Tourism: Why Kibeho is sitting on a 'virgin gold mine'

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Catholic clerics from different countries leading prayers during the Assumption Day Mass at Kibeho Holy Land. The Rwanda Development Board says it is working on plans to make Kibeho more attractive to tourists. / Sam Ngendahimana

It was sudden and happened in a flash. A strange force descended on three young girls and the skies opened up to reveal an image of the Virgin Mary imposingly staring at them.

The young school girls were shaken as a voice reverberated from the sky giving them a message that would save their country if it was heeded. It was a warning that doom would befall Rwanda if the government and church leaders did not change their ways.

“Go tell the church and leaders that Rwanda would become “a river of blood” if the hatred that was being spread was not quickly quelled…”

This was the message the Virgin Mary gave to three school-girls (Alphonsine Mumureke, Nathalie Mukamazimpaka and Mariya Klara Mukangango) in the village of Kibeho 36 years ago. Only one of the three girls is still alive. On the same day it is believed that is when the Virgin Mary went to heaven.

Religious scholars say the three girls passed on the message to whoever they came across, but they were ignored as few believed their encounter with the Virgin Mary. But the country was later to pay dearly for this.  

Thirteen years later, Rwanda turned into a river of blood as over one million innocent people were massacred in just 100 days during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.  

Kibeho is also known to have experienced one of the worst massacres of the Tutsi during the Genocide. When the killings erupted throughout the country in April 1994, thousands of Tutsi fleeing their home villages gathered at a catholic church in Kibeho, with hope that the ‘holy land’ will be spared.

Unfortunately, the Interahamwe militia still followed them up, burnt the church with Kerosene and killed thousands of Tutsi who had sought refuge inside and those around Kibeho Catholic Parish compound.

Fast forward, 2017, the holy place in Nyaruguru district has become a popular pilgrimage destination where believers go to repent and seek forgiveness. Today Kibeho attracts over 200,000 pilgrims from all corners of the world to mark Assumption day, which is celebrated annually on August 15.

On the calendar of pilgrimages, Kibeho is slowly assuming its rightful place.

However, tourism enthusiasts say that Kibeho should be upgraded to a level that befits its position and value in religious tourism. With this it will attract more tourists and also boost the country’s tourism revenues.

One of the advocates for this is Member of Parliament, Eugene Barikana, a devout catholic.

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MP Eugene Barikana (3rd L) attended Assumption Day mass at Kibeho Holy Land for the first time, last August. He says that more redevelopment work is needed to promote Religious tourism in Kibeho. / Sam Ngendahimana

On August 5, Barikana made his first visit to Kibeho to pay homage to the Holy place. The mammoth crowd of believers from all corners of the world was a sight to behold for the legislator.  It was a scene not different from the renowned pilgrim destinations across the world.

“When I arrived, I couldn’t believe the number of people who had turned out for Assumption day celebrations. I was in total awe,” the seemingly shocked lawmaker narrates.

However, he wonders why the vicinity of this holy place is in a sorry state.

“The roads are in a poor state and very dusty or impassable when it rains. We probably don’t know how valuable this place is” Barikana ponders.

To show how important Kibeho is, he gives an example of the international celebrities that visit the place and go unnoticed.

“I was shocked to hear that Sergio Agüero, the Manchester city football player visited Kibeho sometime back. Unfortunately no one recognised him because the place has been given little attention,” Barikana says.

Aguero’s visit to Kibeho was confirmed by Bishop Celestin Hakizimana of Gikongoro Diocese, but was quick to add that the visit was meant to be private- specifically for prayers, but the star was eventually recognised by the staff before he left.

Clarence Fernandes, the Chairman of Rwanda Renaissance—an organisation mandated to promote tourism, trade, investment and culture between India and Rwanda echoes Barikana’s concerns.

Fernandes says that Kibeho requires more efforts to promote the area as yet another major tourism destination. Fernandes who has led a delegation of close to 70 Indian pilgrims to Kibeho describes the holy place as a niche segment and a very important segment in the basket of tourism products of Rwanda.

