About three weeks ago, a visiting priest from a neighbouring country, lamented what he perceived to be banishment of God from public life in Rwanda.
He was angered by the absence of prayer at public social functions, and where these were held, they were led by lay people, not priests even when the latter were present.
Like prophets of old, the irate priest issued warnings of dire consequences if the increasing secularism was not checked. In his words, “this country is going to the dogs”.
Strong words from the cleric, but rather intemperate, and his concern, too, is largely misplaced.
He seemed more concerned about the diminished role for professional intermediaries with God than about the essence of prayer, more interested in a public show of piety than in its substance.
The good cleric got angry too soon. If he had waited a little longer, he would have seen throngs of people from across Rwanda going to Kibeho this Friday, August 15, to pay homage to Mary, Mother of God.
Among Catholics, August 15 is the feast of the Assumption when Mary is said to have been lifted, body and all, to heaven.
He would also have learnt that the day is a public holiday in Rwanda – the only country in this region that sets aside a day to honour Mary. And you say there is no place for prayer in this country?
The Mother of God is reported to have appeared to some young girls in Kibeho just over a quarter of a century ago. For some reason whenever she chooses to make herself known to human beings, it is to the young and simple, never to the high and mighty or sophisticated.
Every year on this day, Catholics and other curious people make an annual pilgrimage to Kibeho.
The crowds are huge. Last August 15, I also made the pilgrimage. I arrived late and could not get a seat and had to stand in the blazing sun for the entire mass, which can last an eternity on such occasions, especially if you are standing and your back is not particularly strong.
Maybe the pain was the price for atonement for my sins or a way to curry favour with God, and so I had to bear it as best I could.
As I shifted my weight from one leg to the other to relieve the pain, I looked around and noticed everyone carried some sort of water container. I thought this was a common sense thing. Carrying water to drink in the heat was a very sensible thing, indeed.
But no one was drinking from the containers. I learnt they contained holy water from a nearby spring that would soon be blessed and taken back home to be sprinkled on people and various items as a form of blessing.
Not being the seasoned pilgrim, I had no water to be blessed. So I suppose my journey was wasted.
But the point is: here was a multitude to rival the one that was fed on two loaves and two fish with basketfuls of left-overs who had come expecting blessings for themselves and others.
Most believe their prayers will be answered. And someone says there is no place for prayer in Rwanda?
The crowds pray for a miracle, and it has always happened without fail. It rains in the middle of August. Since I am not going to Kibeho this Friday, maybe I should collect rain water on that day. It might be more potent than spring water from Kibeho.
It might be good to remember that about seventy years ago, in a moment of great devotion or realpolitik, Rwanda was dedicated to Christ the King.
To my knowledge, I don’t remember anyone revoking that dedication.
This country, too, has a record number of pastors, apostles, prophets, priests and bishops. The number of places of worship perhaps equals that of pharmacies.
Such is the great desire for healing.
However, both dedication of this country to Christ and the apparition of his mother at Kibeho did not stop the country from actually going to the dogs – sometimes with the active participation and encouragement of clerics and in houses of worship.
The issue is not about space for God in public life, but rather space for him in private conscience. It is not so much about a public spectacle as private conviction.
Rwanda is a secular state, but that does not exclude the practice of any religion or faith. And when all is said and done, God is alive and well in Rwanda.
I suppose sometimes he wants to be left alone to enjoy some peace and quiet.
He is certainly happier when fewer of us make some outrageous claims in his name. That must cause him no end of trouble. Spare a thought for the creator.