On March 17, 2000, the world woke up to horrifying news of the death of over 500 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of Ten Commandments of God church in Kanungu village, Kanungu district in southwestern Uganda.
Led by a self-styled high priestess Credonia (pronounced “Keredonia” in the local Rukiga language) Mwerinde and renegade Catholic clerics, the church thrived on doomsday predictions, and in the 12 years of its existence, close to 1,000 followers had died in mysterious circumstances.
Then came the events of March 16, 2000.
In the events leading up to that fateful night, Keredonia had told her followers that the world was going to end on December 31, 1999. When it did not happen, the cult leaders decided to end it their way.
On March 16, 2000 cult members and their families were herded into a church hall named the Ark, in reference to biblical Noah’s ark, all doors and windows were boarded up and nailed shut, and it was set ablaze.
The dead, men, women and children, were buried in mass graves around Kanungu, not far away from the church, and in compounds of properties associated with the cult in Kampala.
Many of Keredonia’s followers and even some of the renegade Catholic clerics believed she had spiritual powers following her claims to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary who directed her to spread the message of strict adherence to the 10 Commandments to avoid apocalyptic damnation.
That was the basic teaching of her brand of Christianity.
The World Is Ending Tomorrow
When the full story started unravelling, it dawned on the country that The Movement for the Restoration of Ten Commandments of God had all the tell signs of a cult.
This year marks 18 years since the mass murder at the Kanungu church inferno, and to commemorate the dark chapter in Uganda’s history, a three-hour long feature film titled The World Is Ending Tomorrow produced by Ugandan filmmaker Bart Kakooza, premiered at the Victoria Hall of the Kampala Serena Hotel on March 18.
The film is shot in Rukiga, with English subtitles and is a true dramatisation of real events and activities that characterised the doomsday cult.
The film opens with a distressed young man in Kampala watching a news report on TV about a fire in a “church” outside Kampala. He is distressed because his cousin (Deus) had joined this “church.”
He makes a call to his brother back in the village, 400 kilometres away, to find out about Deus’ fate. He is told that Deus had managed to escape a few minutes before the church went up in flames and had arrived home critically ill.
The movie is told in the form of a flashback in which Deus narrates the story, chronicling the events and activities of the cult.
The story revolves around the life of Keredonia and how she manipulates religious leaders and what were considered well-grounded Christians to believe that she was an embodiment of the Virgin Mary’s message, despite her doomsday predictions.
Keredonia recruits three Catholic priests; Fr Dominic Kataribabo, Fr Joseph Kasapurari and Fr Paul Ikazire, and a devout lay Catholic Church elder Joseph Kibwetere to join her movement.
This core group recruits close to 1,000 followers whom Keredonia orders to sell their properties and bring the money to the cult leaders and prepare to go to heaven. Her love for money is evident, as she counts the cash with glee, and banks the money in her personal foundation account.
As it turned out, the world did not end, and Keredonia, now stuck with disillusioned and impoverished followers hatched a plan to get rid of them.
They were burnt alive. The cult leaders; Keredonia, Kibwetere, Fr Kasapurari and Fr Kataribabo to date remain unaccounted for. Father Ikazire had abandoned the cult earlier and was readmitted into the Catholic Church.
Keredonia is played by Scovia Tumuhimbise and the other key actors are Elisha Rukanga as Kibwetere and Jude Agaba as Fr Dominic.
Viewers learnt that Keredonia started off as a local brew seller who transformed into a prophetess following the alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary, then comes the brainwashing of her followers, murders, the Catholic Church’s attempts to intervene and then the story reaches a climax with the fire that killed hundreds of her followers.
The film depicts the vulnerability of some Christians who are easily manipulated by skewed dogma, fear of the unknown and greed, in pursuit of salvation, leading to not only economic and social bankruptcy for those who escape death, but the deaths of many.
The producer Kakooza told The EastAfrican: “Doomsday cults thrive on the horrors that may befall the world if people of faith do not follow God’s teachings. This particular movement believed the world would end at the turn of the 20th century, when Jesus was expected to come back and take his followers to heaven.”
