Kampala, Uganda - Damasco Woniala has forced his five children out of school. The latest is his daughter, Brenda Namataka, who topped her class in the 2009 Primary Leaving Examinations and was admitted to Nabumali High School.
Forty-year-old Woniala is a convert of Injilli (good news); a religion that has infiltrated Nabyoko village in Bulambuli county, Sironko district.
The dreaded 666 PIN
The followers of Injilli are not taking children to school fearing that the Pupil Identification Number (PIN) introduced by the education ministry in the late 1990s is associated with 666. The book of Revelations in the Bible says 666 is the beast's symbol.
Revelations 13:16-17 says the beast from the earth forced all the people to have a mark put on their right hand or on the forehead. No one could buy or sell anything without this mark (the mark is the name of the beast or the number of its name).
The education ministry introduced PIN numbers in schools at the start of the Universal primary education programme in 1997, with the aim of identifying the pupils under the programme and avoiding multiple registrations.
"I will not take my children to school unless the PIN is withdrawn. I want my children to serve God and not the beast," says Woniala. He claims their members searched on the internet and discovered that the PIN used in schools, banks, or any other electronic system, is the name of the biblical beast.
The members have stopped taking their children to school. They do not use the services of banks or hospitals. They also do not use computers, mobile or fixed landline telephones or the fax.
The Injilli also do not take photos because they claim cameras have the PIN for the beast. Education is not bad. When someone is educated, the person can build a road, a school or church. But education became bad with the introduction of the PIN," Woniala explains.
A conflict of interests
A conflict has erupted between Woniala and his brother Simon Wodonya, a soldier with the Uganda People's Defence Forces, who is trying to forcefully take Namataka to Nabumali High School.
Woniala first forced Namataka out of school in P.4, but Wodanya intervened and returned the girl to school. "Since Namataka enrolled in school, I was educating her and staying with her. But one day her father came to pick her, claiming he would educate her.
"I later learnt that he had forced her out of school because of their religious beliefs. I forcefully removed her from him and I enrolled her in a boarding school where she completed her P.7 with Aggregate 11," Wodonya explains.
He has vowed to take his niece to school at whatever cost. Namataka secured a scholarship from the Elgon Education Foundation which will sponsor her up to S.4.
"This girl will help this impoverished family after her studies. She will even sensitise them to avoid Injilli," he says.
Hope for drop-outs
The Elgon Education Foundation, led by Prof. Timothy Wangusa, recently set out to establish what is hindering education in Bugisu region and Uganda. The foundation is a non-governmental organisation which promotes education, environment and basic sanitation in Uganda.
The organisation aids brilliant girls from rural settings, who cannot finance education. It finances the education of eight girls including Namataka. The girls excelled in the 2009 Primary Leaving Exams in Bugisu.
Namataka, a strong believer of the Injilli, says: "We watched a film on TV in church. The film showed a computer and a microchip. The PIN is associated with number 666 - the beast's code. We were told that this PIN has reached schools and we should stop going to school," she adds.
Although Namataka says she loves education, she also knows she cannot go against the wishes of her father. "Dropping out of school is bad. But if the PIN remains in schools, I may drop out," Namataka explains.
Woniala is a farmer whose cows and goats are worth sh10m. He can afford to educate Namataka, but has vowed not to educate his children until the PIN is removed.
"I can buy them food or clothes, but will not pay their school fees or buy scholastic materials. I don't want any member of my family to go to hell or associate with the beast," he says.
Milda Woniala, 34, also a member of Injilli, concurs. She says the Government has forced all the children in schools to have a PIN, making them devils. "They do not want them to have eternal life. I have pulled my two children out of school."
More forced out of school
Francis Buyi, the managing director of Bulegeni Parents School where Namataka studied, says about four children have been forced out of the school this year.
He says over 500 children have withdrawn from various schools in Bulegeni sub-county.
"People have been brainwashed. they believe the PIN is associated with the beast. This cult is widespread in eastern Uganda," he says.
Sironko District LC5 chairman Kibaale Wambi, says the cult has membership and other churches in Kapchorwa, Pallisa, Manafwa, Bududa, Mbale, Bukwo, Soroti and Tororo districts.
Although the number of children who have been forced out of school is unknown, estimates from the district authorities indicate that over 20,000 children in eastern Uganda have dropped out.
How widespread is the cult?
Woniala claims the Injilli has over 70,000 members. Although the followers say they do not have a leader and claim that anybody can preach, Francis Buyi of Bulegeni Parents School, says they are led by Perez Mongi, a senior pastor, who broke away from the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
"They pray on Saturdays and often hold monthly crusades. Mongi broke away from the Seventh Day Adventists because he was not given a chance to lead them. The followers are mostly illiterate and poor," he says.
Buyi says they do not tithe because they believe Jesus Christ offered his body as the only tithe and nothing else is supposed to replace this. "They do not borrow from anybody and believe in working very hard so that they get whatever they want."
What district authorities say
Authorities from affected districts say Perez Mongi, the leader of the cult, has gone into hiding. Nabyoko LCI chairman, Vincent Namanyira, says the Injilli are the best farmers in his area, but their philosophy of not taking children to school and forcing others out is misguided.
"I don't know where these people came from. But I know this sect started five years ago. We informed the authorities and they arrested some followers, but they were released. We lost the morale of reporting to the authorities and this has given the cult room to expand," Buyi adds.
He stresses that whenever they try to take action against the cult, members go into hiding in the mountains. He says Injilli has sects. There are those who do not take children to school while others do not take children for immunisation, fearing the PIN will be injected in them.
Charles Gimei, the Sironko district senior education officer, says they informed the resident district officer of Sironko and some of the culprits were arrested.
"Some of the members went into hiding and are doing their activities secretly. Whenever they hear that we are moving around, they go into hiding," Gimei says.
Wambi says his district is sensitising people and arresting the culprits. "The problem is that some of the LC officials are members of Injilli and don't want to report to the authorities. I request the education as well as the ethics and integrity ministry to help us.
"The Constitution provides for freedom of worship but some people are misusing the right. We should act now before it turns into another Kanungu massacre," Wambi says.
In 2000, over 1,000 members of The Movement for the Restoration of the 10 Commandments of God, a cult in Kanungu district, perished in a fire suspected to have been started by their leaders. Members were made to believe that the world was coming to an end in 2000. Wambi says Injilli has similar signs.