The sheer extent of the tragedy in Kanungu, Uganda, calls forth comparison withJonestown, where in November 1978 the visit of California Representative Leo J. Ryan became the catalyst for the group to turn in upon itself and commit masssuicide, and to murder the minority who would not participate.
On the surface, Jonestown and Kanungu have striking similarities: More than900 known dead, both exhibited some primary characteristics of so-called "cults"--charismatic leaders and geographic isolation. But closerreflection shows some equally striking differences--despite equally tragicends.
As our knowledge of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandmentsof God (MRTC) has expanded, so has our knowledge of its inner dynamics,helped immensely by the emergence of Peter Ahimbisibwe, a young man who so far is the only known Movement survivor.
The MRTC seems to have really begun with the coming together of CredoniaMwerinde and Joseph Kibwetere. On August 24, 1988, Mwerinde, a young womanwith a reputation for being sexually loose, had the first of what she saidwas a series of visions of the Virgin Mary and began to share her story withthose who would listen. In 1991, Kibwetere traveled to Nyanmitanga, Uganda,to hear Mwerinde and was so impressed that he invited her to live in hishome.
This became the headquarters of the Movement for three years until theymoved to Kanangu in 1994. By this time, Kibwetere had separated from his wifeand had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. The pair led thegroup, but accounts vary as to which one held ultimate authority.Mwerinde's visions had also attracted other Catholics, including the priestDominic Kataribabo, who in the 1980s earned a master's degree in religious studies from Los Angeles' Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic institution. He had been disciplined by his Ugandan bishop, who reprimanded and eventually excommunicated him in the early 1990s for raising funds for the Movement. He eventually left the church and worked exclusively for the MRTC.Beginning in 1994, the Movement developed as an ordered community, adherentsaccepting a disciplined life and new behavioral rules as conditions ofmembership (somewhat like life in other Catholic orders). Its primarycenter was in Kanungu, but other groups emerged at several nearby towns.Members were united in their acceptance of the material received by Mwerindefrom her reported visions.As families joined, they adopted the group rules designed to prevent anyfurther breaking of the Ten Commandments. They refrained from sex and anyunnecessary verbal interaction (a means of refraining from adultery andprofaning the Lord's name). They developed a sign language that they usedwhenever possible.
As the group formed around the visions, it moved to separate itself fromsociety and the church. For MRTC, the Catholic Church was high on the listof those who were regularly breaking the Ten Commandments that caused Godsuch great offense. In return, as soon as the Movement became large enoughfor church officials to take note, its leaders were excommunicated, and itwas written off as not Catholic.
Integral to the group was a belief that the world was disintegrating aroundthem it, but as with apocalyptic groups through the centuries, they also hadhope that God or the Virgin would deliver them. The end of the centuryprovided an occasion for actualizing that belief, and as December 31 approachedthey began to liquidate assets and prepare for the coming deliverancepredicted by Mwerinde and Kibwetere.
When deliverance did not come, the pair did as other leaders have done andrevised their prediction. It would still happen, they said, but at somepoint during 2000. Many accepted that revision; they had placed their faithin the Virgin Mary and had confidence in her chosen mouthpiece. However, ifwe are to believe Ahimbisibwe's account, a significant number of memberslost their confidence in Mwerinde's contact with the divine realm anddemanded the money and resources they had donated be returned. That demandcreated a crisis that threatened to bankrupt if not destroy the group.
At this point, one of two possible scenarios become possible. Which actuallyunfolded remains unclear for now.
First, it is possible that the resources of the group (never large butsubstantial in Ugandan terms) had been spent on the buildings they haderected and the ongoing expenses of keeping the community together. Therewas no cash to return to the dissidents (there were so many of them), and ifthey left it would be a massive challenge for the rest to keep the faith.Everything would be undone. The words of the Virgin that began the Movementwould be disconfirmed.