In his book, The Kanungu Tragedy 17th March 2000 and Details of Related Discoveries: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, (Kasubi: Marianum Press Ltd, 2005), Fr Narcisio Bagumisiriza writes that Joseph Kibwetere took advantage of the HIV/Aids scourge to lure unsuspecting victims to their deaths.
“He (Joseph Kibwetere) took advantage of HIV/Aids that was a big problem in Uganda to justify his argument that it was a punishment from God to sinners as the world came to an end,” Fr Bagumisiriza, writes.
“During my research, I found out that some journals published wrong information insinuating that the Kanungu incident was mass suicide. The dead were set ablaze by Kibwetere. He had promised his flock that the world would end on December 31, 1999,” he adds. And it did not.
Kakooza said he was inspired to make the film by four factors. “The first is that I am a Catholic and my mother is a devout Catholic, and she belongs to the Catholic Movement Legion of Mary dedicated to the Virgin Mary. If you watch the film you will actually notice that Keredonia targeted people who belonged to this movement and Kibwetere was one of them.”
“The cult recruiters actually went to our village in Rugazi parish, Bunyaruguru sub county, Rubirizi district in western Uganda and attempted to recruit people, including my mother. They even performed their rituals on my mother. She was saved by my brother who lives in the village who came to her rescue before they converted her,” he added.
“The second reason is that Dominic, one of the cult leaders, was one of my teachers at Kitabi Seminary in Bushenyi district. Dominic also comes from Rugazi parish and I’ve known him since my childhood. He was an exemplary priest and a kind of role model for young people,” Kakooza said.
“The third reason is that when the inferno happened, I was one of the first reporters on the scene. I was freelancing then, so I supplied footage for the stories that ran on major international channels such as the BBC.”
“And the fourth reason is that as a documentary film producer, I wanted to tell this story in this form since this was the only doomsday cult whose story had not been turned into a film,” Kakooza said.
Kakooza used the flashback style to get a first hand voice of a surviving cult member to tell the story. “Deus is a survivor of the inferno who sneaked away a few minutes before the church went up in flames.”
He wrote the script in bits and pieces during long flights.
“I wrote almost three quarters of this script on flights because that is when I had the time. My research is based almost 90 per cent on facts from former cult members of people close to them. For example, the true story about Kibwetere was sourced from his daughter, who is a trader in Kampala.”
“The principal sources of my research were Fr Paul Ikazire and the security man, Budonoi. I interviewed the late Fr Ikazire three days after the inferno. He was a member of the cult but later rejoined the Catholic Church. He died about three years ago of natural causes. Even during the interview he still believed that Keredonia had spiritual powers,” Kakooza said.
“I interviewed Budonoi three years after the killings. He left before the fire started but when I asked him why, he was cagey about disclosing the truth. He also believes that Keredonia had spiritual powers and that she was in constant communication with the Virgin Mary,” Kakooza said.
It took Kakooza four years to make film. “I wrote the script for one year starting in 2012 and shot the film for another one year. It took me another year to edit. And I did the audio engineering for another one year.”
The film was shot on location in Kabale, Rubirizi and Kampala districts. The sound and lighting is of high quality compared with other locally produced films.
Kakooza says that he embellished some parts of the scrip using his imagination and knowledge of the real events.
One such instance is a scene of a traditional witchdoctor, whom Keredonia is consulting for remedies of conceiving a child in the shrine. Another creation is Keredonia’s lover called Festo, whom she throws out of her life for not accepting her claims that she had seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
“As a filmmaker you have to have an element of cohesiveness so that your story is authentic since it is based on true events,” said Kakooza.
Kakooza’s biggest challenges in the making of the film was raising funds to finance the project and the fact that he had to rely on nonprofessional actors.
“I used raw talent which was difficult because I had to train them on basics of acting such as not looking straight into the camera and general body language in front of the camera. This is why it took me a long time to produce and finally release the film,” he said.
He has plans to screen and distribute the film in Uganda and around the world to educate people on cults and how they pass of for religious sects.
The film is currently being shown in Kabale district in western Uganda where it was shot in appreciation to the community. Kakooza marketed the film at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival as one way of looking for international film distributors.
“The sad thing is that no one cares about culture in Uganda. There is no serious government interest or clear policy to support the film industry in Uganda. The film industry is dead. Most of the films are not scripted and they have poor sound,” Kakooza lamented.