Piece of Italy on Mt Kenya by Muchiri Gitonga

Piece of Italy on Mt Kenya by Muchiri Gitonga


War, that bloody business by humanity gone mad, has a way of making the boom of guns, the smell and rivulets of blood, innocence ruined, and ambitions shattered unforgettable by its sheer gore.

War and its memories are also immortalised in brick and mortar to capture and make real what poignancy may evade memory. This would explain the Italian-built shrine in Nyeri and its tree-lined drive and well-tended lawns against the backdrop of the picturesque Nyeri Hill.

It also explains why we have numerous memorial this and that. It is not that those who put up such structures are extravagant. Theirs is a burning desire to keep certain memories, certain fires burning.

Five kilometres from Nyeri town, the Italian War Memorial Church off the Ihururu Road is the eternal home of the remains of 676 soldiers, mostly Italians, captured by British soldiers during the Second World War.

Vaults containing the remains of African soldiers, mostly from Somaliland, who could not be interred inside the church because of their faith, are housed in another structure outside the church. The Somalis had fought alongside the Italians.

On the vaults are engraved the names and dates of death of the soldiers. Lying in front of the two columns of rows of simple wooden pews and just before the altar is one marble-lined tomb. It is that of the Duke of Aosta, Prince Amedeo Savoia-Aosta, the leader of the soldiers.

Benito Mussolini, who lead Italy to the Second World War, had in 1937 made Prince Amedeo the commander-in-chief of all the forces in Italian East Africa.

Mass at the Italian War Memorial Church is held only once a year.

Scores of Italian families, friends, and government officials throng the beautiful brick-walled compound to pay homage to their country’s fallen soldiers.

For Italy, November 4 is set aside to remember the country’s soldiers who died for their motherland, explained former Italian ambassador to Kenya Pierandrea Magistrati.

Last year, Italians living in Kenya marked the day on November 6. A crowd of Italian families, government officials led by then ambassador Mr Magistrati, a few nuns of Italian origin, and a handful of local residents congregated in the church.

Italy’s and Kenya’s flags were hoisted at the entrance.

Green-white-red ribbons hang on the interior walls of the church. The marble tomb of Prince Amedeo left no doubt that this was an Italian state function.

The annual ritual brings together Italians resident in Kenya or other parts of Africa with their families.

Throughout the hour-long mass conducted in Italian by an African priest bathed in soft light from giant candles and windows, two armed soldiers in black and white uniform stand attention on each side of the altar.

The Italian Government and its nationals residing in Kenya funded the construction of the church back in 1952.

Ms Halina Pellin says her family has been coming here for the past 58 years to pay tribute to their father’s cousin, Pellin Armando.

According to Halina, Armando died on August 8, 1946 after he and her father were held captive by the British while fighting in Ethiopia.
Last year, Halina was accompanied by her mother Christina and brother Riccardo Pellin. With her father now dead, the family feels obligated to pay tribute to his cousin as he would have done if he was still alive.

“I never met him,” says Halina as she places her hand on the vault bearing the remains of the departed relative.

“When he died, he was a British prisoner of war alongside my late father. It’s very touching. It signified more for my father who was with him when he passed away.”

The Pellin family has been coming here since 1952.

“It has become our family tradition to attend the annual Mass. In fact, we started coming here long ago when this road was made. It makes us feel closer to our past,” says Riccardo.

Like many of his fellow soldiers, Armando had been captured by the British in Ethiopia and transported to Kenya as prisoners of war. Many of the captives, including Prince Amedeo, would later die of malaria and tuberculosis in the war camps.

One of the legacies of their captivity in Kenya is the Mai Mahiu Road on the scenic escarpment to the floor of the Rift Valley.

In recent years, some Italian families have been repatriating the remains of their relatives for burial in their country.

“It’s true that some families have requested that the remains of their relatives be brought back to Italy. It’s also right to have the remains there,” says Halina, who lives in Kenya.

According to Mr Magistrati, every government has a duty to remember its soldiers who die for the country. He said the Italian Ministry of Defence spends about 6,000 euros (about Sh723,000) in addition to private donations from soldiers’ relatives, to maintain this shrine.

“It’s a symbol of friendship between Italy and Kenya because we have many priests and nuns working around here,” said Mr Magistrati.

After its construction, all the known remains of Italian soldiers in various graveyards in East Africa were gathered and transported to be interred in this architectural masterpiece. This became possible with the help of a committee formed in 1955 for that purpose.

Those buried in the church died as they sought to fulfil the dreams of Italian political and military leaders in the first decades of the 20th century.

The reign of Prince Amedeo as the Governor-General of Ethiopia had been marked by development of infrastructure and high standards of living and general improved quality of life in the new Italian territory.

Under his command, Italian troops accomplished their greatest feat in the Second World War by defeating British troops in British Somaliland.  This victory was, however, short-lived as crucial supply lines for his forces were cut by the British.

Prince Amedeo died in Thika on March 3, 1942, after refusing an offer by the British to be held in England, where he would have been more comfortable until the end of the war.

Source: Daily Nation


  1. 1)Good history but am wondering how the fallen italian heroes mean a lot to Amb. Magistrati and if the shrine according to him is a symbol of friendship,why dont they involve the locals in that function?I think the ambassador should help develop Nyeri town
    2)I love the architectural work of the shrine even after having survived all those years, still looks awesome and well kept

  2. I have very happy memories of involvement in the annual Mass for the years 1993 and 1994. While working at nearby Mathari with CISRET, our teachers on the course provided the choir for the Mass. I helped to direct the choir and played the organ. We had some fun learning a few Italian hymns. Much credit is due to the Italian Consolata Sisters especially the late Srs Graziella and Vivenzia. who made arrangements for the Mass and who supervised maintenance of the chapel. The sumptious meal which always followed and which was provided by the Kenya Italian community was magnificent!!!

    Fr Nicholas Motherway. 10/12/2011. Cork Ireland

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