I’m on my way to Kibeho. The road to Kibeho starts near Huye’s stadium which overlooks the new Smart Taxi Park that I’d eventually come to regard as home. Buses do take the trip (from the bus station) but not very frequently. I come to see why.
The tarmac on the road ends a few kilometres shy of Huye town. The bumpy ride starts off with immediate virulence. The road is red. The rich red of Ave de la Cathedral that leads to Our Lady of Wisdom (more on that later in the series). It must be loam soil. There are arguments within the cabin on whether to let a child sit on an empty seat along the aisle. Hip hop plays from the speakers. There are other women lamenting about something, I think. A pale-faced girl stares at my fingers typing this on my phone.
There’s a prominent Kinyarwanda word that rings out above these women’s laments – Chibazo (question). They must be questioning a lot with all this rumbling. People here, mostly old women, travel with so much luggage. Shukas to cover their heads. Sometimes no shukas, but quite kempt, really dark afros shaped along the frames of their faces.
It’s a beautiful drive through a mixture of high ground with extensive views, wooded valleys, farmland and tea plantations. There are small wooden ‘bridges’ where streams run across the road. The bus windows are wide open but the dust isn’t being blown onto our faces.
A person litters, literally throws a plastic biscuit wrapper onto the roadside vegetation. I shake my head, vexed.
Before the genocide, Kibeho hit the headlines because of the visions of the Virgin Mary allegedly seen there by young girls from 1981 onwards, starting with that of teenager Alphonsine Mumureke in November 1981. Her prophecies have been said to have reflected the subsequent genocide. With the national and international reporting of the apparitions, the small, remote community of Kibeho became a centre of pilgrimage and faith.
During the genocide, Kibeho suffered appallingly: hospital, primary school, college and church were all attacked. The church was badly burned while still sheltering survivors. It has been rebuilt and a genocide memorial stands beside it.
Kibeho is as dusty as the road leading to it, but covered by a hum of activity as motos and buses pick and drop travelers. I get onto a RWF 300 moto to the shrine that commemorates the Virgin Mary’s apparitions.
It’s a deserted place, I do not see a single soul on my approach to, or my exploration within the shrine. The dyed glass above the wide altar bends sunlight into quite inviting patterns. There’s a lonesome piano at one of the corners, silent as the air around it, still and sort of waiting on something.
Back into the light, I see rows of benches bolted onto the ground in a semi-circular circuit around a statue of the Virgin Mary. Two young girls with delicately set afros are seated, praying. On my left is a staircase leading down the hill on top of which the shrine is set. I move towards the steps to gauge the steepness of the fall. But there I find a couple of street boys, one girl and an older lady that I presume to be their mother. They must have been silently waiting for me because they, almost in tandem, stretch out their hands begging for a Cinqante, a RWF 50 coin. A bold one from among the crowd starts telling me about Holy Water down the hill and how it only costs RWF 2000 for a litre of it. I ask him to show me.
He starts leading me to the other side of the hill, a rancid stench engulfing my nostrils as he takes the lead, but as we near the steps to the main entrance of the shrine, he takes off. I’m left there standing, staring at two young men shouting at me in Kinyarwanda.
They turned out to be army guys. Rescued me from a con. They look nothing like army men; one 21 and the other 26. They walk me down the hill to where a fountain that endlessly runs, spewing Holy Water, is. While at it they learn a few Kiswahili words as I siphon Kinyarwanda from their tongues.
At the water, they tell me all about it, walk me back up and help look for a hotel for me to eat, ask me whether I have a ticket back to Huye, negotiate the prices for my meal and leave me to it. They eat at work, they say.
Such hospitable humans! I think this is what I’ll miss the most about this land.