Tragedy in Uganda: the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, a Post-Catholic Movement

by Massimo Introvigne

Uganda leading members of The Ten Commandments of God
Leading members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments
On March 17, 2000, several hundreds of followers (estimates vary, but they may well have been more than 300, including 78 children) of the Ugandan new religious movement Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (RTCG) died in Kanungu (in the Rukingiri district, 217 miles South-West of Uganda's capital Kampala) in what was alternatively called a mass suicide or a homicide perpetrated by its leaders. The subsequent discovery of mass graves in various locations raised the death toll to 780 and possibly more, the largest such incident in recent history.
RTCG, a fringe Catholic group, had been established among an epidemic of apparitions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus in Catholic circles in Africa, most of them not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, during and after the famous apparitions in Kibeho, Rwanda (1981-1989.) There, seven seers were encouraged and approved by the Catholic hierarchy. The apparitions more directly conductive to the formation of the RTCG started in 1987, when a number of Catholics claimed to have visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in South-Western Uganda after one Rwandan girl claiming a connection with Kibeho (but not being one of the “approved” seers there,) Specioza Mukantabana, moved in 1986 to the Ugandan dioceses of Mbarara and (later) of Masaka, starting a movement in Mbuye. Among the new seers were Paul Kashaku (1890-1991,) and his daughter Credonia Mwerinde (1952-2000,) a barmaid with some reputation for sexual promiscuity (who later claimed to be a former prostitute: most probably a false claim, and a conscious attempt to replicate the role of Mary Magdalene.) Kashaku had a past as a visionary, and claimed to have had, as early as 1960, an apparition from her deceased daughter Evangelista (?-1957.)
Kashaku claimed to have had a particularly important apparition in 1988, and impressed among others Joseph Kibwetere (1931-2000,) who claimed to have received himself apparitions since 1984. Kibwetere was a solid member of the Catholic community in Uganda, who had been a politician and a locally prominent member of the Catholic-based Democratic Party in the 1970s. Eventually, a community was established in Kibwetere’s home in 1989. The newly formed group attempted to merge the movement with other “apparitionist” groups, including the one established in Mbuye by the Rwandan seer Mukantabana (a group which had been in the meantime condemned by the local Catholic bishop.) These attempts, however, failed. A group of twelve apostles (six of them women) was appointed, and Kibwetere became their leader after Kashaku’s death in 1991.
The seers claimed to have seen Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Joseph in several different visions, heavily influenced both by recognized Catholic apparitions such as La Salette and Fatima, and by unofficial Catholic sources, including the messages of the Italian visionary priest Father Stefano Gobbi, several U.S.-based visionaries, and William Kamm (“Little Pebble,”) a marginal Catholic prophet who claims that he will eventually become the next Pope. Together with obvious borrowings from these sources, the messages address typical Ugandan themes such as the AIDS epidemic and governmental corruption. Eventually, the village of Kanungu was designated as "Ishayuriro rya Maria" (the Rescue Place for the Virgin Mary.) The group of followers of the seers moved there in 1994. The group converted to his prophetic visions a handful of Catholic priests an nuns, including Father Dominic Kataribaabo (1936-2000,) a U.S.-educated Ugandan priest. The RTCG developed an archconservative brand of Catholicism and some of its leaders and members were eventually excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church (although the priests were suspended from their priestly functions rather than excommunicated.) Among other things, they broke with Ugandan Catholic Bishops - as many an archconservative would do, throughout the world - on questions of reliability of apparitions (including their own,) clerical garb, and proper ways of taking communion (they regarded as licit only the communion taken kneeling, not standing, and rejected the practice of taking the host in the communicant's hands.) The movement’s publications strongly denied that the RTCG was a new religious movement, and claimed that it was just another conservative Catholic group. The Ugandan Catholic Bishops, however, concluded otherwise.
The RTCG was legally incorporated with this name in 1994, and a boarding school was licensed until 1998, when the license was revoked by the government, which mentioned teachings contrary to he Constitution, breaches of public health regulations and possible mistreatment of children. In fact, the main message of RTCG was that the Ten Commandments had been distorted and needed to be restored in their full value. The third edition of the handbook A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of Present Times (1996,) mainly written by Kataribaabo, proclaimed: "Ours is not a religion but a movement that endeavors to make the people aware of the fact that the Commandments of God have been abandoned, and it gives what should be done for their observance" (n.p.) Additional comments in the book about morality, such that "girls prefer wearing men's trousers to wearing their own dresses," refer to themes common in traditionalist and other Catholic archconservative circles. The message was also apocalyptic: "All of you living on the Planet, listen to what I'm going to say: When the year 2000 is completed, the year that will follow will not be year 2001. The year that will follow shall be called Year One in a generation that will follow the present generation; the generation that will follow will have few or many people depending on who will repent. (…) The Lord told me that hurricanes of fire would rain forth from heaven and spread over all those who would not have repented" (n.p.) It is however worth noting that here RTCG visions are very similar to those of the (Church-approved) Kibeho visionaries: the latter saw rivers of blood, great fires and decapitated corpses. The Virgin Mary told them: "There isn't much time left in preparing for the Last Judgment. We must change our live, renounce sin. Pray and prepare for our own death and for the end of the world" (Maindron, Apparizioni a Kibeho, 1985, p. 107.) Of course, in Kibeho Church approval also meant Church control, and the apocalyptic elements were controlled by approved and century-old metaphorical interpretations. Once the RTCG had left the Catholic fold, this was less likely to happen and some of the Kibeho images were literally acted out by the RTCG.
