Imagine having had the privilege of meeting and interacting with the would-be saint? That aside imagine having been carried by a renowned servant of God who Catholics believe is serving God in heaven alongside the likes of Saint Peter and Moses on her mule.
And as Catholic faithful worldwide prepare to celebrate Blessed Sister Irene Stefani (Nyaatha’s) day on 31st, October, an elderly woman in Nyeri is proud to have met and to have been taught catechism by Sister Irene when she served at Gikondi Catholic Church where she also met her death. More importantly, she was one of the few Gikondi residents who visited Sister Irene the day she passed on nearly a century ago.
Listening to Catherine Wangari Giitwa, a 95 year old resident of little known Mbari ya Ngura village, Gikondi location, Mukurwe-ini , Nyeri County, one would think Blessed Irene Stefani who was born Aurelia Mercede Stefani on 22 August 1891 in Anfo Italy, went to meet with the Lord just recently due to the clarity with which she tells her story.
Though she was only slightly over six years when blessed Sister Irene died of the then deadly and incurable plague which she contracted while boldly and un-selflessly attending to a poor victim, Catherine describe Nyaatha as having been kind, loving and very generous.
“Yes she loved everybody. She was also generous and we loved her very much as she used to give us goodies like sweets and biscuits while giving us catechism lessons,” Wangari who currently looks frail from old age told KNA adding, “Indeed I remember her nostalgically as I had never seen such a kind-hearted woman before.
Wangari said though she was just a child then, Nyaatha loved her company so much. “I will never forget that one day, she took me to Nyeri town and back on her mule that she relied on for transport as vehicles were very few then. I also remember that another time she bought me a very beautiful flowery dress,” she said smiling broadly.
Mrs. Giitwa who was clad in a long dress, pool-neck and a cardigan to guard herself against cold was born in 1924, nine years after Blessed Irene Stefani “Nyaatha” settled at Gikondi in her mission to spread the Gospel and treat the sick earning herself the name “Nyaatha” among the locals, meaning–the merciful one.
The Good Book says, “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it,” (Proverbs 22:6 King James Version). Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him adds Verse 13 of the same chapter.
These Bible verses appear to have been the reference point of Catherine’s parents.
Wangari’s mother, Clotilda Wambui was among the first villagers to be converted to Catholicism after the arrival of Consolata missionaries in Nyeri. The missionaries settled at Mathari area in the foot of Nyeri hills.
It is these catholic missionaries who taught Wangari’s mother the above Biblical verses of bringing up children and not sparing the rod that molded Mrs. Catherine, a staunch catholic faithful who has never wavered from her faith throughout her live.
Her journey of faith started after her birth when she was baptized and went through all the rites of a catholic follower. “My mother took me for baptism three days after birth,” said the mother of ten, with two deceased and many grandchildren.
She added that her mother introduced her to Blessed Sister Irene Stefani “Nyaatha” who she repeatedly referred to as “Mwari Irene”, the Kikuyu translation of Sister Irene and they became great friends.
The grandmother says she adored Sister Irene’s compassion in treating the sick and restoring hope to the villagers who had been struck by plague and other ailments.
“Unfortunately the plague also struck her and she died,” Wangari said adding they were among the last persons to see her alive.
“My mother and I were going to visit my father at Parklands where he worked and she told me we had to pass through Irene’s place because she was ailing,” Wangari recalled, adding that since her father knew one of the head nuns of Consolata missionaries, a Sister Margaret who resided at Parklands convent, he would pass the message concerning Sister Irene Stefani ailment.
The grandmother says she heard Sister Irene telling her mother in vernacular, “Thii wire Sister Mageritta Ndihaha gitandaini ndimuruaru muno” (Go tell Sister Margaret I am seriously ill and bedridden).
Later same evening, Catherine said they arrived at Parklands and immediately walked to Sister Margaret’ residence. “We have just arrived from Gikondi and Sister Irene told us to tell you that she is sick,” the nonagenarian who seems to have a very rich memory quoted her mother as having informed Sister Margaret.
“Oh Clotilda, I have just received a phone call that she has just passed on,” she quoted Sister Margaret as having answered to her mother while crying. She said her mother who was a close friend to Sister Stefani reacted by wailing uncontrollably and screaming.
That was on October 31, 1930 and Wangari says the demise only strengthened her crave for more knowledge and the good things that she had learnt from her.
“Those of us who converted to Christianity then were firm not like today when many Christians abandon their faith when it does not suit them,” the grandmother maintains.
However, her faith was seriously tested during the Mau Mau freedom struggle when several Christians were brutally executed because they were seen as siding with the colonialist.
She narrated how she once escaped death by a whisker after she was confronted by the dreaded Mau Mau freedom fighters for being a devout Catholic.
“I had wrapped my son Gachau on my back and we met with the freedom fighters on the way. They asked me where I was heading and I told them I was taking my son to hospital.” She said, adding the guerillas responded sarcastically, ‘If we knew he was sick we could have brought you medicine.’
“This was sarcastic as I knew they intended to kill me as they had done to other catholic faithful for not compromising their faith,” she said adding that her son saved her from execution.
She added, “I was warned never to attend church services,” and later we were given refuge at the church until the struggle ended.
The senior citizen advises Christians to be steadfast in their faith noting there is a reward in the life hereafter. She blames ills affecting the society to deviation from the above quoted verses and wavering in faith “like a chicken whose head has been cut”.
She has a word of wisdom to daughters of Eve, “respect and submit to your spouses for the sake of your marriage. In our days divorce cases were minimal and marriages blissful as wives highly respected husbands. Husbands should also respect and love their wives for tranquility to prevail at home. Gender violence would cease if spouses observe marriage vows.
“Nowadays I do not switch on my radio because of the news streaming in, people killing each other and other sorts of evils. They scare me,” Wangari laments.
The nonagenarian says the gospel of prosperity has led people to abandon the virtues “Nyaatha” and early Christians exemplified and taught leading to the current rot in society.
And though age has caught up with her, her mind is still fresh as if some of the things happened yesterday. “It is through the grace of God and faith in Him that I have come this far,” she said as she smiled broadly revealing an intact healthy dental formula.
Despite the chilling cold weather biting Gikondi village and Nyeri County in general, Mrs. Catherine Wangari Giitwa does not decline our interview.
And she has one appeal to the Catholic Church in Nyeri and Kenya at large, to re-open Gikondi mission hospital that was converted to a hostel sometimes back. “I am appealing to the catholic church to consider reopening Gikondi mission hospital to save us from seeking services far away at Mukurwei-ini district Hospital.
By Mwangi Gaitha/ Kamiri Munyaka