Woodbridge, UK; Rochester, New York: James Currey
Kampala, Uganda: Fountain Publishers
xiii, 240pp.: ill., maps; 25cm.
This web site contains audio-visual materials related to my book Ghosts of Kanungu. The material can be viewed either by clicking on the images themselves, or by following the links below.
On 17th March 2000, several hundred members of a charismatic Christian sect, the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTC), burnt to death in the group’s headquarters in the Southwest Ugandan village of Kanungu.
The following day, the Inspector General of the Uganda Police, John Kisembo, led a delegation of senior officers to the scene. A member of Kisembo’s Office of Public Relations videotaped the visit, and extracts of the recording can be seen here.
During this initial visit, Kisembo’s team quickly ascertained that the MRTC had been led by a charismatic Marian seer, called Ceredonia Mwerinde who, from 1988 onwards, had been receiving visions of the Virgin Mary at the nearby Nyabugoto Caves. In addition, the police team discovered that the MRTC had been millenarian in outlook. In particular, the officers found numerous copies of the sect’s own publication, which was rather ominous entitled A Timely Message from Heaven: The End of the Present Times, scattered throughout the compound. Copies of this publication can be viewed here.
The nature of this text, combined with other features of the Kanungu scene, suggested to the policemen that the fire must have been a mass suicide. Certainly, this was the interpretation that was initially reported in the world’s press.
However, the fire itself was not the end of the story, as in the weeks that followed, police teams found a number of other mass graves at other compounds belonging to the sect.On Friday 24th March, a team working at an MRTC compound in the village of Buhunga (in Rukungi District), found two pits containing a total of 153 bodies.
Two days later, excavations at the former home of one of the sect’s leaders, Fr. Dominic Kataribaabo, in Rugazi (in neighbouring Bushenyi District) led to the discovery of another 155 corpses. On 30th March, another search, in Rushojwa (also in Bushenyi) unearthed another 81 bodies and in April, a team working at an MRTC property in Kampala (Makindye Division), found another 55 bodies. Details of (most) of these excavations were again recorded by the Police Public Relations Office.
The discovery of these additional graves cast doubt on the initial conclusion that the fire itself had been an instance of mass suicide, and suggested instead that the MRTC may have engaged in some form of mass murder.
So was this mass suicide, or mass murder?
The question of whether Kanungu is best understood as mass suicide or multiple murder is more than just an intriguing detective story: it goes to the heart of how the event should be perceived and understood in both religious and social terms.
Based on eight years of ethnographic and historical research, my book Ghosts of Kanungu provides a comprehensive and scholarly account of the MRTC and of the events leading up to the inferno. It draws on extensive interviews with surviving protagonists of the Kanungu drama, with the friends and relatives of those who died, and with various other actors, and looks at a range of archival materials, to examine a range of key questions.
In particular, the book explores how and why the MRTC emerged in the first place? What role did gatherings at the Nyabugoto Caves play in the sect’s genesis? Why did so many – mostly women – leave the mainstream Catholic church in order to join the MRTC? and how did the group come to have such a profound impact on these people’s lives, during the middle years of the 1990s, in particular?
To view photographs of some of the sect’s members, click here.
The book also examines all of the evidence related to the fire itself, including that collected by the Uganda Police at the time, and that I collected myself during my own investigations of the Kanungu site (in 2001). Drawing on the expert testimonies of a range of forensic investigators – including those of a leading forensic anthropologist, three criminal pathologists, a homicide detective, and a fire investigator – this evidence is used to develop a complex answer to the question of just what did, then, happen at Kanungu?
Throughout, the book argues that none of these processes or events can be understood without reference to a broader social history of South-western Uganda during the 20th Century, one in which anti-colonial movements, Catholic White Fathers missionaries, colonial relocation schemes, the breakdown of the Ugandan state, post-war reconstruction, the onset of HIV/AIDS, and the transformation of the regional Nyabingi fertility cult into a Marian church with worldwide connections, all played their part.
To look inside the book, click here.
Click here to view the main publication of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God' (MRTC).