WASHINGTON — Like many stories from Africa, the story of Mary appearing to three young girls in Rwanda “wasn’t told” beyond the continent, said best-selling author Immaculee Ilibagiza.
So Ilibagiza wrote the first English-language book about Mary’s apparitions in the 1980s at an all-girls Catholic high school in the remote Rwandan village of Kibeho, the only Vatican-recognized Marian apparitions in Africa.
Our Lady of Kibeho was released Nov. 28, the anniversary of the first apparition in 1981.
Calling Our Lady of Kibeho “the most important book I will write,” Ilibagiza told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview Nov. 20 that she can remember hearing about the apparitions from her father at the dinner table, a place where her close family gathered nightly to share the stories of the day and talk about religion.
“My dad said, ‘You won’t believe what happened; the Virgin Mary appeared to a girl in Kibeho,'” Ilibagiza recalled.
She said she learned the details of the Marian apparitions from family talk, village chatter and the tape recordings of the visionaries and Kibeho onlookers that the local priest recorded and played to his parish.
But Ilibagiza said she wasn’t exactly thrilled at the time that another girl saw Mary before she did. That year, Ilibagiza’s fourth-grade teacher had told her class the story of Our Lady of Fatima, and the young Ilibagiza made it her mission to become a visionary. Ilibagiza, her best friend and her best friend’s little brother pretended to be shepherds, just like the Fatima visionaries, and prayed that Mary would appear to them.
Initially, the local Kibeho priest, villagers and even some members of the Ilibagiza family thought the first visionary, Alphonsine Mumureke, was a liar.
“In my heart as a child, I believed it 100 percent,” Ilibagiza said.
Then Mary appeared at the school to Anathalie Mukamazimpaka and another young girl known only as Marie-Clare, who had tormented Alphonsine after the first apparitions. The three visionaries were rigorously tested by medical and church officials. In 2001, the Vatican recognized the apparitions to the three girls.
Crowds gathered to witness the mysterious rains that would fall unpredictably from clear skies and to hear Mary’s messages to the visionaries from 1981 to 1989.
The visionaries said Mary asked Rwandans to pray, fill their hearts with love, and reject sin and evil deeds. The visions were joyful until one day in 1984 when all the visionaries reported seeing violence, dismembered corpses and destruction, the book says. Mary warned that if Rwandans did not renew their hearts and dispel evil, there would be genocide, it says.
Mary also requested that a church and a basilica, which Mary named in the visions as “Seven Sorrows Church” and “Reunion of the Dispersed Basilica,” be built at Kibeho, Ilibagiza told CNS.
During 100 days in 1994-95, Rwandans from the majority Hutu tribe hacked to death nearly 1 million minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Corpses clogged the roadways and littered the countryside. More than 5,000 refugees were shot by soldiers in Kibeho’s church in 1995.
Most of Ilibagiza’s family, including her brothers, mother and father, were murdered during the war. For 91 days, Ilibagiza hid with six other women in a 3-foot-by-4-foot bathroom at a neighbor’s house. Ilibagiza’s best-selling book, Left to Tell, was about how she got through those horrific days with prayer.
“Nothing can ever be difficult to endure if you know Our Lady loves you,” she told CNS.
In the months that followed the Rwandan holocaust, the Marian visions were forgotten, the book says. But as time went on, pilgrims gradually returned.
When asked if Ilibagiza knew as a young girl that she would become an author, she said such an idea was “a far-away dream.”
“People in my country didn’t write things down”; they told stories, she said. Our Lady of Kibeho is told as a Rwandan would share a story. It’s about her personal memories and an account of the effect the apparitions had on her and her country.