IN A SCORCHING SUN, shortly before mid-day, a man who appears to be in his mid 50s arrives at Kibeho ground, quickly kneels down in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary and makes a sign of cross before kissing a blue rosary he holds in his left hand.
Seemingly tired from a long walk which left his clothes covered in dust, the elderly man exudes an image of a devoted follower who has come to seek God’s grace.
Kibeho is a holy place, particularly for the Catholic faithful who have authenticated the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in this rural village of Nyaruguru District, south of Rwanda, some three decades ago. Every year, thousands of pilgrims from around the world visit Kibeho with hope that their prayers will be answered.
Assumption Day, the day which marks the ascension to heaven of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, is one of the days that continue to attract many pilgrims at this holy site.
Celebrated every August 15, the day has regularly seen the grounds of Kibeho Mary Mother of the Word full to capacity. This year alone, between 30, 000 and 40, 000 pilgrims–mainly Catholic Church followers– are expected to grace the celebrations today.
A special mass will be read on the grounds of Kibeho Mary Mother of the Word. Pilgrims are also expected to offer special offerings to express their gratitude to the Almighty God.
Some of the pilgrims started arriving at the site days before the official celebrations–perhaps to get enough time for personal intimacy with God.
They are mainly from neighbouring Burundi and Uganda but there are also some from as far as the United States. Many arrived in groups and recited prayers as they walked.
Violette Niyonkuru walked for almost 12 hours before reaching Kibeho from the neighbouring Burundi.
Niyonkuru, who arrived at Kibeho on Wednesday, believes the journey was worth it “as it is an occasion to be closer to God via the Virgin Mary, the mother of the Church”, she says.
“This land gives us a unique opportunity to interact with our Lord,” Niyonkuru says, adding that she hopes to go back to Burundi carrying God’s blessings.
Gratien Ndayisenga, 36, a resident of Muganza Sector, in Nyaruguru District has been volunteering at Kibeho, joining a team of other volunteers to clean and organise the place in preparation for the thousands of pilgrims on Assumption Day.
“My life depends on God and I know that being at His service brings me divine protection and a lot of blessings,” Ndayisenga says.
As Catholic followers prepared for the day they consider one of the most prominent on their calendar, local businesses said such days are an occasion to cash in as a result of a higher demand.
But the lack of infrastructure in the area such us roads, hotels and restaurants remain a challenge not only to the welfare of pilgrims, but also to businesses and the local community.