The drumbeats grow louder as I make my way down a dirt road, running adjacent to River Nzoia, towards Jerusalem Amoyo shrine.
I squeeze myself through the faithful in multicoloured clothing who are arriving for the annual remembrance of St Mary or Mama Maria.
To the followers of Legio Maria, there is no saint like her, and no central figure is venerated so much.
Mama Maria holds the central point in this sect. She is loved and exalted above all saints.
The sect is moulded on its founding mother, who is buried at Nzoia—“land of Efeso”—in Siaya.
At the entrance of the compound, the faithful remove their shoes and those who want their future read out to them are handed their destinies on a piece of paper.
Welcome to Legio Maria, one of the region’s most misunderstood sects.
Misunderstood, yes, but definitely not in the same league as Mikaili Jehovah Wanyonyi, he of “I am the true god” fame.
Wanyonyi’s followers, who are found in Bungoma, Kakamega and Uasin Gishu Counties, believe he was God and immortal but the man died last year. His burial was shrouded in mystery.
While Jehovah Wanyonyi lived, he proclaimed himself a healer and thrice predicted the end of the world.
His followers donated land and property to his sect for they believed he could heal them.
I am in Nzoia to cover Legio Maria’s annual prayers celebrating Mama Maria.
I am also here to satisfy my curiosity about the folklore about its revered leader Simeo Melkio Ondeto.
A tale is told that during one of the annual December meetings at River Nzoia, Ondeto and a group of Legio Maria followers jumped from a tree in a bid to fly to heaven.
They ended up in the river only to be arrested and detained at Ukwala Police Station in Siaya.
To the sect’s followers, Ondeto is their messiah—the Black Jesus who undertook the second coming of Christ. Even after his death, there will be a third resurrection.
At the shrine, I meet the sect’s leader, Pope Romanus Ong’ombe. A tall, soft-spoken man, surrounded by two of his six cardinals.
After exchanges of pleasantries, I am led to my special sitting place, from where I will follow the mass. At the altar are pictures of Jesus, Mary mother of Jesus, Ondeto, and Maria.
It strikes me that the photos represent the first and second coming of Christ, with the adherents expecting the third and final coming.
Legio Maria is an offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church.
From the way they conduct their services, the hymns, the traditional Latin mass, the reciting of the rosary and even having nuns, shows the close connection this church has with Catholics.
But the intertwining of Luo cultural beliefs sets it apart from the mother church.
Legio Maria is said to have started in the 1960s when Ondeto, his mother Maria and other members were thrown out of the main Catholic Church for practising exorcism and other practices not in line with Roman Catholic Church values.
Got Kweru in Migori County is commonly referred to as Calvary, as the messiah Ondeto is buried there.
Prior to being expelled from mainstream Catholic, Ondeto had been a catechist at Nyandago Catholic Church.
After their expulsion, he formed the Legion of Mary, which later became Legio Maria Church, an African church.
For millions of Legio Maria followers, Ondeto’s death wasn’t supposed to happen.
He was immortal. It is claimed that in the 1960s, Ondeto and 37 followers were arrested for unlawful assembly and detained at Ukwala Police Station, a place they say is their Golgotha, as written in the Bible.
To the followers, this fulfilled the crucifixion of Christ and cemented the belief that indeed Ondeto was the second messiah.
Till this day, they march to Ukwala Police Station on every December 26 to cast out the demons that crucified their messiah!
This event, however, has been told with a different twist, that they actually tried the infamous jump at River Nzoia, so that they could fly to heaven.
They were arrested, charged for holding an illegal meeting in Kisumu and incarcerated at Kodiaga Prison.
While sentencing them, the then senior magistrate at the Kisumu Law Courts, John Abraham, described Ondeto and his followers as “a collection of lapsed Catholics and pagans practising heresy that is a mockery to Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church”.
Instead of seeing this as a setback, the faithful withdrew to the Bible and saw this as the fulfilment of the messiah’s crucifixion. Their faith grew and they now believed he was the messiah.
After his release, the faithful say, Ondeto retreated to his Got Kwer headquarters, where he performed several miracles.
It is claimed that at one time, he moulded a cow using clay, breathed into it, and it came to life. Despite no proof, the adherents believe “Baba Mesiah” performed miracles.
Ondeto’s death in September, 1991 was a big blow as he was the African version of the reincarnated son of God.
After his death, the faithful even refused to bury him, choosing instead to hold vigils and prayers as they believed he was just asleep and would be resurrected.
When it dawned on them that he would not come back to life, and the decomposing body became a nightmare, the faithful had little choice but to bury their messiah.
Two and a half decades later, Legio Maria believe Christ has already come, as Messiah Ondeto, and they are only awaiting his third coming to collect his followers and take them to heaven. This they borrow from the book of Daniel 7:13-14, which prophesises the second coming of Christ.
“We the followers of Messiah Melkio believe he is Christ and resurrected to heaven with God. We only await his third coming,” Deacon Protus Omollo says as he takes me on a tour of the shrine, squeezing through thousands of faithful who have pitched camp in the annual celebratory pilgrimage of Mama Maria.
According to Omollo, when Ondeto was alive, Legio Maria faithful worshipped him.
“We are bound by the books to show respect to the messiah. We still do it even now. We are supposed to kneel down while greeting our church leaders but when it came to Ondeto, the faithful were expected to lie prostrate in worship and reverence at his glorious presence. To us, he was God. When you prayed using his name, your prayers were answered. The same went for exorcising spirits,” Omollo says.
The sect, though mostly concentrated in western Kenya, attracts crowds from around the region.
Among its cadres, the “red warriors” are the most revered.
Jerusalem Amoyo shrine, there are small dimly-lit huts where prayers are being said in shrill tones.
There are also fortune tellers who are busy reading people’s palms and sharing their future with them.
Those engaged in exorcism ask adherents to remove their clothes above the waist before proceeding with the ritual.
Legio Maria has strict moral strictures against drinking, smoking and wearing shoes in holy places.
They live as congregations in community homes. Key symbols for these faithful are wooden guns, wooden swords and wooden crosses often carried by both male and female adherents.
Above all, this is a spirit-reliant sect in which one is guided by the spirit in most aspects of their day-to-day life.
As Legio Maria await the messiah’s third coming, they know where he is meant to emerge from: his tomb in Got Kwer, Migori.
The story was first published in this week’s issue of The EastAfrican