The Rwandan genocide has earned its place as a hellish period of human history. In the hundred days that followed the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, on 6 April 1994, an estimated one million Rwandan Tutsis were slaughtered by their own countrymen, many even by their next-door neighbours. The brutality of the event shocked the entire world.

One village that became the site of two large massacres was Kibeho, a place where, 13 years earlier, Our Lady appeared to three schoolgirls in what became Africa’s only Vatican-approved apparitions.

The girls

Alphonsine Mumureke was the girl to whom Our Lady first appeared on 28 November 1981, at a high school that was one of the poorest schools in the country. Mumureke beheld a beautiful woman in a seamless white dress, with a white veil over her head. When the young girl asked the woman who she was, the reply came: ‘Nyina wa Jambo.’ In English: ‘I am the Mother of the Word.’ Our Lady came asking for faith.

There were two others to whom she appeared. The second was Nathalie Mukamazimpaka, a 20-year-old girl who witnessed an apparition two months later, in January 1982. In March of the same year, Our Lady appeared to a third girl, the most unexpected of all.

Naturally, there were discordant points of view at the school about the veracity of the apparitions. Some believed; others didn’t. Marie-Claire Mukangango was a girl who was most well known for being sceptical of the apparitions and particularly vocal in her disbelief. When it happened that Marie-Claire began claiming to have witnessed an apparition as well, the tide began to turn in favour of belief.

To all three girls, Our Lady would appear many times, but it was to Marie-Claire that she gave the primary message she wanted to give: that of the Seven Sorrows Rosary, which she wanted spread to the entire world. At first, Marie-Claire could hardly believe what was being asked of her. She didn’t have the money to travel to the next city, let alone spread this message to the world.

Our Lady replied:

I have many children in the world. You do your part, and the grace of God will take it to the next person.

The chaplet

The Chaplet of the Seven Sorrows is not the Rosary we are familiar with. Rather than five decades, it is divided into seven ‘decades’, made up of seven Hail Marys. Each of the seven parts reflect on one of the seven sorrows of Mary:

  1. the prophecy of Simeon (Luke 2:22–35)
  2. the flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15)
  3. the loss of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41–52)
  4. Mary meets Jesus on the way to Calvary (Luke 23:27–31)
  5. Mary stands at the foot of the Cross (John 19:25–27)
  6. Mary receives the dead body of Jesus in her arms (John 19:38–40)
  7. Jesus is placed in the tomb (John 19:41–42).

Our Lady promised that through this chaplet, we would receive the grace of an open heart and the grace of repentance. Interestingly, she also said that it would give us a deeper knowledge of sin, and why we sin, so as to receive the grace to overcome it.

Rivers of blood

Marie-Claire did as the Blessed Virgin asked and travelled widely to thousands of people, promoting the chaplet. Sadly, she and her husband were killed in the genocide. Byumba was supposed to be a place secure and free from the bloodshed, so they and others took the journey there.

The safety of the region would prove to be a false hope, since Byumba became the site of their death and the death of many unarmed civilians.

Similar to Our Lady’s message at Fatima, Mary’s urgent desire was for faith, repentance and conversion of heart. One of the unique features of these apparitions, however, was that the girls also received warnings of the genocide that would come to pass. The girls saw visions of terrible violence and rivers of blood. Through these young girls, Mary wanted to tell the Rwandan people, particularly the government and church leaders, that if their ethnic hatred was not quelled by love, it would result in horrific carnage.

And so it did. Nevertheless, the message of Our Lady of Kibeho has been spread around the world, especially by Immaculée Ilibagiza, a woman who survived the Rwandan genocide and recounted the story in Left to Tell: Discovering God amidst the Rwandan Holocaust (2014). Her book Our Lady of Kibeho (2010) is all about the apparitions and their importance for the world today.

Bishop Augustin Masago of Gikongoro, formerly one of the twelve provinces of Rwanda, said in 2006, at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the apparitions: ‘Our Lady of Kibeho is a beacon of hope, a light for all Africa and the world.’