Humble Kenyan nun who was killed by terrorists in Yemen


Anastasia Kanini grew up in poverty in what is today known as Makueni County. She died Sister Judith in the faraway land of Yemen, a martyr and victim of the merchants of terror.

News of her death was broken delicately to her relatives by nuns at the Missionaries of Charity offices in Nairobi.

Her parents, who last saw her in 2011, got the message from Catholic priests Bonaventure Musyoki and Stephen Kaumbulu of Mbuvo Catholic Parish in their backyard in Kathonzweni Sub-County.

Sister Judith, who was killed by terrorists on March 4, at 41, committed most of her adult life to Christ and chose a path which was largely unpopular with family members.

At one point, her family banned her from home because of her refusal to visit witchdoctors.

The nun was born in a family of eight to a single mother. She was meek, family members recall, and had an uncomfortable habit of taking unpopular decisions.

“She grew up a disciplined and God-fearing girl, who attended Sunday School without fail,” her mother, Ms Agnes Kasangi, told the Nation on Sunday at her home in the sleepy village of Kithaayoni in Makueni County.

No one ever expected her to take on a life of white tunics, coifs, constant prayer and travel to faraway lands to serve the poor.

Sister Judith was born in Kiboko Settlement Scheme in today’s Kibwezi West Constituency. Her life was always one of poverty, only allowing her to complete primary education at Ngunguuni School in the nearby Makueni Constituency.

She joined Athiani Village Polytechnic to learn dressmaking and this almost summed up her schooling in the early 1990s.

Domestic squabbles had pushed the family, still dirt poor, from Kiboko to a settlement scheme in the same area and later to the current home at Kithaayoni.

Her family admits they once tried to enlist the services of a witchdoctor to lift them out of their poverty but flatly refused to be part of it.

She would later join the Missionaries of Charity to become a nun.

“This was a girl who did not entertain superstitions,” Mr Joseph Maswili, her maternal uncle ,who accommodated the nun for a year after she completed primary school, remembered.


“In 2011 when she came home for a visit, she recounted an episode where a knife-wielding gang confronted her at Aden in Yemen, but soon vanished when she unleashed her rosary,” said Mr Maswili.

As a member of the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order created by the late Mother Teresa, Sister Judith opted to use her time to serve the poor.

Because international boundaries were no limit, she left Kenya in 2002 to work in Aden, Yemen.

On March 4, this year, she was with four other nuns at a nursing home for the elderly serving breakfast. It would be her last act of charity.

Two gunmen stormed the home, handcuffed the nuns and shot them dead from close range.

Medical charity organisation, MSF, among the first responders, said 15 bodies had been found.

The death toll included other volunteers from Ethiopia and Yemen.

“There were five sisters when the incident happened. One of them is a Superior (leader of the nuns), who wasn’t found by the gunmen, but the other four were shot dead,” the MSF’s head office said in a statement. A priest from India, who was also at the home, is still missing.

The senior citizens at the nursing home were not harmed and no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

“All the sisters and others killed in the attack were buried in Aden,” Fr Thomas Sebastian, the secretary of Bishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia where Yemen falls in the Catholic jurisdiction, told the Nation last Saturday.

The names of the dead nuns were confirmed as Anslem from India, Judith from Kenya, Marguerite and Reginette, both from Rwanda.


According to the Vicariate of Southern Arabia, Anslem would have turned 60, on May 8, while Sister Reginette, the youngest in the group, was 32.

But the death of the sisters roiled the Catholic Church, with Pope Francis issuing a statement.

“They were killed by their attackers, but also by the globalisation of indifference. Their names do not appear on the front pages of the newspapers, but they gave their blood for the church,” Pope Francis said.

“In the name of God, he calls upon all parties in the present conflict to renounce violence and to renew their commitment to the people of Yemen, particularly those most in need, whom the Sisters and their helpers sought to serve,” the Pope added in a special message signed by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

So why did Sister Judith choose to serve in a place where she was in constant threat?

Her mother remembers her last visit to Kenya and the nun showed no sign of stress or fear.

“Kadogo told me that life was difficult in Yemen and that at the nursing home the nuns lived in constant fear of attacks,” Ms Kasangi said using her nickname.

“However, she maintained that she would not consider abandoning sisterhood and that she would maintain her chastity as she had promised when we last met in 2002,” Ms Kasangi added.

Seven nuns have been murdered in Yemen since 1992.

According to the Vicariate of Southern Arabia, covering the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen, there are just about 3,000 Catholics in the area, an arena for violence and terrorism.

The United Nations estimates that around 6,000 people have been killed, and 21.2 million need humanitarian assistance due to the fighting between Houthi rebels and a coalition of Gulf countries defending that country’s government.

Among those who shared fond memories of the slain nun was her youngest sister, Ms Mary Munyiva, 24, who claimed she had never set eyes on her.

“But from what mother said about her, Sister Judith was a good person. It’s unfortunate that I will never get a chance to interact with her,” said the mother of three.