500,000 pilgrims visit 'Angolan Lourdes'
Posted Sunday, August 5 2012 at 23:42
Around 500,000 Angolans flocked Sunday to the Catholic shrine of Muxima in the southern African country's largest pilgrimage.
The faithful travelled from all corners of the oil-rich nation to pray to a statue of the Virgin Mary in a quaint white church that dates from 16th century Portuguese colonial rule in the small town.
"Muxima could become a renowned global shrine like Fatima in Portugal or Lourdes in France," said the rector Father Albino Reyes Gonzalez.
The town, which counts only 3,000 permanent residents, is in the middle of the Quissama National Park, on the banks of the Kwanza River 150 kilometres (90 miles) southeast of the capital Luanda.
But it has grown in popularity over the years, as three out of five people in the nation are Catholic.
This weekend around 500,000 people swamped the rural town, according to police and Church estimates.
The Our Lady of Muxima church has become a venerated site in the country since the 19th century.
Muxima means "my heart" in Kimbundu, one of the national languages.
Usually held the first weekend in September, the pilgrimage was moved ahead a month because of general elections on August 31, which also happened in 2008 polls.
Pilgrims fervently followed prayers and mass, many of them women wearing colourful shawls and clothes with images of the Virgin Mary.
And the town was transformed in a massive psychedelic tented camp where every family ate and slept over several days.
Numerous government infrastructure construction projects have also helped to bring the area out of isolation.
Last year a bridge across the river was inaugurated, and provincial authorities this year built two roads to the site. Plans to construct a basilica are also in the pipeline.
Whereas in previous years pilgrims prayed for fertility, today they seek health, success, or employment for their loved ones -- symptoms of the social realities that confront most Angolans today.
"I've come to ask the Virgin that things work out with my husband," 31-year-old Isabela Nunes told AFP, echoing this year's pilgrimage theme of "reconciling families".
The UN children's agency UNICEF estimates that 87 percent of the urban population lives in shacks, even though the nation's oil riches have turned Angola into one of the world's fastest-growing economies.