Last month, thousands flocked a Catholic Church in Rakai in expecting the apparition of the Virgin Mary. The congregation piously prayed and sang, oblivious of the fact that they were gathered at a place that inspired the cult responsible for killing nearly all its followers six years ago, writes Matthias Mugisha
The Sunday Vision of December 3 reported that Specioza Mukantabana, a Rwandese woman who lives in Latin America, attracted multitudes to her ‘holy’ ground in Mbuye, Rakai District, where she claims to have come face-to-face with the Virgin Mary 20 years ago.
Anxious to witness the miracle and also receive blessings, thousands headed to Mbuye, some came from as far as Tanzania, Rwanda and the DR Congo.
According to the story, she prostrated, then rose and talked to the mother of Jesus in a mixture of English and Kinyarwanda while crying.
“Why did you show me that house? You want me to leave my job? I’m ready to serve you. Yes, I’m going to come and stay with my people. When is that? Yes, you will tell me. When are you going to come back? August 15 next year?”
Mukantabana first came to Uganda from Rwanda in the mid-1980s as a beautiful teenage girl. Arriving at the Kabale Catholic Diocese headquarters in Rushoroza, she claimed she had received a vision from the Virgin Mary, who instructed her to tell the world to repent or perish. In awe, the diocese welcomed her. Priests drove her around Catholic-founded schools, where she recited the rosary and “talked” to the Virgin Mary.
By the late 1980s, Mukantabana had become an idol and a star. She pulled more crowds and earned more respect than bishops. The combination of her beauty, immaculate looks and sweet voice worked in her favour. Another reason she became an instant hit was the fact that she arrived around the time when there was talk that the Virgin Mary had appeared to four small children in Kibeho, Rwanda and predicted the genocide that claimed almost one million lives less than a decade later.
People also took her seriously because she came at a time when AIDS was taking its devastating toll, especially in Rakai. When Mukantabana left Kabale, she relocated to Mbuye in Rakai, the place she was at last month.
The “Virgin Mary Vision” mania she started led to the formation of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments cult in Kanungu that killed about 1,000 of its followers in March 2000.
Visions and death
The 20th century was punctuated with stories of “visions” from the Virgin Mary, which leave death in their wake.
In 1917, during the First World War, three children got a vision from the Virgin Mary at a place called Fatima in Portugal. The Virgin Mary reportedly instructed them to tell the world to pray hard because another terrible war was coming.
In the same year, a boy was born in Lugazi, Bushenyi District. His name was Paul Ikare. He later became a priest who was influenced by the “visions”.
The prophecy in Portugal was most probably fulfilled when World War II broke out and millions perished.
At the time when the Nazis in Germany won majority seats in the Reichstag (German parliament) in 1932, the precursor of World War II, another baby boy was born in Uganda. In February 1932, Joseph Kibwetere was born in Kagamba Parish, Rwashameire, in Ntungamo District.
Because of the “visions,” Kibwetere is now wanted for mass murder.
In 1936, Rev. Fr. Kataribabo was born in Lugazi, Bushenyi District. Later, he got carried away in the “vision” mania and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He is also wanted for the murder of 158 people, whose decomposed bodies were exhumed from beneath his bedroom and in his compound.
On July 30, 1952 on a small hill in Kanungu, a Catholic catechist’s wife gave birth to a baby girl and named her Credonia Mwerinde.
Today, Mwerinde, a former prostitute and bar owner, who got numerous “visions” from the Virgin Mary, is wanted for planning the robbery and murder of almost 1,000 people.
Less than 20km from the Mwerinde’s home, in the mountainous Nyakishenyi area of Rubabo County in Rukungiri District, herdsmen had long ago discovered a dark cave in the mountains. Inside the cave was a rock the herdsmen said resembled a humble woman. At that time, nobody cared until Mukantabana came on the scene.
As the Kibeho story was doing the rounds, Mukantabana appeared on the scene with “unlimited access” to the Virgin Mary. Soon the Catholic Diocese of Kabale was enthralled by her powers. Mukantabana was robbing the church of its members at an alarming rate.
However, when rumours started filtering in that she had tempted some priests, she relocated to Mbuye.
The Bishop of Kabale Diocese by then, retired Bishop Barnabas Hale’Imana, when contacted by Sunday Vision, said he cannot remember Mukantabana.
Thousands of her old and new followers started thronging Mbuye. A former ardent follower estimates that over 200,000 people would camp there on weekends.
