Cults, some deadly, flourish in Africa

Some governments fear groups will challenge their authority

MSNBC News, March 28, 2000
By Stefan Lovgren

NAIROBI, Kenya, March 27 - As Mary Snaida-Akatsa, known as "Mommy" to her followers, enters the Jerusalem Church of Christ in Nairobi's Kawangwara slums, the worshippers fall to the floor in fear. When the self-proclaimed prophetess accuses a member of being a witch, a vision she says she's received from God, the disciples stomp their feet, throw rocks and chase the unlucky follower out of the church with yells of "Ashindwe! Ashindwe!" - Swahili for "Be defeated!"

AGNES MASITSA says such scenes were common during the 10 years that she attended Jerusalem Church of Christ along with thousands of other worshippers. The 30-year-old woman remembers how the charismatic Snaida-Akatsa often said the end of the world was near, and how the cult leader brought a "special visitor" to one Sunday service. "This is Jesus," the preacher told her believers, patting the shoulder of an Indian Sikh man. "You must repent."

Like the other churchgoers, Agnes was afraid to challenge Snaida-Akatsa. She cried and prayed. But later, she questioned the claim. "Why would Jesus come only to Kawangwara?" She read her Bible and concluded that "Mommy" might not be who she said she was. Agnes quietly left the church. Today, she says of her former preacher: "She is a cheat."

Growing Flock

Agnes may have left the Jerusalem Church of Christ, but thousands of others have joined such cults across East Africa. According to the Institute for the Study of American Religion, which researches cults and sects, more than 5,000 indigenous churches have arisen in Africa over the last hundred years.

Some experts say churches like the Jerusalem Church of Christ attract impoverished people desperate for hope.

In Rwanda, the number of churches has mushroomed from eight to more than 300 in less than six years.

In Kenya, there may be 2,000 religious groups. Most of those on the fringe may be peaceful. But, as proven by the recent mass carnage in Uganda, some can be very dangerous. Hundreds of members of the small sect The Movement of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, including 78 children, died in a fire in a church in Kanungu, 220 miles southwest of the capital, Kampala. Police initially treated the Kanungu fire as a mass suicide, but now say it looks more like the culmination of a systematic policy of killing cult members.

Two cult leaders, Joseph Kibwetere, a defrocked Catholic priest, and Cledonia Mwerinde, a former prostitute, may have fled before the fire as the cult grew increasingly divided after the world did not end Dec. 31, as church leaders had predicted. Some cult members may have wanted back their belongings, which they had surrendered upon joining the church.

Monitoring Sects' Activities

Investigators later found a mass grave containing 153 bodies in a cult-owned house 35 miles from Kanungu. The victims had been murdered two weeks earlier. One local politician, Jim Muhwezi, says, "We think wherever there was a sect branch, there could be more graves."

The Uganda tragedy has focused attention on other cults in East Africa. "What happened in Uganda should be a lesson to developing countries that such cults and sects should be monitored very, very closely by governments so that this disaster doesn't repeat itself elsewhere on the continent," says Gilbert Ogutu, professor of religious studies at the University of Nairobi.

Most sects are based in part on Christianity. The Ugandan cult, for example, drew heavily from the Catholic Church; the Jerusalem church adheres to Protestant teachings. But many cults have apocalyptic or revolutionary leanings, and most deviate from traditional Christian conduct by, for example, adopting animal sacrifices or creating personality cults.

Mary Snaida-Akatsa developed her huge following by telling a story about how her mother died while giving birth to Mary, and how her father then threw her into the bushes, where she died for seven days before coming back to life, revived by God. She has preached since the age of 8.

Like many other cult leaders, Snaida-Akatsa has become rich from her church. Neighbors say she owns several cars. She sells fruits and vegetables, which she claims are blessed, from her many farms in rural Kenya to followers after each service.

The churchgoers, most of whom are poor, tithe, but there are few signs that the money goes into improving the church. The church building in Kawangwara is an open-air structure, hidden behind a giant wall and a big steel gate.

Instead, Snaida-Akatsa promises that the church will pay for funeral arrangements for its followers, something that many poor Kenyans worry they cannot afford.

Some observers believe poor conditions in East Africa, from bad government to unemployment, are pushing people to religious fringe groups where they may find hope. AIDS, rampant throughout East Africa, may breed a fatalism that makes it easier for apocalyptic notions to take root.

"These groups thrive because of poverty," says Charles Onyango-Obbo, editor of The Monitor, Uganda's leading independent newspaper, who has followed the cults closely. "People have no support, they live in a no-man's zone and they're susceptible to anyone who is able to tap into their insecurity."

Even Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni agrees the proliferation of religious cults is a sign of desperation. "When people have no answers, they start looking for answers in the supernatural," he said at a news conference where he announced that his government would set up a commission to investigate some of Uganda's fringe groups. Other experts say the proliferation of religious cults may stem from a widespread rejection of mainstream churches, which are often perceived as "Western."

Feeling 'Shut Out'

Ogutu, the university professor, sees the cults as part of a protest movement, where many Africans may feel alienated from Christian teachings over which they have no control, and which don't incorporate African traditions. "There's a feeling of being shut out" in the mainstream church, says Ogutu. Agnes Masitsa, who attended a Catholic Church before she moved to Nairobi in 1988, is more blunt about her former church. "It's dull," she says.

One Kenyan movement, called Thaai, preaches a "back to Africa" idea that aims to keep "white" ideas out of Africa. "Christianity has never helped us or our countrymen," says Maina Karanja, a 77-year-old doctor. "All that it has done is taken our culture backwards."

Followers of Thaai, which originated in the Mau-Mau uprising against the British colonialists, believe the Kikuyu, the tribe from which all members hail, were the first people on Earth. They dress in black, toga-like clothes, wear dreadlocks and live in members-only villages.

The governments of Kenya, Uganda and the other East African countries fear that religious sects and cults will ultimately challenge their authority, especially since some have already taken on revolutionary overtones.

In the 1980s, one group, the Holy Spirit Movement, proclaimed war against the Ugandan government. Its leader, Alice Lakwana, told her followers to protect themselves against bullets by smearing cooking oil on their skin, and declared that stones or bottles thrown at government troops would turn into hand grenades. Thousands of her followers were mowed down by soldiers as they marched on the capital. When Lakwana fled to Kenya, Joseph Kony, another spiritual leader who sometimes wears women's clothing and claims to speak directly to God, took over, renaming the group the Lord's Resistance Army. The group has abducted more than 10,000 children in an ongoing war with the government.

In Nairobi, Agnes Masitsa says that many of the people whom "Mommy" publicly cursed in the Jerusalem Church of Christ later died under mysterious circumstances.

While Snaida-Akatsa still commands great respect among her followers, some observers say that her assertion that Jesus had arrived hurt her credibility. The danger now is that cult leaders like her may look for other, perhaps more spectacular stunts to gain notoriety.

Kibwetere and Mwerinde, the leaders of the doomed Ugandan cult, may have resorted to killing their own members after an increasing number of followers questioned their apocalyptic visions.

"People like Mary will lose steam," says Ogutu, the professor. "When followers detect that something is wrong, and the leaders don't know what to do, that's when [the leaders] become dangerous and they can decide to die with their followers."

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