Ten years ago, John Tibabimanya and two of his friends decided to take the walk from Gongo village, Kyamuhunga Sub-county in Bushenyi District to the Namugongo Shrine.
The journey would take nine days and they are the only ones from their parish who made the pilgrimage.
A decade later, the 75-year-old has not missed an opportunity to join the faithful who flood the site days to the event. Speaking through a translator, the old man says one of the original three passed away, while another is incapacitated by ill-health.
Tibabimanya says while the first three he started with are not there, the number of pilgrims from his parish has now grown to 79.
We find him sitting with about 15 of the 79, carefully brushing his short hair. While speckled with grey, it does not betray his age.
Neither does his skin or his stance when he stands. Only his very slow movements may hint that his joints are a bit worse for the wear.
His fellow pilgrims say the old man, who started the pilgrimage at 65 when he had already earned the title “old man”, is like the best of them when they begin the arduous 450km trek to Kampala.
“Mzee is very fit,” one of them says. As if to support his statement, the father of six adult children thrusts his chest, moves his limbs a bit and says, “I do not feel any pain.”
“I had so many problems before I started coming here,” says the tea farmer. He says that was the reason he came for the first trip, hoping the sacrifice would move the heavens and his tribulations will end.
“After the pilgrimage, I went home and I had peace,” he says.
In his year to year visits over a decade, he has seen the shrine go through several changes. “So many things were not here,” says Tibabimanya while making a sweeping motion.
He means the protestant shrine and the landscaping. “This wall is new,” he points. Some changes excite him, like the bathrooms provided for pilgrims free of charge.
“Some years back people used to bathe anywhere and available toilets and bathrooms had to be paid for,” he enthuses. “The celebrations differ slightly because the hosting dioceses change each year,” he offers finishing his grooming and rising to put on his shoes. The open pair has seen better days, but then again they hit the road for 450km; any shoes would be.
Age has not slowed down Tibabimanya, he is still a very active and respected member at church, and good mobilise, his colleagues say.
He is the chairman of the church wedding committee, something he is definitely proud of because he makes sure we write it down right.
He is well aware he started making the pilgrimage a bit late in life, when many people want to take a rest from physically exerting activities. But he says it is a way of coming closer to Jesus. He tells people out there who see making the pilgrimage as difficult to know that nothing can fail with God.
“It [age] is certainly not going to be my excuse to stop the pilgrimage. I will keep coming until death,” he says.