Plagued by the same rumours and other accusations, Mukantabana moved to Kenya, where she became a model.
The rock cult
Unknowingly, Mukantabana had inspired others who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary. A certain poor Mukiga woman in Nyakishenyi, Gauda Kamushwa, claimed that the rock in the cave which the herdsmen had said resembled a human being had transformed into the Virgin Mary while she was inside. She also claimed the mother of Jesus had told her to convert people and tell them to repent. As Mukantabana faded from the scene, Kamushwa rose, taking some of Mukantabana’s followers.
They went to Kamushwa’s rocks in Nyabukoto village, Nyakishenyi. This new group, which was called the Nyabukoto cult, was the predecessor of the infamous Kanungu cult — the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
One notable convert to the Nyabukoto cult was Mwerinde.
Because all the cult members were Catholics, the church with its parish headquarters less than two miles from Nyabukoto threatened sanctions against the members.
Some trickled back to the church.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the cult disintegrated after a special visitor came to the cave. He was a very spiritual and rich man. His name was Joseph Kibwetere.
According to one witness who does not want to be named, Kibwetere came driving two nuns in a white pick-up truck and dished out money to the cult leaders. Since the Nyabukoto cult was led by village women who were financially wanting, the scheming Mwerinde saw the rich Kibwetere as a saviour.
About a year later, Mwerinde traced Kibwetere to Mbarara and told him the Virgin Mary had appeared to her and instructed her to tell him to house, feed and promote their faith. Being a God-fearing man, Kibwetere welcomed Credonia and her people into his huge farm house near Rwashameire, thus marking the disintegration of the Nyabukoto cult.
At Kibwetere’s home, with enough food and many cattle to slaughter from the farm, the followers grew in number.
Kibwetere’s wife Thereza and their children protested, but Mwerinde, with instructions from her “visions”, took the upper hand. However, when Kibwetere’s son spotted him having sex with Mwerinde, Thereza described the woman as devilish and drove them out.
Mwerinde took Kibwetere and their followers to her father’s land in Kanungu from where they registered their cult as an NGO called the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.
It was also said that Mwerinde’s father, the late Paul Kashaka, a former catechist, had also got a vision from God, who instructed him to deliver the world from sin. His daughter Mwerinde seems to have inherited this vision.
As the cult grew, many people, including renegade priests from the Catholic Church, joined and formed its top leadership. Other top leaders apart from Kibwetere and Mwerinde were the now elderly priest Fr. Ikaze, Fr. Kataribabo and Fr. Kasapurari. Left with no followers, the founder members of the Nyabukoto cult went back to their church and were forgiven.
This new movement, with its world headquarters in Kanungu, was different from the previous ones. It preached doom come the year 2000. The members were required to sell everything they owned and give the money to their leaders. They were forbidden from talking and they developed a unique sign language. They were forbidden from owning anything and getting treatment from hospitals.
Wives were separated from their husbands. They lived a life of prayer and hard labour. They were told that only those who would be at a certain yet-to-be-disclosed spot in their compound would not perish when the world ended.
They would start a new sinless pure generation, they were told. The year 2000 came. The world did not end.
Some members who had sold all their earthly belongings and given money to their leaders suspected foul play, because they did not have where to go in case the world did not end.
In February 2000, Mwerinde and other top leaders traced all those who had deserted the cult and bribed them back. They were encouraged to come back with their spouses and children. The following month, invitation cards were given out to many people, including politicians, to come for a grand party on March 18, 2000, in Kanungu.
On March 17, a day before the party, about 600 followers gathered in their Kanungu church for prayers. Everybody including passersby and neighbours, were invited. Mid-way through the prayers, the church, whose windows had been nailed shut, exploded into flames. There were no survivors. One of the first men to reach the scene said the church’s door was bolted from the outside. Who bolted the door?
The Police, which also lost some officers in the inferno, changed their investigations from mass suicide to mass murder when decomposed human bodies were found in a pit in the cult’s compound. More shocking was the discovery of more than 150 bodies in the bedroom and compound of Kataribabo in Lugazi.
The world was stunned when more bodies were found in mass graves in Buganda and western Uganda at sites where the cult had its branches. The last 55 bodies were exhumed in Buziga, a suburb of Kampala city.
The Police issued arrest warrants for the cult’s top leaders. Six years later, nobody has been arrested and no survivors can be traced.
Only Ikare survived the fire, for he had rejoined the Catholic Church.