Kanungu, Nyabingi And the Virgin Mary

It is now over two years since more than 500 people were burnt to death in the church headquarters of the religious sect that called itself The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, in the village of Kanungu, southwestern Uganda.

The Kanungu fire was initially thought to be a case of mass suicide, but following the subsequent discovery of several mass graves at a number of the Movement's other compounds, the Ugandan police began a murder investigation.

The chief suspects in this investigation were the sect's leaders, in particular one Joseph Kibwetere. However, despite several reported sightings of a number of the leaders - as recently as March 2002, Kibwetere was said to have been spotted in Rwanda - no arrests have yet been made.

The publication last month of a report into the sect's activities by Uganda's Human Rights Commission has reignited interest in the circumstances leading up to the Kanungu fire.

The authors of the report argue that the sect was not in fact led by Joseph Kibwetere at all, but instead by a woman called Credonia Mwerinde. Recent research on the history of the Movement suggests that this finding may be even more significant than the report's authors realise. The fact that many of the sect's activities revolved around this woman's visions from the Virgin Mary may be a crucial fact in understanding the Kanungu cult.

Mwerinde was born on July 30, 1952, the daughter of a Roman Catholic catechist and his wife. Her family relocated to Kanungu while she was still young, settling on the very land the Movement were later to use as their headquarters. A school drop-out, Mwerinde embarked on a number of unsuccessful marriages before ending up as a prostitute in the Kanungu trading centre.

It was while engaged in prostitution in the local Independence Bar that Mwerinde met a local Mukiga man who offered to take her on as his seventh wife. Many Bakiga - the majority ethnic group of the Kanungu region - still practice polygamy. The marriage was not a happy one, however, many frustrations resulting from Mwerinde's apparent inability to conceive. Despite having three children from previous liaisons, Mwerinde could not seem to become pregnant by her new husband.

One night in the mid-1980s, while alone with her new husband in the bedroom, Mwerinde received a blinding vision from the Virgin Mary, who apparently told her that her current inability to conceive was caused by a decision of Mary herself to "withhold" the unborn child.

The following day, Mwerinde went to the nearby caves at Nyakishenyi, where she had another vision from the Virgin Mary, the Blessed Virgin this time appearing to her on the side of a rock. In the weeks and months that followed, Mwerinde returned to the caves many times, and each time received such a visitation. As had happened with Bernadette at Lourdes, word spread of Mwerinde's startling visions, and many people began going to the caves with her, hoping to ask the Virgin, through Mwerinde's mediumship, for help with their problems. The majority of the people who went there were also women suffering from problems of infertility.

As Mwerinde's fame grew, she came to the attention of Mrs Kibwetere, the wife of a former senior member of the Catholic laity. Mrs Kibwetere, a keen member of the Catholic lay organisation called the Legion of Mary, was at the time trying to track down people who had experienced "visitations" from the Holy Mother. She finally met Mwerinde at the consecration of Mbarara's Arch-Bishop Bakyenga on June 20, 1989, and invited her to come and live at her husband Joseph's house.

Mwerinde's visions continued, and more and more people, especially barren women, went there to ask Holy Mary for her divine intervention in their problems. These visitors began to stay on in the Kibweteres' home, and after a while the group began to call themselves The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God. By the time of its demise 11 years later, the ranks of the sect had swelled to several thousand people.

Previous accounts of the Kanungu sect have made much of Mwerinde's "apocalyptic" predictions, which she came to rely on more and more in the period leading up to the fire. On several occasions, she claimed that the Virgin Mary had told her the exact day on which the world was going to end, and on the last of these dates the Kanungu fire occurred.

For purposes of understanding the Kanungu sect, the history of Mwerinde's visions may be more significant than her later predictions of doom. And the fact that her initial public visions occurred in Nyakishenyi is of greatest importance.

The Nyakishenyi caves have been one of the most important spiritual sites in southwestern Uganda for many hundreds of years. From the late 18th century onwards, many of the local religions were replaced by worship of the goddess Nyabingi, a system of belief originating in Rwanda. Nyakishenyi became one of the central sites of Nyabingi worship. In 1917, Nyabingi worshippers even used the caves to launch a rebellion against British colonial rule. The rebels burnt down the nearby administration buildings, before killing a number of the staff there.

While much has been written by historians about the so-called "Nyabingi rebellion" less has been said about the role Nyabingi played in Kiga society as a fertility goddess. This was in fact the religion's primary function. Women suffering from problems of infertility would usually turn to Nyabingi, and make animal sacrifices to her, believing that her intervention could make them pregnant.

The Nyakishenyi caves would be visited only in the event of a prolonged period of barrenness. At the caves, these women would try to contact Nyabingi through a spirit medium, and would sometimes stay there for very long periods, weeks or even months, waiting for the reply.

Credonia Mwerinde's role in the early days of the Kanungu cult parallels that of a Nyabingi medium. Basing herself at the Nyakishenyi caves, she acted as a medium for those women seeking divine help with their infertility. The only difference is that rather than contacting Nyabingi, Mwerinde's visions were of Holy Mary.

Recently concluded historical research suggests that this connection between Nyabingi and Holy Mary may be more than coincidental. The first Roman Catholic missionaries to southwestern Uganda, the White Fathers, realised the importance of Nyabingi as a fertility cult. Wanting to draw Kiga women away from this traditional religion and into the church, the White Fathers told them that Holy Mary had even greater power over women's affairs than did Nyabingi. In describing Catholic rituals to these women, the missionaries even used Rukiga words which had previously been used only in Nyabingi worship. Holy Mary essentially came to replace Nyabingi for many Kiga women.

The Kanungu sect was, therefore, a transformation of an older fertility cult. Expelled from the mainstream Catholic church, who may well have been aware of its similarity with the old Nyabingi religion, the group eventually went its own way, with disastrous consequences.

This understanding of the cult's history does not answer the question of what happened on the fateful day of March 17, 2000, or help us to understand the story behind the bodies in the pits.

These questions may not be fully answered until such time as the cult's leaders, if they are still alive, are found.

But for the relatives of those who died at Kanungu, knowing why their loved ones entered the group in the first place, and why it came to have such a profound impact over their lives, may go some way towards healing the wounds created by the Kanungu cult.

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