“Infrastructure needs to be improved and it gives me great satisfaction that the government of India has already allocated the required funds to develop the infrastructure in and around Kibeho,” Fernandes reveals.

MP Barikana and Fernandes argue that with an improved road network and more hospitality infrastructure around Kibeho holy land, the place could see more tourists and pilgrims visiting the area—which would boost the economy and the image of the country.

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Thousands of Catholic believers from all over the world turnout to celebrate the Assumption Day and the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Kibeho Holy Land every year. / Sam Ngendahimana

Fernandes wonders why the Rwanda Tourism website does not have Kibeho among the list of tourist attractions, yet the holy place is recognised by the Vatican.

Fernandes advises that if Rwanda Tourism includes Kibeho on its website, the whole process of promoting this product would be easy.

Back home, Fernandes says that Kibeho means “a lot” to Indians who, he affirms have gained “much peace and spirituality” by visiting the holy land.

“There is a very big segment of Indians who are extremely religious. This segment makes it a point to visit places of pilgrimage like Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, the Holy Land of Israel, among other places.

Fernandes says 68 pilgrims from Mumbai have visited Kibeho and during the first week of December this year, another group of 46 Pilgrims will be coming thus bringing the total to 114 within a short span.

“With more initiatives and marketing programmes, we can realistically look at a minimum of 750 to 800 Indian pilgrims coming to the holy land of Kibeho in 2018.

Most of them are senior citizens, who have substantial disposable income and hence an ideal segment to tap into to showcase other tourism products and services,” Fernandes, who is also a regular pilgrim from Mumbai said.

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Offerings brought by catholic believers who turned up at Kibeho at the Assumption Day, last month. / Sam Ngendahimana

What Rwanda Development Board says

RDB says it recognizes the “importance” of Kibeho in Rwanda’s tourism sector and is currently working with the church and some local partners in the area to provide “logistical support” in the areas such as the provision of information about the 1980s events to pilgrims.

RDB officials say that they have also encouraged tour operators to include Kibeho on their itineraries.

“We intend to have a hiking pilgrimage route from Kigali to Kibeho and attract private sector investment in infrastructure and services such as establishment of tour & guiding services, souvenir shops, Spa services, and many others. We are also working with key stakeholders to come up with a religious tourism strategy that will ensure the development and marketing of this unique product,” RDB explained in an email to The Sunday Times. 

Kibeho holy land is also home to several other excursions, beyond religious pilgrimage; the only living seer exists in Kibeho, there is holy water, holy soil and retreat chapels, among others. Kibeho also offers Green getaways to the mighty Nyungwe National Park where pilgrims can enjoy a cocktail of tourism products.

Bishop Hakizimana of Gikongoro Diocese told Sunday Times that the church and RDB has held discussions on how to redevelop Kibeho but little is yet to be done.

“There were some discussions held about 3 years ago but things have stalled ever since. Lots of things need to be done; new roads, more hotels…,” explains Hakizimana.

Bishop Hakizimana notes that the Marian apparitions at Kibeho are a relatively recent event than elsewhere in the world.

Kibeho is the only recognised Marian pilgrimage site in Africa, as well as the only site where the person who witnessed this apparition is still alive.

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Officials from government and tourists seen here attending the mass to celebrate the apparitions of Virgin Mary at Kibeho. / Sam Ngendahimana

Profile of Kibeho

Located in Nyaruguru District in the Southern Province, Kibeho village is located 30 kilometres from Butare town. 

The apparition of Virgin Mary was recognised by the Roman Catholic Church in 2001 after scrutinising the results of two commissions comprising doctors and theologians.

On the celebration of Assumption, Kibeho is usually crowded with more than 10,000 people from different countries. Rwanda Development Board (RDB)—whose mandate includes tourism promotion—says that Kibeho is visited by around 200,000 people annually and these come from “within the region and beyond”

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