A bachelor at 54. No wealth despite drawing a five-figure monthly dollar salary and distaste for a luxurious lifestyle is hardly an apt description of any head of central bank or reserve bank in Africa.

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Dr Patrick Njoroge

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Dr Patrick Njoroge, the new governor of Kenya’s Central Bank, has confounded many by his frugal lifestyle and strong following of a Catholic order, the Opus Dei.

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Entrusted with Kenya’s money bag and the control buttons for the public coffers and thrown into the deep end to steer the wobbling economy that is sagging under the weight of an increasingly weak shilling that has hit an all-time low against major currencies, Njoroge’s lifestyle and not his job is what hogs newspaper headlines in Kenya.

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The Yale-educated economist puzzled Kenyans in June when he appeared before a parliamentary committee convened to interview and vet candidates for the top central bank seat.

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He openly displayed his monk-like traits announcing that he was unmarried, did not covert wealth and opulence and that he had no assets to his name despite receiving a $30 000 (now about R400 000) pay cheque every month during his 10-year stint at the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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He shocked the panel of members of parliament during the vetting exercise relayed live on national television when he said he was not married and rejected offers of a wife by MPs who named a few eligible women. “I’m single and I’m single by choice, it’s not that there is a problem or shortage. I’m comfortable that way,” he said.

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And when he was appointed to head the central bank, Njoroge rejected the trappings that come with the big office, turning down offers for three top-of-the-range cars – a Mercedes Benz, a Range Rover and a Volkswagen Passat – two armed bodyguards and chase cars, |a firearm, a palatial home and two smart phones. He has not addressed press conferences, choosing instead to hide in the shadows and shun official engagements that would expose him to the public limelight.

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Appointment to a public office in Kenya is more often than not the door to a lavish lifestyle of drivers, bodyguards, mansions and support staff, but the softly spoken man has rejected the extravagance adored by his predecessors and chosen to live at a monastery he shares with other members of his religious order. Here, he has a single bedroom, but shares a bathroom, dinning-room and TV room with other monks.

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This is a far cry from the official central bank governor’s six-bedroom mansion maintained and paid for by the government. The pristine gardens of the official residence now lie fallow because of Njoroge’s selfless move that has also denied him the chance to live in the same highbrow neighbourhood as the US and British ambassadors to Kenya.

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Njoroge, a senior economist at the IMF who has headed the institution in the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean and also worked as the adviser to the deputy managing director in Washington DC, says he is a staunch member of Opus Dei, a Catholic sect established in Spain in 1928 which prescribes a frugal lifestyle for its members. Kenya is home to nearly 700 members of Opus Dei. More than half of them are married and live with their families while the rest remain single and devoted to the organisation.

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Seven such members live in the same monastery as Njoroge who is also the younger brother of Catholic bishop Anthony Muheria, also a member of Opus Dei. Njoroge is ranked as a core member of the sect in Kenya. Core members adhere to strict celibacy, and as an act of repentance, they wear a spiked chain on their thigh or upper torso for up to two hours a day.

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Members of the secretive Catholic order worldwide, who were portrayed in Dan Brown’s novel, The Da Vinci Code, as powerful but corrupt cultists, have come under new public focus following Njoroge’s theatrics after he was named the regulator of financial institutions in Kenya.

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“Some people consider us a secretive and shadowy sect,” said Andrew Ritho, the communications officer for Opus Dei in Kenya. “But most people don’t understand us.”

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Opus Dei is Latin for “work of God”. The organisation teaches responsibility and obedience to the ways of God and calls for simplicity as a path to holiness and happiness, he says. And that explains why Njoroge has chosen the simple life. He detests wealth despite drawing a huge salary.

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“I don’t have a single asset here in Kenya,” he said during his vetting.

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“It doesn’t mean this is how it will be forever. Maybe years after retirement, I would want to invest in other things.”

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As Kenya keeps the spotlight on the unique lifestyle of her new top banker, the economy appears on a downward slope with less foreign currency seeping into the country following the withdrawal of tourists due to terrorist threats.

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The shilling has cowered to an all-time low of 104 (R13.34) to the dollar, but Njoroge believes it will self correct.

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“The shilling should continue to be determined more by market forces than by pegging it to a currency,” he said, seeking to shake up confidence in the economy.

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Attempting to stay on the side of the banks, Njoroge could have just started a battle against most of Kenya’s 349 MPs who believe the high interest rates charged by financial institutions should be regulated by way of legislation.

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“Interest spreads are very large even by international standards. It would be a big mistake to believe we can control interests rates by law or legislative ways,” he said.

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