At exactly 3pm last Friday, multitudes of believers who had gathered at Kibeho, Nyaruguru District burst into applause while hundreds of others raised their hands and waived to the heavens.
The Assumption Day Mass had just ended and thousands of believers who had attended it stayed behind, ostensibly to pray and seek moments of personal intimacy with God before heading to their homes but, in reality, they were waiting for the ‘Hour of Great Divine Mercy’ (considered to be the hour of Christ’s death) .
For minutes, as they stared at the afternoon sun, heavens threatened to open up but the cool wind that blew from time to time gave pilgrims the strength to endure the many hours of the day’s Eucharistic celebration.
And at 3pm, sounds of applause and ululation reverberated at the Kibeho grounds of Mary Mother of the Word. Minutes later, the scene was repeated. And it was the last. Later, the pilgrims dispersed in seeming happiness, some recounting what they had seen.
Several reported seeing the sun trembling while others said they had seen it ‘dancing’ and turning blue–not the ordinary blue colour but rather the blue-light colour seen as the epitome of Mary and which is usually used to paint her clothes in the many icons or statues depicting the Mother of Jesus.
A number of other pilgrims reported seeing an image of the Virgin Mary, hands crossed on her chest, within the sun. A friend who had travelled all the way from Huye also reported seeing the image.
“I saw the sun turning blue and ‘trembling’. I tried to take photos with hope that I might capture the Virgin Mary but in vain. The photos look like any other of the sky,” he told me.
But whether the sun ‘danced and turned blue’ or the Virgin Mary was seen last Friday in Kibeho or not remains a mystery. The fact that some saw the sun ‘trembling’ or turning blue might, for instance, have been a result of optical effects resulting from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at the sun.
But whether the ‘sun miracle’ was real or simply a mere hallucination is of limited importance.
It is rather an indication of what some people expect when they travel to Kibeho: meeting the Virgin Mary in person or experiencing her presence through miracles.
It is worth recalling that it is at this ground, in the remote Nyaruguru District, that three little known school girls reportedly saw and had direct discussions with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. That was some three decades ago, around 1981.
Though in the beginning, a number of people doubted the authenticity of this story, many believers started flocking to Kibeho to witness Mary’s Apparitions to the school girls.
It became a routine until the Roman Catholic Church declared the apparitions true in 2001 and Kibeho became officially a ‘Holy Land’ and a place of pilgrimage.
Every year, thousands of pilgrims from around the world visit Kibeho with hope that their prayers will be heard and their woes solved. It is estimated that about 500, 000 pilgrims visit the site annually.
The pilgrims come from various nations around the world. They come from across the region, the continent and overseas.
Speciose Murekeyisoni, from Bugesera, was among those who graced Friday’s Assumption Day celebrations.
She carried a five-litre jerry can of ‘holy’ water back home, with hope that the water from the Blessed Virgin Mary fountain will help her and her fellow believers.
“Being here brings us a lot of blessings. I believe this is a holy land and that, through Mary, God can perform miracles in our lives,” the devout catholic says.
Venantie Bimenyimana, a pilgrim from Burundi, says her life has transformed ever since she started journeying to Kibeho about five years ago.
She regularly walks for 12 hours from her village in Kayanza before reaching Kibeho.
“I have felt God’s presence in my life ever since I started coming here and my life has significantly changed,” she says.
While some pilgrims travel to Kibeho to implore God’s mercy, seek His protection or pray for their problems to be solved, some come to thank God and the Virgin Mary for the gift of life and the miracles that have happened in their lives.
One such person is Esperence Kampire, a Christian who travelled from the northern district of Rulindo.
Kampire says she was healed from an unknown eye ailment which had impaired her vision.
“I suffered from the disease from the age of five. Modern medicine had failed, even identifying the kind of disease I was suffering from had failed,” the 30-year-old says.
She lived with her ailment for 15 years.
But about ten years ago, she travelled to Kibeho, implored the Lord and later washed her face with water from the blessed fountain that takes its source just down the valley, below the Kibeho chapel.
“In the days that followed, I noticed a change and shortly after healed completely,” Kampire says.
Though it is hard to verify her account, the woman says it only takes ‘faith’ for God’s power to manifest and perform miracles.
“Every year I come here to thank God because I am aware of His power and I am a witness to His miracles. I know what He can do,” she insists.
“But it all depends on one’s faith,” she notes.