by Willy Wegner, translated by Claus Larsen
Uganda hasn’t had a state religion since 1978. Today, it is the right of Ugandans to believe in anything. And they do.
On June 1st, 2002, the Ugandan newspaper New Vision wrote, that a new cult had seen the light of day in the Wakiso District. The cult had about 300 members, and was led by a 42-year old prophet with the difficult name of Basajjakambwe Busajjabukirana. Busajjabukirana told the newspaper that he had direct contact with God. Those who reached God through middle med were false believers, he said. In the cult, they didn’t believe in either spirits or Jesus, and preached Africa for Africans: The members of the cult were urged to have as little to do with whites as possible.
The religious composition in Uganda is very mixed, even though about 66% describes themselves as Christians, either Catholic or Anglican. About 19% of the population belong to Islam, while the remaining 15% stick to traditional African beliefs. On the face of it, it looks simple enough, if it weren’t for the fact that within the larger groups there are a number of deviant and often strange sects, some of which are militant.
Uganda is one of the world’s most impoverished countries. For many years, tourism have been one of the the main sources of income, along with foreign investors.
For many years, people have tried to eradicate the traces of some of the darkest chapters in the history of the country, e.g., the rule of Idi Amin, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, followed by Milton Obote. Today, the President is Yoweri Museveni.
Thanks to a new rule, and foreign development aid in particular, the country has progressed so that education is free and for everybody, even though it should be mentioned that often classes have more than 100 students.
After tourism had begun to grow, the country suffered a setback in March 1999, when a number of foreign tourists were killed in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. The country is also hit by other plagues, AIDS being one of the most serious. In October 2000, there was an outbreak of Ebola haemorrhagic fever. The life expectancy age in Uganda is 52 years.
The area we will focus on lies in the Southwest corner of Uganda, about 320 kilometers from Kampala, the capital. The town is Kanungu, a local center for trade. To the South, the area borders on Rwanda, where close to 800,000 people were victims of a genocide in 1004. To the West, the area borders on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where military forces from especially Uganda and Rwanda are involved in an enormous local war.
Despite the strained relationship with its neighbors, Kanungu is working hard to create a tourist industry in this poor, but very beautiful scenery.
The first news about the cult
On March 18, 2000, the big news agencies began telling of a religious mass suicide in Uganda, and the village of Kanungu became known throughout the world. The victims were members of a Catholic sect by the name of The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
In the beginning, there was some confusion as to how many victims there were, and it soon became apparent that the story was just beginning to unfold. Some reports said 230 victims, others went as high as 650, all burnt to death in the church of the cult.
It was assumed at first that the leaders of the sect were among the victims, but it soon became apparent that it wasn’t a case of mass suicide, but mass killings by fire.
While the confusing was at its highest, during the first month of the church fire in Kanungu, there were many speculations about what the causes were, and who the involved persons were. Reporters didn’t have many sources to work from, so they basically had to start from scratch.
The frustrations were great: A case of local and regional authorities who should have detected that something was very wrong, and might have been able to avert disaster. The police lacked resources to deal with such a major situation. The country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, promised, repeatedly, a legal commission whose task it was to investigate the case. But in reality, it wasn’t a high priority.
According to some reports, the cult could be dated back to ca. 1980. At that time, a woman named Blandina Buzigye claimed to have had a revelation, where she met the Virgin Mary, who had in turn told her that the world was coming to an end. Buzigye was allegedly asked by the Virgin Mary to form a movement for the restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
The revelation took place near Nyabugoto Rock, in the Rwanyabingi mountains near Nyakishenyi. In the time after, it became a holy place for the growing cult.
More and more people joined, but it was only near the end of the 1980’s that the cult really took off. Among some of those who emerged were some women, still firmly entrenched in the Catholic faith, worth of mention: Credonia Mwerinde, Angelina Mugisha and Ursula Komuhangi.
In the beginning, the cult established itself near the holy place of Nyabugoto Rock, by attempting to buy the area surrounding it, and planning to build a church on the spot. But the plans were met with strong resistance from the locals at Nyakishenyi, who did what they could to chase the cult away.
