of him as ‘the priest from Kenya’, defined by his birthplace – but in fact he’s an unusual person in his own right. “I don’t like to settle for average,” he tells me, his strong accent sometimes swallowing the words so he has to repeat himself. His ambition is to someday become a professor at a university, and possibly also a clinical psychologist. All without quitting the priesthood, of course.

Panaretos has a touch of those long-ago priests who joined the Church because they were intellectuals looking to study, back when the clergy were the fount of all knowledge. One could say he’s more monk than priest – and indeed that’s why he came to Cyprus in the first place, “because in Kenya there is no monastery”. Why did he want to join a monastery? “I admired the life of the monks. I just wanted to be there, concentrate on God.” It’s not that he wanted to escape his early life – he had a very happy childhood – but the family were poor, and “struggling all the time”; his dad works in a butcher’s shop, his mum runs a farm just outside Nairobi, raising pigs and chickens. He’s the fourth of seven children, and the first one to go to university (though his younger sister is now preparing to follow in his footsteps). His parents – especially his father’s side – weren’t too religious, yet young Samuel didn’t take long to find his vocation: “Since I was in primary school, I wanted to become a priest.” One gets a sense of a youngster who, much as he loved his family, always knew he was made for other things – and he also makes it clear that his ambitions don’t include ever starting his own family. “I chose to stay alone,” he says simply. “This is why I became a monk.”

There’s a slight contradiction in Father Panaretos. On the one hand, he studied psychology, the science of understanding people; his personal style is humble, serene, approachable, very friendly. On the other hand, he keeps a certain distance. His hobbies are mostly solitary, reading non-fiction (currently Life Without Limits by Nick Vujicic, the bestselling memoir of a man who was born without limbs) and being in Nature. “I like somewhere quiet,” he tells me, “this is why I loved the monasteries. I like socialising with people but I’m very, very careful. Because people are a bit selfish sometimes, they’ll take advantage of you.” His credo, he says, is “Be friends, but with boundaries… You cannot have people just taking and taking. They’ll take, and then they leave you empty.”

But priests have to be there for people. It’s their job.

Yes, he agrees, “you have to show people love – but don’t give them your heart. If you give them your heart, they’ll take it and tear it away, they don’t care!”

His tone, I should note, is light-hearted – yet his dilemma seems genuine, the dilemma of a studious, cerebral man in a noisy profession. “As the Bible says, in the Book of John: ‘Whoever does not love, does not know God’,” he quotes. “‘Because God is love’.” Yet how much love can a person give? Did he realise what it meant to be a priest, I wonder, back in primary school? “I thought just, you know, preaching to people, being nice to people,” he shrugs. Yet in fact there are so many challenges, above all the fact that “no matter what happens, you have to keep on giving to people. You must have something [inside] to keep on giving, giving, giving… People see a priest as next to God, and [think that he] doesn’t have feelings of emptiness, or feeling down. And it’s not all the case. Sometimes you feel down, sometimes you feel” – he hesitates – “temptation here and there”.

Does praying help?

“Of course. The prayer is the only thing that makes you keep on going, and going, and going.”

It may sound like Father Panaretos is a bit of a wobbly priest – yet in fact it’s the opposite; his honesty about the struggles the job entails only makes his faith seem more real. With Easter just around the corner it’s easy to wonder what it all means, this religion lark – and his statement of belief, I admit, quite moved me, delivered with amiable serenity and the flat intonations of the African accent:

“People, they work so much. Getting money. You know, buying things. And trying to find happiness from material things, from vacations and all this. And then, after, they are sad. Because all of these, they do not bring any happiness. It has to begin from you, from inside, it has to come from inside. People, they form relationships, and they get into marriages. They think they are going to be, you know, filled up. They’ll be happy. Then they find” – his voice rises, as if in wonderment – “that they’re still sad. And that is why they keep on divorcing, breaking up, all these kind of things. Because they have not found themselves. And no-one can find themselves from other people. You need to concentrate on yourself.”

Do you need God in order to do that, though?

“A man cannot live without God,” he replies. “That is true. Even if you don’t want God in your life, God is there indirectly.”

How would he define God? As a kind of energy in the universe?

Father Panaretos laughs, whether at my neo-hippy phrasing or with delight at the prospect of an intellectual conversation. “I’ll not define Him as an energy in the universe. I will define Him as ‘everything’. You breathe, God is there.”

This is where we leave the atheists behind, of course – though he’s quick to note that he loves science too, “because it helps us to understand the world”, seeing no apparent contradiction with his own worldview. The Orthodox church in Kenya may be more relaxed in general, or at least more accessible – indeed, says Panaretos, “I was shocked when I came to Cyprus to see that most of the people in the church are old people”. Things are different in Nairobi, where churches have programmes and activities aimed at the young and organise special Youth Days just for them. The service there is in modern Swahili, not incomprehensible ancient Greek like it is here, and Byzantine chants alternate with African music so the whole congregation is singing, at least in some parts; no wonder the church is thriving. “Our African culture is different, you know,” he points out. “We like singing, we like dancing, we like to be happy. We like getting involved.”

That’s a whole other question, of course: how has this transplanted African found life in Cyprus? It took some getting used to, he admits. Kenya is “more social than here”, presumably a nice way of saying that we’re more uptight; strangers greet you in the street in Nairobi, kids play outside – as he and his siblings once did – without waiting for their parents to organise play dates. Initially he found it slightly boring on our little island – but then “I said to myself: ‘If you want to survive in Cyprus, if you want to enjoy life in Cyprus, start liking whatever is there’.” (He’s now developed a taste for local music, citing Giorgos Kalogirou as a favourite.) On the plus side, he’s never encountered any racism – even when people don’t know he’s a priest, which they often don’t. “People get confused,” he says wryly; at least some of his fellow students – and a few professors – have assumed that his black cassock must be some kind of traditional African costume.

It does seem odd, an Orthodox priest from Kenya. Hands up if you even knew that Makarios built a seminary there, let alone that our Church now funds it, let alone that one of its graduates is the priest in Mosfili, of all places – a village so small it didn’t even have a priest for many years (the village church was infested with mice when he first went there, says Father Panaretos). He recalls going to Pyrgos for the first time, on a Palm Sunday with the vicar-general of the monastery, and “all the villagers, when they saw me, they were asking Father Agathonikos: ‘How did you get him?’. They were shocked!” – and this was in Pyrgos, not the much smaller village whose local priest he was going to be.

It was all quite unusual – yet it’s worked out, and beautifully. “Everybody knows me there,” he says of his tiny congregation. “I’m like a fly in the milk!” adds Panaretos, translating a Greek phrase he may have heard in the village (making playful reference to his skin colour, but whatever). The village church will be packed over Easter – but usually it’s just his two dozen regulars, forever inviting him to dinner and welcoming him when he arrives every Friday or Saturday (depending on his studies). “Most of them, they are old,” he muses, “and when I arrived last Friday for hairetismous, they were all waiting there – then they came over and were standing around me: ‘Oh! Papa, papa…’”

He laughs delightedly, this rather shy, scholarly man who doesn’t always have the energy for people. “They put joy in my heart,” says Samuel Kimani, aka Father Panaretos – speaking of that same heart which he earlier warned against giving to others, lest they tear it away. I walk back to my car, strangely elated at the thought of the joyful bond between the elderly inhabitants of a small Cypriot village and a mild-mannered Kenyan young enough to be their son, walking in the shadow of grand sandstone buildings with my ears full of birdsong.


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