The mention of Papa Mesia Simeo Ondeto brings a spark on Lawrence Obonyo’s eyes.
Ondeto was a ‘galagala’ (Luo for mysterious) person. Tales of how he once mesmerised policemen who had been sent to scatter his crowd by becoming “bullet proof” still dominate narratives about him, long after he died; a death that shattered the long-held belief that he was immortal.
Twenty seven years after his death, his followers, among them Obonyo, still believe Ondeto will be back. Until then, Obonyo takes care of Got Kwer, the religious hill in Migori where Ondeto was buried.
Located in Suna West, a tiny town known for its gold mining activities, the obscurity of Got Kwer is a contradiction of the fast life that defines the area.
The 100-acre hill was named Got Kwer to mean the hill of cursing the evil spirits. Obonyo says it is there that Ondeto, known for exorcism, would make demons flee from possessed men.
Accessing Got Kwer is a holy venture. A simple gate with a wooden rod placed across it is the first barrier to the entrance.
Cardinal Peter Okombo, who is in charge of security, ushers in guests, and starts talking about the rich history lying undocumented in the compound.
Father George Magero and other senior church leaders at the headquarters narrate the rules that govern Got Kwer.
“This is a holy place. You need to take off your shoes,” he says.
Obonyo then narrates a brief history of the church, which portrays a rich untapped story of the Legio Maria Church whose ways of operation have remained mysterious.
“Papa’s preaching focused on cursing of the evil spirits, which would make people speak in tongues, and others healed,” he says..
This has been maintained by his followers who believe that evil spirits can manifest in people’s bodies or homes, and can only be driven away through powerful prayers, which in most cases involve violent incantations and beating out demons from those believed to be possessed.
“So many people, some not followers of the Legio Maria religion, come here as religious tourists, but we do not have a library where all these stories are housed for future generations,” he says.
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The hill is segmented into four main parts. At the very top lies the main church where services are held. Near the church is the grass-thatched house which was the first to be constructed in 1963.
The hill is inhabited by the families that take care of the altar and the buildings around it.
On the Eastern side of the hill is St Catherine area. This area is also considered very holy and has residential houses where the elderly and vulnerable are housed.
The western side is inhabited by young families. “There are people who moved from their original homes with their families, and they seek to live within the shrine. They are allocated this area to reside,” says Father Magero.
Towards the foot of the hill on the southern side is the location of Papa Ondeto’s grave. Neatly housed inside one of the holy houses, the grave is covered with bright white clothing, with Papa’s huge portrait leaning on the cross erected on the fore side of the grave.
It is under 24-hour security by young religious members of the church.
At the time of our visit, the current Legio Maria Pope, Romanus Ong’ombe, was not at the sanctuary. Father Magero said he spends most of his time at the place, which also acts as the headquarters of the church.
A walk through the hill, coupled with narrations of the life of Papa Ondeto, paints the picture of a sleeping tourism giant.
“We do not charge people visiting the place, but we have received interest from government agencies who want this place preserved as a religious cultural site, where we can also get revenue to take care of the many needy members living here,” says Magero.
Three buildings under construction -- the house of the presiding father, the structure housing Papa Ondeto’s grave and an upcoming prayer centre at the top of the hill -- have stalled within the compound.
Obonyo believes that Ondeto’s belief in humility could be the reason they are not attracting a lot of funding.
“Our church was started in Kenya, and even though it has been spreading its wings outside the borders, we have not been able to attract much funding for our development,” he says.
Every September 5 to 14, members of the church from across the world congregate at Got Kwer to commemorate the death and burial of Papa Ondeto.
During these prayers, Obonyo says, they also remember the discrimination and suffering which the church has undergone since its inception.
“We have suffered as a religion. We have been branded a cult and a threat to the security of the country from as early as the 1960s when police descended on our members, torched their houses, beat them up and chased them from Got Kwer,” he says.