In 1989, Credonia Mwerinde emerged as the strong-woman of the cult. She succeeded in recruiting the former politician Joseph Kibwetere along with three Catholic priests, Paul Ikazire, Domenic Kataribabo and Joseph Kasapurari.
Lacking a place to be, the newly-recruited priests lent their homes to the cult.
The daily and primary leaders since the beginning of the 1990’s were Joseph Kibwetere, Credonia Mwerinde and Dominic Kataribabo. Kibwetere were officially, but erroneously, known as the founder of the cult, and was addressed as Omukuru w’entumwa, which means “the leading Apostle”, or “the leading Prophet”. Kibwetere was appointed the cult’s “bishop”, but as will later be evident, Credonia Mwerinde was the one who controlled the cult and its activities.
Credonia Mwerinde – Priestess of Death
Credonia Mwerinde was described as beautiful, convincing and intelligent. But she also had a very fierce temperament, and she was greedy and calculating. Credonia was the driving force behind the cult, and the stories about her are many and frightening. Arson and murder were not unknown to her. An early friend of hers could reveal that she, when she was in her twenties, set fire to a man’s possessions, because he had abandoned her. The family sent her away for treatment, and when she came home, she said that she had been mentally disturbed.
During the time of the dictator Idi Amin’s regime, Credonia owned a bar by the name of Kanungu Independent. Here, she seduced, according to a friend of the family, a traveller. While he was asleep, she killed him and took his money. The next morning, the firsts patrons of the bar found her mopping up blood from the floow. Nobody knows what happened to the body.
The driving force in Credonia’s life was neither belief or religion, but greed. That is how her former husband, Eric Mazima, described her. He had sold his land and left his second wife to become partner at Credonia’s bar in Kanungu. She was the happiest when she made money, Mazima recalls.
Despite her craving for money, Credonia went bankrupt with her bar in 1989. At that time, she also broke off with Eric Mazima. Soon after, Credonia converted to Catholicism, and claimed only a few weeks after, that she had had a vision of the Virgin Mary in a cave in the Nyakishenyi mountains.
After this experience, she contacted the 58-year old Joseph Kibwetere. He was a wealthy land owner, former politician and very religious – but also a desillusioned man.
In 1971, Kibwetere was working for the government’s land commission. His job was to supervise buildings and farming projects in the region. Later, he became the head of the commission, and went into politics for the Catholic-oriented Democratic Party. The family moved to Rwashamaire and was considered among the richest families in the area, and owned three other properties, with poultry, cattle and milling.
The Kibwetere family escaped relatively unharmed from the rule of Idi Amin, but during his successor, President Milton Obote, things went awry. Kibwetere was already a bitter man, when his party lost the election in 1980. Now, he also lost his job, and lots of his cattle were also stolen.
He had always been a deeply religious man, and his religious fervor didn’t falter through the years. It was said that he was more Catholic than the Pope himself. Still, everyone was surprised when he in 1984 said that the Virgin Mary had appeared before him.
The turning point in Kibweteres life came five years later, when Credonia visited him. She told him about his Maria-revelation, and claimed that she, with her two sisters, had been told by the Virgin Mary to come to Kibwetere. The message was that together, they should work for a return to a life according to the Ten Commandments.
Credonia then persuaded two local priests, Dominic Kataribabo and Paul Ikazire, to help her and Kibwetere form a cult. The priests were both elderly, and belonged to the conservative part of the Catholic church. They did not sympathize with the liberalization that the church had undergone at the time. She also got permission from the priests to use their church in Rugazi.
Credonia never smiled, and could during conversations become absent-minded and stop responding to people. The explanation given was that she were receiving messages from the Virgin Mary. During her time in the bar, she had occasionally earned money by being a prostitute, something she didn’t hide. On the contrary, she used it to promote herself, by comparing herself to Mary Magdalene, a reformed prostitute. Not even Catholic priests could avoid being taken in by such a story.
As time went by, three of her brothers died, one by one, leaving Credonia as the sole heir to the family’s land. In 1993, the cult could finally build its own headquarter, along with a church. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess that the brothers didn’t die a natural death.
