On 28th November 1981, in the cafeteria of a secondary school in Rwanda, a sixteen year old schoolgirl, Alphonsine Mumureke heard a voice ‘soft as air and sweeter than music.’ She saw a beautiful woman in a flowing seamless dress floating above the floor. Alphonsine asked the woman who she was. ‘I am the mother of the word,’ the woman replied and Alphonsine recognised her as the Virgin Mary.
This was the first of a series of visions of Mary seen by schoolgirls at Kibeho, Rwanda. The visions were investigated by church authorities and later declared as authentic. In the ‘depressed and dangerous landscape’ of tense Rwanda heaven and earth intermingled in a strange and awe inspiring way. Some of the visions brought comfort and reassurance. In some of the visions the visionaries saw terror and fighting. Rwanda was to become torn apart by civil strife and a terrible genocide occurred in 1994, killing over half a million people.
I have visited several shrines of Mary. It is extremely unlikely that I will visit Kibeho. Instead, with two friends, I recently went to see the play Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall at the lovely small Theatre Royal Stratford East. The play has received excellent reviews and ratings.
For one and a half hours, through the play,and by imagination, we were transported into the intensely feminine and somewhat hermetic environment of this basic girls’ boarding school in Kibeho. We were challenged by the sincerity and integrity of the girl visionaries and the scepticism of the religious hierarchy. The visions exposed the divisions within Rwandan society and also the inadequacies of the church.
The play invited us to acknowledge the miraculous while also setting this within the violent context of Rwanda of the time. I recalled how many of the visions of Mary in the last two hundred years have been to children on the fringe of society, and have taken place at times of social tension or strife. This is the story of Fatima, La Salette and Lourdes.
For me it is also an encouragement to be open to the fact of the closeness of God’s kingdom in places of tension, and also to be open to the possibility that the voice ‘soft as air and sweeter than music’ may be relayed today through voices on the margins.