The some 5,000 members of RTCG (the movement had branches in several Ugandan small towns) were said to avoid sex, to talk rarely, for fear of breaking the commandment about not bearing false witness and to have developed a sign language (although reports of their unusual behavior may have been exaggerated after the tragedy.) Although most members were former Catholics, it also included some from the milieu of African Initiated Churches (AIC, formerly called African Independent Churches) and from local spiritualist groups. RTCG was considered in Uganda among the less violent local apocalyptic movements. On the other hand, it did predict the end of the world for December 31, 1999, later revising the date and claiming that on March 17, 2000 the Virgin Mary would appear and take members to Heaven. The prophetic failure may have induced a number of members to doubt the leaders, and to ask for the money they had contributed back. This development (similar to one that occurred in the Order of the Solar Temple prior to the homicides and suicides of 1994) may have created a category of "traitors" who were killed in various waves prior to March 17 and whose bodies have been found in several mass graves at different locations. On the other hand, the mass graves remain in many respect a mystery, and it is also possible that some “weak” members, regarded as not fully prepared to commit suicide, were killed there without being regarded as “traitors.”
Shortly before March 17, Kibwetere wrote to his wife Theresa (not a member of RTCG) urging her to carry on the movement after his "departure.” A nun went to nearby villages announcing the coming of the Virgin Mary for March 17. Apparently, while some members did know about the suicide, others were simply told about an imminent supernatural event and did not expect to die. As in the case of the Solar Temple (and notwithstanding the obvious differences) there were three categories of victims: those who knew about the suicide and regarded it as a “rational” way to escape a doomed world (a minority;) those who expected to go to Heaven but did not know how; and the "traitors" who doubted Kibweteere after the prophetic failure. The latter were assassinated before the final fire. The presence of three, rather than two, categories of victims create a continuum between homicide and suicide. Among the leaders, Kataribaabo was originally identified among the dead, but later the Ugandan government issued a warrant for his arrest together with warrants against Kibwetere and Merinde. Dental records for the trio are unavailable, and it is at this stage impossible to determine whether they died in the fire (as their families think,) or escaped with the movement’s money (as some witnesses imply, and the Ugandan government apparently believes.) Of course, the idea that the leaders were simple con men (and women) who had escaped with the money was the preferred explanation by media and some members of the law enforcement community in the Solar Temple case, too, before dental records proved this theory wrong. Most scholars believe that the leadership of the RTCG died in the 2000 fire, and its behaviour prior to the events confirms this conclusion.
Uganda is the home of hundreds of religious movements, many of them apocalyptic and millenarian. This is not surprising: Uganda experienced an apocalypse of its own with the bloody regime of Idi Amin Dada (1925-2003) and the atrocities of the civil war. Apocalyptic movements in Uganda expect justice from the end of the world, not from politics. Scholarship about Uganda's apocalyptic movements in general warns again applying Western models to situations peculiar to that country. In fact, conflict between "cults" and the national army, protest, violence (and even suicide) are often new forms of pre-existing ethnic, tribal, and political conflicts. In general, tragedies in Uganda also confirm that violence connected to new religious movements erupts because of a combination of internal and external factors. In the RTCG case, internal factors include the personality of the leaders, and their literal interpretations of prophecies about the end of the world and the crisis both of society and of the Catholic Church, such as Kibeho’s and Father Gobbi’s. Once dissociated from the Church’s time-tested skills of metaphorical interpretations, Marian apocalyptic revelations may be taken literally, and acted upon. External factors include the situation prevailing in Uganda, and particularly in an area ravaged by disaster, famines, and civil war.
After the tragedy of Kanungu, some African governments reacted quite strongly against “cults” in general. The risk is to engage in witch hunts, and fail to remember that thousands of apocalyptic movements throughout the world are law-abiding and not violent. In Africa as elsewhere, generalizations claiming that all millenarian and apocalyptic movements are ready for mass suicide are grossly inaccurate. They may in fact amplify tension and deviance, thus operating as self-fulfilling prophecies and contributing to cause the very evils they claim they want to prevent.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Department of Religious Studies, Makerere University. The Kanungu Cult-Saga: Suicide, Murder, or Salvation? Kisubi (Uganda,) 2000.

Maindron, Gabriel. Apparizioni a Kibeho. Annuncio di Maria nel cuore dell’Africa. Italian ed. Brescia, 1985.

Mayer, Jean François. « Field Notes : The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. » Nova Religio 5 (2001): 203-210.

Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times. 3rd ed. Karuhinda, Rukungiri and Rubiziri, Bushenyi (Uganda,) 1996.

 

Note: This text has been published on CESNURís Web site in 2000. It should now be integrated by Richard Vokesí crucial 2009 book Ghosts of Kanungu. Fertility, Secrecy & Exchange in the Great Lakes of East Africa (Woodbridge [Suffolk] and Rochester [New York]: James Currey).


Ten Commandments of God: Mass Suicide in Uganda

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