Kanungu village in the green hills of southwestern Uganda was unheard-of before the night of March 17, 2000, when some 530 followers were burnt to death in a church, ‘as a shortcut to heaven’.
Inside the church of the doomsday cult – Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God – were bodies of the adherents and their children after the killing that has come to be known as the Kanungu massacre.
The church’s leaders – Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere – had before the massacre been accused of being behind several mysterious disappearances of both the cult’s followers and their livestock.
After the killings, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, in a periodical report, stated that the initial suspicion was that the massacre was mass suicide by the adherents who were convinced about going to heaven through fire, “but later it was established that it was planned and executed by the cult leadership. The victims of the inferno included children too young to make independent decisions”.
Closer home, just a few years after serial killer Phillip Onyancha confessed that he had killed 17 women and targeted to kill 83 more to hit the 100 target, a city lawyer, Mr Paul Magu, killed his wife and three children before throwing himself in front of a bus heading to Nairobi from Garissa to make his death look like an accident.
The murders of Ms Lydia Magu and her three children – Allen, Ryan and Tiffany – shocked Kenyans as the deranged killer-father managed to stay a step ahead of the police, relatives and neighbours to execute the evil plan.
Although the reason may never be known, detectives – searching for details of what may have led the otherwise bright lawyer to commit the heinous act — said he may have been pushed by a religious cult.
Several other killings have been blamed on religion. Just two days ago, former lawyer-cum-news anchor Esther Arunga confessed before a court in Australia that she had initially lied to police about the circumstances under which her son died on June 18, 2014.
Ms Arunga told the court she lied in order to protect her husband Quincy Timberlake – who is accused of killing the boy – from punishment.
Ms Arunga said on that fateful day, her husband was hitting their son in the stomach, then threw him against the wall, adding that the accused was exorcising demons he believed dwelled in the little boy’s stomach.
“I was terrified of being alone and felt terrible because my husband was sick as well,” Ms Arunga, who is set to be sentenced Thursday, told the court.
Killing in the name of religion is neither new nor exclusive to East Africa.
In 1978, South America’s Jonestown Guyana mass murder and suicide claimed 913 lives.
Sociologists, theologists and religious leaders blame the killings on extreme doctrinal brainwashing.
“Most doctrinal cults target people who are vulnerable to their beliefs. Their prey is usually the poor, the oppressed, the spiritually weak and people who cannot fit in a certain class that they would want to,” Rev Dr Timothy Njoya, a retired minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa, told the Nation.
He said cult leaders manipulate and study their targets well before attacking them at their weakest point, mostly to satisfy their own selfish interests.
“Some people use religion as a reification tool, in order to create a non-existent world so that they can do things the way they want and create a world they want. This is not necessarily the reality and may not necessarily solve their problems,” Dr Njoya said,
Psychiatrist Lincoln Khasakhala says it is difficult to know exactly what may lead someone to commit homicide or suicide in the name of religion.
“It could be social or psychological factors. We have cases where some people say they were led by a commanding voice to kill. In some cases, schizophrenia plays a role,” Dr Khasakala said.