He was offered a fleet of cars, the latest phone and a mansion in Nairobi’s most exclusive area, but Kenya’s new Central Bank governor, a member of Catholic sect Opus Dei, has turned down every one of them.
Instead, Patrick Njoroge, 54, lately of the International Monetary Fund, will lead an almost monastic existence in an Opus Dei religious commune in Nairobi, throwing into renewed focus the Catholic order that has struggled to shake off a global reputation as a shadowy organisation.
The new governor takes the job at a critical juncture for Kenya’s economy – the shilling is rapidly losing ground after a collapse in tourism on the back of terrorism attacks – but he has attracted more attention for his modest lifestyle than for his qualifications for the job.
Kenyans, dismayed at the lavish lifestyles that their politicians and senior officials lead, rapturously received the Yale-educated economist’s appointment, announced in late June. “Kenya needs more members of Opus Dei in public service. Not greed-driven hypocritical Christians whose only aim is to fleece,” tweeted one.
Two years ago, activists parked a pig and her litter outside Kenya’s parliament to feast on a pool of blood in protest at the demand by politicians, disparagingly dubbed “mpigs”, to raise their salaries to $10,000 (£6,480) a month.
Some of the worst examples of excess in public office have emerged from Africa, perhaps the most celebrated example that of Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the Central African Republic dictator who in 1977 crowned himself emperor in a ceremony costing $20m. His diamond-encrusted crown alone was valued at $5m.
But Mr Njoroge’s personal choices also drew bafflement, particularly from parliamentarians quizzing him ahead of his confirmation. Asked why he was single, he responded: “I am single by choice – it’s not because there’s a problem or shortage.”
He also faced questions over why he did not own a single asset in Kenya despite pulling in a six-figure dollar salary in his IMF role, which has based him largely in the United States.
“I don’t have a single asset here in Kenya,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that this how it will be forever. This is my economic model and maybe years after retirement, I would want to invest in other things.”
The banker’s links to Opus Dei (Latin for “Work of God”), however, have been little discussed. The order, which owns the well-regarded Strathmore University and the all-girls Kianda school, whose alumnae include first lady Margaret Kenyatta, is an educational force in Nairobi.
Its followers include Terry Ryan, one of Kenya’s last white civil servants who played a prominent role in persuading the Kenyan government to drop price controls in the 1990s.
Founded in Spain in 1928, Opus Dei came under particular scrutiny in the wake of Dan Brown’s bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, in which the religious order was depicted as an influential and corrupt cult-like group, a perception that the organisation has tried hard to dispel.
As a numerary in the order, Mr Njoroge is one of a minority of members who make up the so-called core of Opus Dei. They follow a path of celibacy, and are among the most devoted to the organisation, practising self-flagellation and wearing a spiked chain, called a cicile, around the thigh for two hours a day as an act of penance, said Opus Dei’s Kenya spokesman, Andrew Ritho.
Opus Dei said that it had not put any pressure on Mr Njoroge to deny himself the privileges that come with the post, saying that it remained his personal decision. Mr Ritho joked: “If it were me, I’d have settled for the Range Rover, that’s for sure.”