The cult emerging
“Before we realized it, Credonia Mwerinde and her two relatives, Ursula Komuhangi and Angela Mugisha, moved in with us in Kabumba”, recalls Kibwetere’s second-oldest son.
Soon after, they began to hit the children, while the father was either too scared, or had a deep respect of Credonia, and did everything she said. The son felt as if they were strangers in their own home.
Kibwetere then chose 12 disciples who helped organizing the cult. Among these were, in the beginning, his own wife, Theresa, Credonia Mwerinde, her two sisters, and the priest Paul Ikazire, who nevertheless left the cult in 1994 along with 72 followers. Credonia was bitter over the split, and announced that she would pray for the death of Ikazire.
As time went on, the congregation grew to a couple of hundred on the estate of Kibwetere. Early on, they separated men and women, along with a rule of silence. It was at this time that a priest from Kampala, Dominic Kataribabo, joing the cult. He was in charge of religious rites and education. He had been ordained as a Catholic priest in 1965, and had studied at the Makerere University in Kampala, with an additional two years at the University of Loyola, in California, U.S.A. He had also been a curate with Paul Ikazire.
Credonia Mwerinde was in charge of it all. She claimed to talk directly to the Virgin Mary. Credonia was the daily leader, and nothing could happen without her approval. She had the last say, since she could refer to her contact with the Virgin Mary. She had left school prematurely, since her parents didn’t think her in need of an education.
The 64-year old Theresa Kibwetere did not regard her husband as the leader. Before Credonia came along, Theresa described him as a loveable and humble man, who loved his children and living according to his own religious principles. It was Credonia in particular who made him into a yes-puppet. Theresa claimed that the leaders of the cult used her husband as a front man, by taking advantage of his influence and good reputation. Theresa herself was a faithful disciple at first, but when the leaders began to use their own visions to persecute her and her children, her support cooled considerably.
Credonia Mwerinde became increasingly violent, and her relation to Kibwetere’s wife became more and more strained. She also persuaded Kibwetere to take the children out of school, and sell three other properties, the car and other things, partly to feed the growing congregation. She also confiscated the belongings of the newly arrivals, when they joined the cult.
“We fought to get them out of our house, but these women, Mwerinde and Ursula, claimed they had had a vision that we would poison their food and that we should be beaten”, Kibwetere’s wife recalls. “My husband, who had never beaten any of us, began hitting the children. He tried to hit me with a club.”
Rugambwe was one of Kibwetere’s oldest sons. One day, his kid sister told him something that made him scared: Credonia claimed that the Virgin Mary had told her, that all children under the age of five were to be killed, and that such a sacrifice was necessary.
Credonia Mwerinde, and the cult as such, did not get along with children. The children were already living by themselves in Kabumba, under squalid conditions. About 60 children were living in a shed of no more than 36 m2, without being able to attend school. They spent all their time in the shed, sleeping on the ground, with many of them suffering from vermin and eczema. Being a child was regarded as a potential possibility for sinning. In this rather brutal fashing, the cult tried to shield the children from falling prey to Satan.
Rugambwe tried to keep his family together in the midst of this religious fanaticism, but the result was that he got into a fight several times with his father, once so violently that the son had to be taken to the hospital.
As for Theresa, she finally had enough, when Angela Mugisha one day doused all of her clothes with petroleum and burned it to ashes.
After the police in 1992 had, once again, been called in to settle yet another family feud, the elders of the village told Kibwetere that he ought to move and take the cult with him.
After the church fire in Kanungu, Theresa Kibwetere said during an interview, that it was her own husband who essentially was to blame for the fire. She also thought that her husband were among those perished. She had seen a body which could have been his, as it had a golden ring on one of its fingers. Only Kibwetere had such a ring, being the cult’s bishop.
The interviewer wrote that this made Theresa Kibwetere scared. She kept her door locked, worrying about acts of vengeance from the families of the victims. “Can’t people understand that we are innocent?” The son was bitter: “I pray”, he said, “but I can’t ask for forgiveness for my father. He has destroyed our lives.”