In the new year of 2005, while sitting down to breakfast at the Sheraton gardens in Kampala, I met John Prendergast, former advisor on African affairs for the Clinton administration and co-founder of ENOUGH. At the time, he was working for the International Crisis Group, and was on his way up to Gulu to try to broker a peace agreement between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army, a cultic fighting group who had been terrorizing the north of Uganda for almost 20 years. Apart from an occasional obscure article hidden amongst the more typical ostentatious reports of corruption, scandal and crime which riddled the average Ugandan newspaper, there was almost no information on the war leaked to the general populace. This was the first time I heard the circumstances surrounding the crisis in the north of the country in shocking detail.
Initially a tribal resistance formed by army generals and former soldiers to combat government brutality against the Acholi northerners, the rebellion was quelled and the remnants later hijacked by Joseph Kony. As per textbook cult leader, he claimed a god-like status, mixing Catholicism and witchcraft with other rituals to keep his subordinates in fear of his ascribed “powers” which reportedly include omniscience and shape-shifting.
Claiming to live by the Ten Commandments, the LRA break all ten by killing, pillaging, burning homes and kidnapping children to be inducted into the group as soldiers or sex slaves. Estimates reveal that the LRA has abducted more than 25,000 children to help it kill over 100,000 people and internally displace more than 1.5 million.
Children kidnapped by the rebel factions are made to kill, and sometimes even eat, their own families. The group uses this unbelievably cruel method to turn children into little killing machines. Once you have killed your own family, you can kill anybody. I was exposed to different and less lethal violence but I knew what it was like to be robbed of one’s childhood, taken from your family and raised to be a little soldier, prepared to give your life and death for a cause that is not your own.
It disturbed me that all this was going on nearby, yet I knew almost nothing about it, sheltered in the relative comfort and safety of Kampala. Just hours away, children were flocking into Gulu town by the thousands to sleep in the streets for safety as pockets of LRA militia swept through outlying villages, kidnapping children into their brand of terror and brutality disguised as a holy war.
Ignorance may have been an excuse, but I was determined not to be kept in the dark a moment longer. Enlisting the help of my friend Kirsten, we filled a jeep with shoes, blankets, sleeping mats and clothes donated by local businesses and drove north. It was little wonder few people made the difficult trip. The road was riddled with potholes the size of small craters, allowed to deteriorate as a physical deterrent against the curious. Even in our large 4×4, the constant weaving through and around the bumps and dips doubled what should have been a four hour trip into eight. It was mid-afternoon by the time we reached the main road passing through Gulu. Exhausted, covered in a fine layer of dust and sweat beneath a punishing sun, we pulled up next to the first roadside “cafe” we saw hoping to find some manner of sustenance.
The cafe was a small wooden platform extending from a dark, single-roomed cement structure. A colourful plastic tarp held up by rough wooden sticks protected customers from direct sunlight. Consequently, the air beneath was stifling as a warm oven. The proprietor of this roadside establishment shuffled out, blinking in apparent astonishment as we climbed onto his platform, red-faced and dripping like fresh market lobsters. Were we lost, he wanted to know? What were two muzungu women doing there without a convoy? Which NGO were we with?
On discovering we were not lost, but neither did we know where we were going, had come on a whim and were not with any NGO, he eagerly ushered us into some plastic chairs and pushed a couple menus into our hands. We asked for African tea and were served diluted milk flavoured with ginger, suspiciously lacking any real tea. He needn’t have bothered with the menu since nothing written on the laminated paper was available. They hadn’t had meat in years and even potatoes were rare as no one tilled their land for fear of the rebels. Eventually we settled for his suggestion of beans and posho, the African staple, which sat heavy as cement in our stomachs.
He joined us at the table, still brimming with curiosity over our random arrival into Gulu and unreservedly pleased to entertain paying customers, even if they were slightly batty. We indicated towards the jeep full of donated items and asked whether he might point us in the direction of a place where they would be most appreciated.
‘Eh, it happens that my cousin runs a small charity not far from here. They have a fenced compound where the night commuter children gather to sleep in safety. The children are fed, cared for and given art therapy. Emmanuel is coming by later.’ He told us. ‘If you return for dinner, I shall introduce you.’
His cousin’s project sounded interesting and as we were keen to assist a local endeavour over the well-established NGOs with international funding, we agreed to return that evening.
After a somewhat misguided tour through the crumbling, half-constructed town, Kirsten and I returned to the cafe for a second helping of beans that evening. Half way through dinner, Emmanuel Mwaka Lutukamoi showed up, crackling with a charismatic energy that was innately contagious. He was a faucet that could not be shut off, a fountain of knowledge on everything to do with the LRA, the history of the Acholi people, the current issues and challenges they faced.
‘Not long ago, Uganda was very different from today. In those days, Acholiland knew peace. We were strangers to poverty and hunger, we did not know fear. Our kingdom stretched across northern Uganda and southern Sudan. Our kings were powerful and just, our warriors strong and brave. We were proud to be Acholi.’
He paused briefly to wet his throat with a few sips of coke mixed with Guinness.
‘You can see how it has all gone wrong! We live in terror of the night, of our own children, of shadows. Fear and hatred fuel our empty stomachs. The recognition of our Acholi tribe has been reduced to an identity of shame and loathing.’
His uncle nodded sagely, telling us about the years he spent as a minister in the government. ‘What do I have now?’ He flung his arms wide as if trying to enfold the little café in them. ‘Well, as you can see! And I am considered to be successful. Eh, but madam, we are suffering.’
