Known for its desolate images of hunger, poverty, marginalisation and everything else that depicts the shortcomings of Kenya, Turkana is the most unlikely of locations for one of the country’s most iconic but little known religious monuments.
Towering conspicuously on top of one of the many hills that overlook Lodwar town, the political seat of Turkana County, is a grey gigantic statue of Jesus Christ with hands spread apart.
It is a mirror image of the iconic Christ The Redeemer sculpture that defines Rio de Jenairo – Brazil’s capital city which played host to the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
But unlike its Brazilian look alike constructed in 1922 to celebrate Brazil’s 100 years of independence from Portugal, Lodwar’s statue is a story of Christianity.
It is a permanent reminder of how the Vatican, the headquarters of the Catholic Church, afraid of the spread of Islam from Sudan in the North, created Kenya’s second largest diocese.
And for a long time before the advent of devolution, the missionaries provided nearly all social services in a region marginalised by successive governments.
“Remember the other side of Sudan was Islam. The reason Vatican created this diocese was to prevent the spread of Islam.
So, in 1968 the St Patrick Society from Ireland sent some people to work as missionaries here,” explains Fr Concorde Akimana, a Rwandese priest who has worked in Turkana since 2012.
“The first bishop who came here was John Mahon. He found this place completely primitive and started a primary school where he was the only teacher.
Like most missionaries who came to Kenya before the advent of Christianity, the Catholic church started out as a relief organisation.
The idea of creating the statue, which stands at the top of a sanctuary that represents the Way of the Cross – a 14-step Catholic devotion that commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth as a man, came in 2011.
“The church was marking 50 years here and we as a committee tried to figure out how we can celebrate the way we came here to provide food but ended up evangelising to people,” says Fr Akimana.
“The concept is that people should have a place to come together and pray as a diocese in memory of when evangelisation came here in a very informal way.”
The result is a story of how Jesus was detained, whipped, crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven told in beautiful sculptures and inscriptions spread across Lodwar’s most conspicuous hill.
Apart from being a shrine, it is one of the town’s key tourism attractions, receiving dozens of curious visitors every day. Entry is free.
According to the priest, the hill on which the sanctuary sits was a favourite pass time joint for Kenya’s founding President Jomo Kenyatta during his detention in Lodwar in the 1950s.
“Mzee did not trust the white people a lot and since he was allowed to walk around Lodwar within a certain radius, he liked to spend time on top of this hill where he could see the enemy,” he says.
On its gate is the term Porta Caeli, Latin words for “gate to heaven”. The climb up is punishing but Fr Akimana says it is relieving if you are Christian, knowing that you are reliving the story that is the foundation of your faith.
The first stop is the point where Jesus is condemned in the Bible before his punishers force him to carry the cross on his way to crucifixion.
Along the way, he falls several times from the weight of the cross and beatings borne, according to the Bible, and is at one incident helped by a Simon.
In one of the stages on the way up is a sculpture depicting a woman in the Bible known as Veronica wiping Jesus’ face of sweat and tears.
The real climb then begins up a flight of stairs with loose rails on the sides which give way to a scary cliff.
“What does it profit for a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?” conveniently asks the inscription on the side.
The climb is not for the faint-hearted as we found out and climbing down once you reach the statue is even harder.
“Yes it is difficult to climb up, but having faith as a Christian is difficult too,” says Fr Akimana.
“We host mass here on special occasions where we go all the way up,” he says.