A lot has changed since my most memorable trip to Kibeho a few years ago. The said trip took place on a date Catholics around the world commemorate the assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary.
On that day, celebration of the Holy Eucharist, a Roman Catholic liturgical ritual, commonly referred to as mass, was a huge outdoor event. Pilgrims from all over the world had shown up in record numbers, occupying every square foot of the ground outside the Chapel of Seven Sorrows. Daily masses are usually held in the chapel but on that mid-August day, it became too small to accommodate even one tenth of the flocking faithfuls.
Traffic police officers were busy directing drivers and ensuring orderly parking is observed. The football pitch near the old parish was reserved for buses ferrying visitors from different parts of Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. The whole place looked like the venue of a regional public transport trade fair.
Many more vehicles were dropping visitors from all existing continents. Earlier in the morning, cars lined up bumper to bumper all the way from Kigali. Latecomers parked their vehicles kilometers away and walked to the periphery of the field far away from the altar. Elsewhere, the village’s old public bus station was a hive of activities.
As I said, that trip took place a few years ago. Today, Kibeho looks completely different. The main Sunday service is going on in the chapel but the congregation is smaller than ever. Ample distance is kept between one worshipper and another. The church’s stewards have admitted only 30% of its capacity, in accordance with the guidelines put in place to slow down the spread of Covid- 19. Attendants’ contact details are kept for possible tracing purposes. There is only one vehicle on the parking lot and the new splendid bus station is closed until further notice.
Obviously, I wouldn’t expect to see the magnitude I witnessed on that pre-Covid feast of Assumption. Nonetheless, the current atmosphere is a reminder of the unusual times we are living in. The third wave of Covid- 19 is raging. We can’t let our guard down.
Kibeho Sector is found in Nyaruguru District, Southern Province of Rwanda. The sector is home to Kibeho Sanctuary, a site of spiritual significance to those who believe in the authenticity of the reported apparitions of Virgin Mary. The story of a mysterious visitor who introduced herself as Nyina wa Jambo (Mother of the Word) turned this remote village into a popular pilgrimage destination, attracting visitors from around the world.
A lot has changed since the day I joined a multitude of pilgrims and caused a commotion in the area. The road from Huye is upgraded from dirt to tarmac — a couple of short stretches are still under construction. Secondly, there is a new modern bus station, a modern market and an equally modern commercial complex in town. I am impressed by the new developments but, unlike the good old days, I am physically distancing myself from the nearest person for obvious reasons. This tour is bittersweet.
The author is visiting all 30 districts of Rwanda. His tour of Nyaruguru is sponsored by Ikaze Rwanda Tours & Travel, The Click Creations and Exposure.