The Kabgayi Mission was founded by Catholic missionaries in 1906, becoming the seat of the first Catholic bishop of Ruanda-Urundi. This is among the reasons that Muhanga (Gitarama) was once seriously considered as the colonial capital.
The beige-bricked humongous Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady at Kabayi (built in 1925) is the oldest and most historically important cathedral in the country. It is made appealing by its stained frosted windows, a huge and tranquil interior, the dizzying height of its bell tower and the huge expanse of sanctified air above the awkward-looking ground-hugging pews. A colonial-era hospital and morgue are built close to the church.
This is confirmed to me while staring at a sign, perched on a fork on the dusty road outside the Cathedral. The left leads to a hospital, a century-old structure blanketed by dust. The path is busy, with motos ferrying women and children wrapped in heavy shukas. The right leads onto an equally dusty path but heading downhill. It is mostly deserted save for a few crisscrossing souls.
This sign makes me think of what it was like in the wild west. I think the right is the path a slave in flight would pick. Then I see four men carrying a stretcher, the load on it covered by shukas similar to those I saw wrapped around the women on bikes. I think the load is a dead body.
In the early stages of the genocide, Kabgayi, situated within walking distance of the Provisional Government headquarters at then Gitarama, provided refuge to tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom died of disease and/or starvation.
It’s a glaring contrast to today. I see hundreds of children littering the compound, most of them clustered in groups reading from what I believe are Catechism handbooks. Inside the cathedral itself are priests lined along the walls offering confession, I believe.
Observing the flow of the children, I deduce the direction of the office. There I hope to find assistance on how to make my way around the compound. There are even more children accompanied by what I assume are their parents inside the office lobby. There’s a looming hubbub driven in musical Kinyarwanda as fingers search through church records that look as old as the bricks on the church’s facade.
I find a priest but he speaks no English, replying to my mumblings in French. He thankfully directs me to another parishioner who has quite a command of Kiswahili. From the middle rungs of his ladder, he expresses to me how this isn’t a good day to get a look around, seeing as the children were preparing to receive their First Holy Communion.
I concur but decide to take myself around.