"Certainly, I get my depressions like anyone else. But I need depressions. For me it's like childbirth. I feel that I can't be creative without suffering. My big point is that if I have long spells of depression, afterwards I am more creative. It's like giving birth."
A CONVERSATION WITH FATHER ARNOLD GROL, FOUNDER AND CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, UNDUGU SOCIETY OF KENYA
Originally published in Executive Magazine, January 1993
Undugu’s founder and patron, Father Arnold Grol was a fixture in Nairobi's slums and streets for nearly 30 years, until his death at 73 in August, 1997. A Roman Catholic parish priest, he delivered his Sunday sermons at St. Theresa's in Eastleigh, one of Nairobi's lowest-income communities. His time was spent in the alleys as well as the boardrooms, and he was well known for his fondness of music, dancing, fine dining, cigarettes and a glass of good wine. In this conversation, he waxed philosophical about topics seminal to his work:
"I started Undugu in `73, and in my wildest dreams I would not have thought that we'd come so far. My biggest success has been that Undugu is Africanized after so few years. So many European firms and others are reluctant to Africanize because they want to do it the European way. I'll just give you one example. Some young Africans the other day made a film about street girls. The film is much better than a film made by independent professionals, ex-BBC people that have been on the job for ages, because as regards the subject of street children, the Europeans will never understand the African mentality like an African does.
ON WEALTH AND SHARING
"The point where we have failed is that we have not involved the rich people; we have not made clear to those who have money, and especially big firms, that money is there to be a little bit equally distributed. I'm not against big salaries, but what I am against is that when you get the big salary you use it in order to buy your third or fourth car, your third or fourth house, or a private plane. I think that the choice I have made in life was between three textile factories of which I could have become director by inheritance. In my own family, I've had people who only lived for money. I don't know one of them who only lived for his personal pleasure and money that has become happy. Those who shared their big salaries-- not giving half away, but a reasonable sum-- they are the ones who are the happiest."
ON THE GENEROUSITY OF KENYANS
"I'll give you some examples. I might go to the post office, and someone will say, `Oh you are Father Grol! I want to give something to the parking boys, I want give 100 shillings.’ Now people that have not so much money divide the money. So ten shillings out of one pocket, twenty from another, and sometimes you arrive at 95 shillings. So when someone says `I want to give 100 shillings,' I say `beautiful!' I went to an MP, who called me to his office, and he said `Father, I like your work with parking boys-- here are 10,000 shillings. If I go to parties, even politicians or nobodies come to me and say `Father we like your work.' So I say, if you like the work, then you must do your part, because street children are everybody's concern.”
ON SPIRITUALITY AND GIVING
"Now I thought that this was typically of the Christian churches. So the other day I looked up the Koran, and I found it written that if you want to be pleasing in the sight of the Muslim Allah, the rich have to share the wealth with the poor. And I now am convinced that (this is so) even in Buddhism, in all religions. And everybody's a little bit religious. Even denying the existence of God is a kind of religion for me, because everybody believes in something better than only eating, only drinking, only dancing. There is something in everybody, so I think that if we want to be happy, we have to give in to that natural longing for sharing."
ON REACHING THE UNREACHABLE
"I read in the paper that the Kenyan prostitutes are getting very angry with the Somali prostitutes, because they are gaining the market. So with Undugu social workers, I went to the nightclubs, and to my astonishment these Somali girls, from 18-22 look so beautiful, that there must be somebody behind them, because they dress so well. We started looking after them. Now my way to get at people who are unreachable is through medicine. When they say to me in the nightclub that they want to go to the hospital, I ask what illness? If they tell me it is malaria, I know what side of the body the 'malaria' is. It is generally the rather low parts-- it is just a name for another illness. Now I know that 80% of the girls are sero-positive, have AIDS in one form or another. So I take them to the hospital, and that is going to the heart. We have a holistic approach. We are teaching the Somali prostitutes English and Swahili, and at the same time teaching them about AIDS, about health care, looking after yourself. Once we have taught them enough English, we say now learn hairdressing, we will pay for you."