Tomorrow will not only be a big day for the people of Nyeri in central Kenya but also for Kenya in general and indeed Africa when the first beatification ever in the African continent takes place at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology grounds. Nothing has been left to chance to ensure this historical day goes according to plan.
Over 1,000 police officers have already been deployed in Nyeri County to ensure security is second to none as have all manner of workers – some working on the roads, others pitching tents and others bringing chairs. The subject of this historical beatification is Sister Irene Stefani ‘Nyaatha’.
Little birds whispering to us tell of an array of entrepreneurs from all walks of life who have also descended on the town to cash in on the numerous local and international visitors expected. Travel agencies have churned out overnight travel packages to the town complete with airport transfers, hotel bookings and transport to Nyeri and back – some agencies are even offering special pre-beatification packages to tour this home of the great Aberdare ranges and its environs.
Sister Stefani, who is at the centre of this buzz, arrived in Kenya in December 1914 from Turin, Italy, just as the First World War started to reveal its evil claws. On hand to receive her in Kenya on her arrival was the first Bishop of Nyeri who, by then, was stationed in Limuru. Sister Stefani later headed to the Tuthu mission in Muranga before finally settling in Nyeri. While in Nyeri, she became in charge of supervising workers at the first coffee plantation started by the mission.
As the pangs of the First World War began to be felt in Africa, Sister Stefani and others were assigned as military chaplains to work with the Red Cross nurses for the Carrier Corps in Voi and Mombasa where she witnessed first-hand, the face of human suffering and misery as she attended to the wounded. At the beginning of 1919, after the end of the war, she returned to Kenya and was awarded a commemorative medal conferred by the British Red Cross.
She moved back to Nyeri where she helped nurture the newly formed African Sisters congregation of the Mary Immaculate Sisters. In 1920 she was posted to Gikondi (present-day Mukurweini) mission to become the principal of the boys’ school where she also taught catechism and cared for the sick. It is said her gentle nature and natural desire to help the helpless endeared her among the local Kikuyu community. They fondly called her ‘Nyina wa Tha’, which means Mother of Mercy. It is from this title that she acquired her new Kikuyu name, ‘Nyaatha’.
Between 1929 and 1930, the infamous bubonic plague that became known as the ‘Black Death’ in Europe, hit the whole of the Gikondi area and Sister Stefani did a lot of work caring for those who fell sick with the disease but as fate would have it, she ended up contracting the plague herself and on the 31st of October 1930, she passed on.
Tomorrow as faithful from all over the world come to bear witness to this historical beatification of a woman who dedicated herself to Kenya, it will be a great opportunity to revisit the rich history of Nyeri town and remind ourselves of the great people that came here and never left.
Do you recall names like Dedan Kimathi of the Mau Mau movement or Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell of the scout movement? If you never had a reason to visit Nyeri town then here is your big excuse! Do not forget to visit the tallest waterfalls in Kenya and the spectacular Aberdare Ranges.