Suffering appeared to be a consistent theme running throughout Emmanuel’s life. He lost most of his family to two ravaging enemies: AIDs and the LRA. Kidnapped by the rebels at 15 years old, he escaped at the earliest opportunity and trekked his way home half-naked on bleeding, swollen feet, surviving on roots pulled up from the earth. Traumatized and without hope, Emmanuel attempted suicide before deciding to turn his life around. He worked hard to put himself through school and on graduation from university, started United Youth Action for Progress, an organization working to help the children of the north. His courage and strength of will was humbling. Restless and constantly active, when he was not speaking, he was doing. Here was a man with an un-containable spirit and far-reaching vision of the way life could and should be for his people.
After dinner, Emmanuel took us to the compound which housed the few-hundred night commuter children he had taken responsibility for. The children grew up under shots and fire, without any sense of their culture and tribal bonds. Many were also severely traumatized and lacked basic morals or social identity. Emmanuel’s response to this problem was to reinstitute Wang-O the traditional Acholi method of informal education where villagers of all ages gathered around the warmth of the fire to impart tribal culture and knowledge through stories and song. This was therapy at its most basic level, allowing the children a voice to express their deepest fears and anxieties through music, art and storytelling.
Emmanuel fought to counteract the popular belief in witchcraft and magic through education. Knowledge gave him power, and he struggled to pass this illumination on to the next generation. It was not only the children kidnapped into the Lord’s Resistance Army who believed that Joseph Kony possessed supernatural powers, but also the government soldiers fighting him. It was this belief and the people’s consequent fear, which fed his power.
The mix of superstition and tribalism, which runs deep through the heart of African culture, appears to enhance the propensity towards cultism in Africa. Zombies, evil siren-like mermaids and demons are as inevitable to African villagers as the rising sun and moon. Witchdoctors are revered and lavished with gifts and many a pastor uses witchcraft to lure their congregation and rake in financial profit. Christianity and witchcraft work as two sides of the same coin. Both continue to grow fat off the people’s fear of magic and the supernatural. For many, this belief proves deadly.
I was still inside The Family in March 2000, when the suicide of an obscure Catholic cult, Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, splashed the front headlines of international news. In a scenario resembling Jonestown, up to 470 members, including some 75 children, allegedly gathered in their church 200 kilometers south of Kampala, nailed the windows and doors shut and torched the building with themselves inside.
The cult founder was an ex-prostitute-turned-religious-fanatic after claiming to receive a vision of the Virgin Mary. Another of the principal leaders, Bishop Joseph Kibwetere, also known as ‘the Prophet’, was a failed politician who predicted the end of the world for 1999 and advised followers to sell all their worldly possessions. Extolling the evil of material possessions to their followers, the cult leaders grew rich off them. When the end of time didn’t materialize, Kibwetere moved the date to March 17, 2000, following pressure from his congregation to return their money handed over in preparation for the apocalypse.
Less than a week after the mass burning, police discovered another 153 hacked, poisoned and strangled corpses under the floor boards of an abandoned house belonging to one of the cult leaders. 59 of the bodies were children. Conjecture quickly changed from suicide to murder. Five more mass graves were uncovered and police conducting the search soon ran out of body bags as victims of the unfolding massacre reached nearly a thousand. The leaders, who, in true cults-r-us fashion, made judgment day a reality, were never found.
I remember the cult scare surrounding this tragedy, bunkered down inside our commune, expecting potential repercussions to rain down on us like nuclear fallout, we did everything possible to appear “normal” and un-cult like. Only after leaving did I realize how obvious we were to friends and associates on the outside. After my exit from the group in 2004, many of my friends told me, ‘of course we always knew you were a cult, but you were still nice individuals and we kinda felt sorry for you.’
Cult is a word which carries little meaning in Africa anyway, where the lines between tribalism and cultism seem to blur. In a continent where many tribes reside within a country, the borders carved up during colonial rule are as insignificant as nationality and identities are largely derived from tribal heredity rather than race or country. Outside of the big cities, intertribal marriages are still the exception and generally frowned upon. The most brutal genocides on the African continent have not been between two warring countries, but rather civil fighting between tribes for political dominance and resources. Religion, as throughout all history, has played a significant role in lending absolution for crimes committed on warring factions. Holy water sprinkled on soldiers by priests, or chaplains praying with the men before battle assures the troops that God is on their side.
In Africa, this service is regularly performed by both priests and witchdoctors alike. Witchcraft, as with any religion, has its own brand of cultism. The infamous confraternaties of Nigeria, for instance, epitomize the most brutal extremism, as juju or black magic is used to terrorise fellow students. Members engage in acts of violence and ritual murders which make the Columbine massacre look almost tame. There are over 30 known secret societies in Nigeria, believed to be responsible for hundreds of murders over the last 20 years.
The formation of the original fraternity founded in the 1950s, known as the ‘Pyrates’, and others such as the Buccaneers and the Dragons, were for the purpose of fighting social injustice and projecting the ideals of nationalism. By the 1980s, confraternities had spread throughout over 300 institutions across the country. Today, they are almost indistinguishable from their original counterparts. The Pyrates’ rival the ‘Black Axe’ has since become the leading campus cult, with links to powerful politicians throughout Nigeria.
Cults in Nigeria today cut across all classes, as different shades and pockets of them can be found almost everywhere. Children are made aware from a young age that their parents belong to traditional shrine worships and are members of very powerful clubs and/or cults. What is seen on the campuses is but a microcosm of the Nigerian society at large which harbours an interminable number of secret cults.
Is it the cultural inclination towards religious superstition coupled by the fairly short leap from tribalism, which continues to divide African countries long after their borders were sliced and drawn during the colonial occupation? At the very least, these components certainly appear to create a fertile and potentially lethal breeding ground for cultism in Africa.