Father John Webootsa, a Kenyan catholic priest who has devoted his life to help improve the living conditions of slum dwellers in Nairobi’s Korogocho and Dandora settlements has been named the inaugural winner of the Franco-German Human Rights Award.

Father John (left) leading a walk for peace in Nairobi’s Korogocho slum

The 37 year-old cleric has been honoured for his multiple community based projects that include setting up a communal kitty to advance micro-loans as capital to women and youth to set up small businesses, establishing a primary school and a medical dispensary to educate and provide healthcare to the community in Korogocho.

The prize is the brainchild of the French and German embassies in Kenya meant to reward outstanding persons who are involved in programs that help empower grassroots and marginalised communities attain a better quality of life as well as promote social justice.

“I feel extremely joyful and I dedicate this award to the people of Korogocho. It gives me the will to soldier on,” said Father John in an interview with the Business Daily shortly after he was announced the first Franco-German Human Rights laureate.

The awards jury was composed of both the French and German envoys to Kenya, legislator Gitobu Imanyara, veteran journalist Hassan Kulundu of the Kenya Editors’ Guild, chairperson of the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) Tecla Namachanja, former chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights commissioner and the late Mrs Mary Onyango who was the deputy chair of the National Commission on Integration and Cohesion.

“Father John is very determined and has a strong will. He has been mugged five times but he never thought of quitting his job in Korogocho. His commitment to the people of Korogocho is selfless,” reads the citation from the jury.

In August 2011, the catholic cleric set up kitty fund that has so far disbursed micro-loans of Sh20,000 each to more than 300 people, mostly women and youth to set up small businesses such as groceries, hair salons and kiosks.

The community business start-up fund is funded by Concern Worldwide, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and the German Catholic Organisation and is aimed at providing alternatives to vulnerable groups not to engage in social ills such as drug abuse, criminal activities and prostitution.

The Mombasa-born priest is also involved in an environmental project dubbed Stop Dumping Death on Us which successfully lobbied the City Council of Nairobi to immediately decommission the three decade old Dandora dump site and its transfer to a non-residential area where only non-recyclable waste will be dumped.
Father John helped set up St. John’s Nursery and Informal School which provides education opportunities to 850 pupils who only pay Sh250 as school fees per month, but three quarters of the learners are on full scholarship as their parents cannot afford the subsidised fees.

The clergyman has also been vocal on the subject of extra judicial killings, speaking out against the dumping of murder victims at the Dandora dumpsite where he says they retrieved about 25 bodies in 2007/2008.

Ordained in June 2002 after his priesthood studies at Kenya’s Consolata Seminary, Uganda Martyrs Seminary, Namugongo, and finally in Lima, Peru; he thereafter moved to work as a priest at St John’s Church in Korogocho parish where he founded Kutoka Network, a voluntary initiative of 26 slum based parishes and interested parties who work with communities living in various informal settlements in Nairobi.

“I first visited Korogocho in 1993 and was touched by the conditions there. While studying in Peru, I volunteered in Phorrilloa, a big slum in the capital Lima. My heart has always been to work to uplift people in the slums,” said Father John.

The non-monetary award comes with a one week fully paid up trip to France and Germany to meet stakeholders and institutions operating in the field of human rights such as the European Court for Human Rights and the German Institute for Human Rights.

Furthermore, his life story and achievements will be featured in a photo and art exhibition at the Goethe Institute and Alliance Française in Nairobi.