In the wee hours of Tuesday morning, we set off on a journey to Kibeho, a small town in Nyaruguru in the Southern Province. The three-hour journey took us through the hills and valleys scattered with arrays of eucalyptus trees. Traffic in the usually quiet town was bumper to bumper as cars taking the faithful to the holy place for Assumption Day celebrations made long lines. Every year thousands of believers from all corners of the world travel to this small town to celebrate Assumption Day. The town is famous for reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ believed to have occurred between 1981 and 1989.
The Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ reportedly appeared to three teenage girls in Kibeho in 1981. On August 19, 1982, those who saw the visions reported gruesome sights-rivers of blood, sliced heads, etcetera, which sometoday regard as an ominous foreshadowing of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Only one of the girls is alive today. At the time of the apparitions, the three girls were students at Groupe Scolaire Mere du Verbe, located just behind the church called Notre-Dame des Douleurs (Our Mother of Sorrows).
In 2001, Bishop Augustin Misago, then of Gikongoro Diocese, approved a public devotion linked to the apparitions on August 15, 1988 and declared their authenticity on June 29, 2001.
Since then, Kibeho has become a holy place of pilgrimage for believers across the world. They pray and beseech the Virgin Mary to mediate between them and God.
As a Catholic, setting foot in Kibeho for the first time was beyond exciting. I couldn’t wait to receive a portion of the blessings this place is known for.
Thousands of people from all walks of life, the young and the old were in attendance. Streets were painted with countless sculptures of the Virgin Mary and Jesus on the cross. A number of religious items were on sale- like rosaries, bracelets, and rings all embellished with portraits of Jesus and the Virgin Mary- from a price range of Rwf100 to Rwf5000. There was something for everybody.
“This is not the first time I have made good money here, but on such a day, we get lots of customers and it has never been a disappointment,” Sarafina Mukandayisenga, one of the vendors said.
At some point, activities came to a standstill; all that could be heard was a replication of prayer, sounds of chimes echoing as priests prayed for believers.
The highlight of the day seemed to have been the popular Holy Water from this place. Whatever one could get hold of, whether a mineral water bottle or a jerrycan was used to get some of the Holy Water. People gathered in small groups stroking the string of knots on the Rosary in prayer as they braved the scorching sun.
A call to selfless living
Bishop Andrzej Józefowicz, the Apostolic Nuncio in Rwanda, called on believers to always embrace Christ, especially in a time like this when the world is full of hatred and evil.
“We should strive to stay in line with God’s will, a person’s existence should not be based on earthly life, and it should be a journey that leads us to the house of God where He is waiting for us,” the Bishop said.
Bishop Józefowicz also encouraged people to lead a life of selflessness, and be close to the needy and have open hearts. “We shouldn’t close our hearts and be selfish; we should instead open them and give them to the world,” he said. Józefowicz thanked the Almighty for the opportunity given to Rwanda and that it should be a lesson to all Christians.
Believe and you shall receive
Martha Ishimwe, a pilgrim, set off for her journey to Kibeho early morning with hope that she will get answers to her long awaited requests. She hoped that the journey she made wouldn’t be in vain and that soon, a miracle would come her way.
“I believe that miracles do happen from this place, though it is my first time to come here. I have always gone to places like Ruhango where Catholics converge every first Sunday of the month and to be honest, I have always had my prayer answered. I have faith that the same will happen from my trip to Kibeho,” she said.
Irene Twesime came all the way from Uganda with her husband, it was her first time and it was her husband who inspired her to go.
She had prepared for the journey a month ahead and on D-Day, she was all set.
“I was prepared because I knew I had to come, it was a long journey but it’s worth it. Coming to this place, I wanted to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit and also witness a miracle in my life,” she said.
In the past, she always gave prayer request to friends who brought them to kibeho and Twesime testifies to having received answers to them.
“This place is blessed, I always sent prayer requests to this place and to be honest they came true. I believe this is a place of miracles. And I believe that the Virgin Mary appeared in this place. I was actually telling my husband that these things happen though some who don’t believe and don’t pray enough can’t see, and even when we do it’s hard to understand because we lack the Holy Spirit to guide us, but these things happen,” she testified.
Pius Odilo, a Tanzanian, came to witness the vision of the Virgin Mary for himself, said that Rwanda should be a country filled with blessings, citing this as the reason Holy Mary chose to appear from the place.
Though he had heard about the place for some time, it was his first time to come and he was glad he did.
“I am a staunch catholic and I do believe that Mary appeared in this place, this is why I came. I believe that I will see Her too, it might not be this day in particular but at some point in my life I know I will.”