Nyaruguru — Before 1980, Kibeho was a nondescript village sitting deep in the remote Nyaruguru District, South of Rwanda.
But its history took a turn for the better in 1981 when the vision of Virgin Mary reportedly appeared before three school girls.
That occurrence marked the rise in Kibeho's standing as a spiritual hub both locally and universally.
Visibly, as soon as the apparitions were reported, many individuals, especially Roman Catholic followers came in droves to witness the oft-talked about miracles.
Since then, Kibeho became- and still remains- for many Christians a place of worship, praise and supplication.
"It is a blessing for the whole country to have a holy place like this", says Teresie, a pilgrim from Rusizi District, Western Province.
"The Virgin Mary could have chosen somewhere else but she preferred this little-known remote village to transmit her message to the world".
The woman who regularly visits the holy place says she has witnessed a lot of miracles in her life time since she began going there for prayers four years ago.
"I was heading to Kigali to visit relatives but I could not go without coming to this holy place to thank God and the Virgin Mary," she says.
"Today, I was here to thank (Virgin) Mary for the fulfilment of a request I made last year," she discloses but declines to provide details.
"I just made a personal plea and it was fulfilled and I am thankful. I cannot disclose it," she says.
It is common to meet people from various walks of life at Kibeho.
But, on special days-like the Assumption Day or any other Catholic Marian feast days, thousands of pilgrims flock to the Kibeho grounds for prayers.
Many of pilgrims who come here trek for days.
"When people visit from as far as [the United States of] America, Europe and other countries, it is a sign that our country is blessed," Teresie says.
"Whenever I come to this place, I am filled with joy. This is a holy and hallowed place," she says.
"I always miss this place that I frequently come to worship God," she adds.
For other pilgrims, their connection with Kibeho started since the early 1980s when the Virgin's apparitions were first reported.
Mama Sifa, a Congolese nun from Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, together with a group of other believers are among the first pilgrims to have visited the revered site.
"As soon as we heard of the apparitions, we started coming to this place," the nun told The New Times during her recent visit.
Assumption Day is annually celebrated on August 15 by Roman Catholics to mark the ascension of the Virgin Mary into heaven.
"So many people come here with difficulties and when they leave, their problems are solved. But, few know that secret," she says.
"Miracles? Yes, they indeed happen!", Beata Mukagasana, a catholic, affirms, sitting alone in front of the Kibeho Chapel.
"I come here at least every month to worship and present my pleas and obviously they are answered."
Kibeho path towards today's fame began on November 28, 1981, when a school girl Alphonsine Mumureke, reportedly heard a voice calling her: "My daughter" at the dining hall of a local secondary school.
The happenings have since been authenticated by the Vatican the seat of the Catholic Church after scrutinising the results of two commissions; one led by doctors and another by theologians.
After a considerable line of investigation, Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro Diocese who headed the commissions declared the authenticity of the apparitions at Kibeho in June 2001.
Since then, people have been coming from all corners of the world for pilgrimage.
Each of the thousands of pilgrims who flock to Kibeho have their reasons to do so, but for many, it is about prayer, to thank or implore God or to just visit the famed place.
And, the apparitions have strengthened the faith of many believers while the place remains a symbol of God's presence among them.
On one hand, those are the benefits associated with Virgin Mary's apparitions. On the other, Kibeho has gradually become a tourist destination thereby boosting the local economy.
Many businesses such as hotels, bars and restaurants, shops including traders dealing in religious paraphernalia have sprung up.
But still, there is a dearth of accommodation facilities and amenities to cater for the ever increasing number of pilgrims visiting the area.
A bar attendant at Kibeho trading centre that is a stone throw away from the pilgrimage place told The New Times that during the big religious celebrations, they have to hire additional chairs and tables and sometimes bring in part-time employees to help manage the huge turn up of patrons.
"On such occasions, the entire bar and the garden are full to capacity and at times, others cannot find a place," the attendant, who asked not to be identified says.
This was confirmed by other business persons in the area who said it is hard to get enough space to accommodate all pilgrims.
The ever growing number of pilgrims calls for the need to develop infrastructure and other social amentities to cope with the huge demand.
According to the district mayor, Francois Habitegeko, plans are underway to augment the infrastructure in the area and upgrade the trading centre into a modern town..
He acknowledges that the insufficient facilities has had a negative effect on business.
"We are in touch with potential investors who would set up the needed infrastructure," the mayor says.
"We are working to avail land for investment as we keep interesting them to bring in their money."
"We have received applications from some investors while others have already started investing their money here," he reveals, citing a hotel under construction near the Kibeho Mother of Sorrow Chapel as an example of the ongoing efforts to transform the face of the area.
According to the mayor, water and electricity are now available while the construction of Huye-Kibeho-Akanyaru road is expected to start next year.
"We want to develop tourism here so that local communities could benefit much from the Virgin's Apparitions", he says.
"We are in touch with experienced individuals to develop religious tourism who are advising us on the way forward and we hope that within the next few years, this area will have enough facilities to host the thousands of pilgrims whom we receive."