The serenity of Got Kwer in Migori County, the headquarters of the Legio Maria sect, is all too obvious. There is a sense of tranquillity as one walks up the 20-acre hill on which the shrine sits, and which has become a religious tourist attraction.
Got Kwer is short for Got Kwero richo (Dholuo for Hill of Repentance).
The Legio Maria has 60 dioceses and 450 churches in Kenya. The sect is an offshoot of the Catholic Church, with which it still shares many rituals.
For instance, they sing hymns and recite the rosary before an altar with pictures of Jesus, Mary, church founder Simeo Melkio Ondeto and his mother, Maria. It also has nuns and a pope, Romanus Ong’ombe, who lives at Got Kwer.
SPEAK IN TONGUES
The sect has a strict code against drinking, smoking, and wearing shoes in holy places. You cannot enter the site with your shoes on, and you also have to wear their robes, “in order not to provoke the spirits”.
The faithful speak in tongues, cast out demons, spin and fall to the ground. They often lie prostate as they pray and make supplications to God.
And just like Catholics revere Mary, sect members hold Maria in high esteem. Maria plays a central role in their beliefs.
Got Kwer is commonly referred to as Calvary, since their founder Ondeto is buried there.
The site has different shrines, each with an altar. On these they place imaged of Jesus, his mother Mary, Ondeto, and Maria.
The sect is a mix of Catholic and Luo cultural beliefs. Most of its leaders live at the site, while dead ones are also buried there.
The Legio Maria (Legion of Mary) was formed in western Kenya in the 1960s after Ondeto, his mother Maria and others were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for practising exorcism.
Key symbols of the faith are wooden guns, swords and crosses, often carried by both male and female adherents.
The top leaders wear flowing robes and different head coverings, depending on rank.
Members also wear single-colour robes, with each colour associated with a particular saint or vocation.
“Pope, Romanus Ong’ombe, now 97, is our leader” says Cardinal Joseph Chamalengo.
“Ondeto’s death wasn’t supposed to happen. He was immortal. His death in 1991 was a big blow to us since he was the reincarnated son of God,” says Father George Magero.
And as the Legio Maria faithful await their messiah’s third coming, they believe he will emerge from his tomb at Got Kwer.
When the Nation visited the place recently, there were many believers around since they had started celebrations to commemorate the death of their first pope and founder.
The celebrations are marked with great feasting, but goat meat is prohibited. It is not fit for human consumption,” Father Magero says.
The site is now being upgraded, with a huge a stone structure, the tomb of the sect’s founder, Ondeto, who died 28 years ago, nearing completion.
“This is a sacrifice of many years by our members. They always contribute money to help improve this site,” the cleric says.
The county and national government have installed street lights at the hilly, rocky site, bringing life to the rural community and enabling the faithful to pray even after nightfall.
The county has also improved access roads to the site.
The Migori County Director for Trade, Tourism and Co-operatives, Mr Daudi Okoth Obado, says although the site is private, the county is contemplating partnering with the church, given that it attracts tourists.
“We will tell them how such collaboration will help them because our input will help in improving the necessary facilities. Currently, there is a good relationship between Got Kwer and the county government,” Mr Okoth said.
“Before the Legio Maria came here, this hill was used as a sacred place by the people who lived here. But when our people came and set base here, they urged everyone to come and cry to God for the forgiveness of their sins. That is how it got its name,” Father Magero explains.
The Legio Mario was formed in the 1960s after Simeo Melkio Ondeto, his mother Maria, and others were excommunicated from the Catholic Church for practising exorcism. It has rituals similar to those of the Catholic church but has incorporated Luo cultural beliefs in its system.