The message of any religion is highly capable of transforming people’s lives in extraordinary ways. Sometimes, it is for the good; and sometimes, it is just catastrophic. Christianity has for the longest time in history been abused in many parts of the world. This abuse has often led to the rise of cults whose ultimate fate is disaster and death for those who unquestioningly follow them.
The tragedy of the Kanungu massacre in Uganda paints a picture of how religious cults turn to be deadly. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God was a doomsday cult in Kanungu, Uganda, that believed in the end of the world at the turn of the millennium. Its members were isolated from the rest of society as the cult was located in a remote farming community in the volatile south-west corner of Uganda.
The massacre on 17 March 2000 – which they termed “the end of present times” – resulted in the death of 700 followers. Members were locked inside a church, with doors and windows nailed shut from the outside. It was set alight, and everyone inside perished. The wish for those who lost their loved ones in the bloodbath is for the perpetrators to be prosecuted, but that wish still remains in the air as the whereabouts of the cult leaders are still unknown.
The faithful, strict adherers of the cult were allured by the charismatic appeal of Credonia Mwerinde, who was the founder of the cult. She was a former sex-worker and bartender who claimed that she had seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the 1980s. Her reports of the vision were discredited by the Vatican but Joseph Kibwetere, who was a failed politician, enthusiastically and energetically believed her. The movement was born.
Police suspected that they had murdered their followers because their predictions about the end of the world had failed to come to fruition. The cult was registered as a charity whose design was obeying the Ten Commandments and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. The group developed a hierarchy of visions with Credonia Mwerinde at the helm of that hierarchical structure. Priests who worked as theologians backed up the cult by justifying the messages of the cult.
For some sort of legitimacy, the group had flimsy links with the Roman Catholic, banking on how influential and massive Catholicism is in the region. The premises of the cult were adorned with Catholic icons and their leadership was mostly comprised of defrocked Catholic priests and nuns.
One of these defrocked priests was Dominic Kataribabo, who was a former priest and had obtained a PhD from the United States. He was a huge force in the cult and many of the bodies were found at his home. Ursula Komuhangi was a defrocked nun who was also a major force in the group. The link to Catholicism sanitized their beliefs.
With a total sense of unflinching loyalty, believers lived mostly in silence and they occasionally used signs for communication purposes. If anyone had a question, it had to be sent to Ms. Mwerinde in writing. She was the soul of the cult – being the “mastermind” on how the establishment was operated and she would also write some answers. This earned her the title of being “the programmer”.
The cult offered a sense of belonging and togetherness to its followers, providing for the needs of the families that it took in. It was a self-sustaining community that grew its own food, ran its own education and optimized on the skills of the faithful for labor.
The lives of its adherents were centered on pure, untainted devotion. One had to lead an upright life without sin. One had to commit to an absolutely righteous life without blemish. Judith Ariho, a former cult member, gave a glimpse of what life was like in the cult. If one sinned, they were ordered to recite the rosary a thousand times.
She said, “Life rotated around prayer, although we also farmed. We did everything possible to avoid sin. Sometimes, if you sinned, they would command you to recite the rosary [an entreaty to God] 1,000 times. You had to do it, and also ask friends and family to help, until you had served your punishment.”
Cult movements are often characterized by acts and thinking which the ordinary reasonable person would deem bizarre. Ms. Ariho said that when sin was committed, Mwerinde and Komuhangi would shed tears of blood. They seemed to be aware of every sin committed in the far-flung outlets of the church. The leaders also seem to have been torturing and murdering people before the final massacre.
Many bodies were retrieved from numerous wide and deep pits in Kanungu days after the massacre. Two more pits said to be torture chambers were also found near the church. Several other pits were found near other branches of the church. The mystery that still remains is, “what changed these ordinary members of society into bloodthirsty murderers?” Those close to Dominic Kataribabo said that something must have changed him as they knew him to be an upright man and shrewd businessman.
Anna Kabeireho, who lived near the land that the cult owned, still remembers vividly the gruesome atmosphere that engulfed them on the day of the massacre.
“Everything was covered in smoke, soot and the stench of burnt flesh. It seemed to go right to your lungs, everybody was running into the valley. The fire was still going. There were dozens of bodies, burnt beyond recognition. We covered our noses with aromatic leaves to ward off the smell. For several months, meat could not be eaten."
According to the account, it was a horrific scene that evoked a complete revulsion of blind Christianity. Interpol launched notices of the arrest of 6 cult leaders in 2000 but no one really knows whether they died in the inferno or are living elsewhere in hiding.
The issue of unquestioning Christianity where members believe in many forms of superstitions is not new to Africa. Devotees spend their time blindly following their leaders and their strange values.
Dr. Paddy Musana of Makerere University's Department of Religion and Peace Studies says that pointed to the evils of the time and preached a renewal to the faith.
"When there is a strain or a need which cannot be easily met by existing institutions like traditional faiths or government, and someone emerges claiming to have a solution, thousands will rally around them," he said.
"The Kanungu cult pointed out the evils of the time… and preached a renewal or re-commitment to the faith."
He argues that the “Jesus Industry” has massive appeal and has become an investment venture, citing how it is like the message of the cults. “Today's preachers talk about health and wellness, because of the numerous diseases, and a public health system that barely functions,” he says.
At this time in the history of Africa, people should ask themselves about the impacts of not questioning some of the beliefs propagated by some religious leaders. People continue being deceived by wolves in sheep’s clothing.