Equipped with jerry-cans and bottles full of water, thousands of Catholics lift all these material belongings in the air to receive blessings from the Holy Father.
Priests from various parishes and countries join in to assist. While they move about sprinkling holy water from pails, a section of Christians pushes closer and moves along so as not to miss the ‘rain’ of blessings.
It is Assumption Day at Kibeho in the Southern province of Huye.
Celebrated every August 15, the day has regularly seen the grounds of Kibeho covered with pilgrims from all over the world. And last Saturday, over 30,000 turned up for special prayers.
Spiritual message for the day
During prayers, Bishop Célestin Hakizimana of Gikongoro Diocese, told pilgrims not to fall victim to evil while trying meet the needs of the world because most have lost the spiritual fight that way.
“The needs of this world are not greater than the rewards from heaven, but if we need to defeat the devil, we should be alert over all evil surrounding us,” Hakizimana told the congregation.
Travelling to Kibeho requires a bit of planning. Some of the pilgrims had arrived overnight while others were seen arriving in the middle of prayers due to transport difficulties.
Journey to Kibeho
Our expedition started on the eve of Assumption Day but we could not leave Kigali because getting a bus ticket from Nyabugogo Bus Park was very difficult. After failing to get tickets on Friday, by 4:00 am on the holy day, we returned to the park to book tickets and luckily set off an hour later.
After about two and half hours of travelling, we arrived in Huye. But getting a vehicle to Kibeho on a day like that is a nightmare. Clearly the buses were not enough yet masses continued to flow into the bus park.
“I cannot give out tickets before I confirm that the vehicles are coming, otherwise it is useless to give you one when it won’t help you,” said an operator from Rwinyana Express Bus Services in Huye.
Fortunately, four of us got a lift from a bus coming from Bukinda Parish in Kabale Diocese in Uganda.
Entering the holy land
The road to Kibeho is dusty and if one makes a mistake of boarding a taximoto, the journey will cost Rwf 3000, on top of the dust.
It is therefore much safer to travel in a van at Rwf 1000 although the price increases when there are many passengers.
By 10:00 am on we were already in Kibeho to meet am cacophony of languages, cultures and different ages, everyone had something to do.
Just adjacent to the chapel, a section of the pilgrims were reciting a rosary and calling out to the lord, others were drumming and humming.
As we continued to move behind the chapel, some pilgrims were selling food, others cooking and those close to the water taps were washing their feet, hands and face probably to clean out the dust.
One pilgrim, Jean Marie Vianney Nyabyenda, had travelled on foot from Muramba Sector in Nyaruguru District to reach Kibeho on Friday night.
“I started coming here when I was fourteen years and I have seen miracles happening in my own life,” Nyabyenda explained in a joyous mood.
Thaddeus Mulumba who travelled from Uganda and spent a night singing and calling out for the lord was optimistic that just like the year before when he asked for salvation from disease, more miracles will come after this year’s prayers.
“I always come here because the story of this Holy Land is known. Last year I prayed for many things, including wealth, and I have got most of them,” Mulumba said.
Seeing the Virgin Mary
Although the first apparition of Mary appeared over 34 years ago, pilgrims who come to Kibeho still have hopes of seeing her apparition.
Even on the eve of Assumption day, some people from the crowd claimed to have witnessed an apparition on Saturday morning.
Pascal Sindikubwabo, a resident of Nyanza said that the image of the Holy Virgin appeared in the sky although it was short lived.
“It was around 2 to 3 am on Thursday night, the sky was bright and when it faded, it left an image similar to that of the Holy Virgin,” he said.
Jean Uwimana, a resident of Nyundo who is in her thirties also acknowledged the apparition.
“Yesterday, people who were praying near the fireplace, witnessed an image in the sky that resembled Mary,” Uwimana said.
However Reverend Fr. Ildéphonse Bizimungu, the Rector of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Kibeho, told Sunday Times that it would be wrong to immediately conclude that there was an apparition despite the unusual appearance of the sky.
“People come here with a lot of devotion and expectations. They want to see the Holy Virgin and everything that appears strange makes them think so. It is hasty to conclude it was the image of Mary,” Bizimungu said.
Father Bizimungu also pointed out that since numbers coming from different parts of the world were growing, this year; there were plans to upgrade the sanctuary.
“We have plans with all the stakeholders to upgrade this place and even though it is a tourist site, our focus will remain on worshiping God. This is why we are eventually going to build a bigger place for the believers,” he explained.