THE hall was well lit, decorated and air-conditioned. The show was hosted by the usual jolly Betty Tibaleka. But this did not stop it from turning into a weeping room.
In fact, as the audience sat, their palms covered their mouths and tears rolled down their cheeks.
Two daughters of the infamous Joseph Kibwetere were hosted on the programme, â€˜Untold Storyâ€™ to narrate their tale. They came, not because they wanted to; but because the situation forced them to. The pre-recorded programme is broadcast on UBC TV from 3:00pm to 4:00pm every Sunday.
Ungainly and teary, 41-year-old Mary Ahimbisibwe and Leila Birungi, 39, walked into Sasha Hall of Grand Imperial Hotel, Kampala, at 4:20pm on Sunday, to thunderous applause. When they began pouring out their hearts, the audience was gripped by emotion.
â€œWe are abused. Wherever we go, we are discriminated. Even in churches, the priests who would have comforted us speak hell of us,â€ Birungi started.
â€œWe cannot associate with anyone; even our children are abused and discriminated against, yet we never participated in the wrongs our father and his group committed.â€
Joseph Kibwetere, Catholic priest Rev. Fr. Dominic Kataribaho, and self-styled prophetess Credonia Mwerinde, led a cult in which about 500 members barricaded themselves in a makeshift church in Kanungu, Kinkizi County in the then Rukungiri district of south-western Uganda.
It is nine years since the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God church went up in flames on March 17, 2000.
The victims were doused with petrol and paraffin before being set ablaze.
Days after the inferno, six more bodies were discovered in a pit at the residence of the church leaders.
Another 494 bodies were exhumed days later, under the cultâ€™s buildings in Buhinga, Rutoma, Rukungiri and Busega in Kampala.
Kibwetere is widely conceived as the devilish man who was behind the inferno, but his daughters tell different story. â€œWho was Kibwetere?â€ Tibaleka asked.
Ahimbisibwe said in Kibwetere, they always had the best father. He was loving, friendly, hardworking and a committed Catholic.
â€œHe always encouraged us to study and do well in future. He loved all people. He was a good man,â€ Ahimbisibwe narrated.
Birungi added: â€œHe taught us to pray and recite the Rosary every morning. He was a very kind person.â€
Kibwetere had sacrificed his money and time for the sake of God. In the late 1980s, he bought a three-acre land, built on it a magnificent 500-seater church - Kabumba Catholic Centre - and handed it over to the clergy.
He bought more land and built a school on it. The church and primary school still exist in Kanungu, the children said.
But Kibwetereâ€™s blissful moments with his children ended when Mwerinde penetrated his family in January 1989.
Mwerinde, they say, was a renowned prostitute in Kanungu town and a witch. The sisters suspect that she used her magic to woo Kibwetere out of the Catholic church into her cult.
â€œOne day, she took us to her home and showed us a spear and other fetishes which she said were her fatherâ€™s.
We prayed, a snake came and sat on a chair. She stopped us from beating it,â€ they narrated. â€œWe ran but Mwerinde and our father remained in the room praying. From then we realised Mwerinde wasnâ€™t holy.â€
â€œMwerinde called herself a foreseer. She told our father that the Virgin Mary had chosen her to spread the Gospel. From then, our father became ridiculous.â€
After sometime, Mwerinde camped in Kibwetereâ€™s 24-bedroom house with two other women. Dressed like Catholic nuns, the women recited the Rosary all the time.
Eventually, the congregation grew to 300; each new member came with his or her entire family.
But one shocking revelation, which all followers did not know, was that the water they always drank as â€˜holy waterâ€™ was not divine as such.
Kibwetereâ€™s daughters revealed that Mwerinde and her colleagues always cut hair, pubic hair, nails, and â€œsome private partsâ€ from each new member as in initiation ritual.
They would burn the parts and hairs, mix the ash with water and give it to the followers as holy water.
As the congregation grew, Mwerindeâ€™s ungodly character was revealed. First, she oppressed Kibwetereâ€™s wife, Theresa Kibwetere, forcing her out of her bedroom and she occupied it.
She preached that women were not supposed to sleep with men at night. Even children slept separately.
From the story the duo tell, it is evident that Kibwetere was more of a victim than a perpetrator. Indeed, just two days after his wife had been forced to sleep on the verandah, Mwerinde launched a campaign to con him of his money. Kibwetere sold the two rental houses he had in Ntungamo town and gave all the money to Mwerinde.
As she demanded for more money, Kibwetere sold more of his hard-earned property. He sold his cattle, goats, chicken and ducks. Mwerinde pocketed all the money.
When the money was finished, Kibwetere switched to selling household materials including beds, bedsheets and utensils. Later, Mwerinde claimed the Virgin Mary had revealed to her that Theresaâ€™s clothes had evil spirits, so she burnt them all.
A day later, she extended the harshness to Kibwetereâ€™s children. She said all the children were cursed and asked Kibwetere to chase them away.
Reciting Mwerindeâ€™s words, Kibwetere barked at the children: â€œYou are a curse. Leave my home and go.â€ The duo narrated that he even stopped them from going to school.
Ahimbisibwe stopped in S.4, Birungi in S.5. Their siblings did not go beyond primary. After dropping out of school, the girls got married. Birungi married an Indian and has five children.
The problem deepened so much that Kibwetereâ€™s eldest son claimed his cultural status in the family - that of the firstborn. In 1992, he chased Mwerinde and her members away from his fatherâ€™s home.
Kibwetere followed her.
They set base at a village about 50km from Rukungiri town.
But as they mobilised support from other regions, mainly Buganda, Kibwetere ran mad.
â€œHe would shout everyday. Whenever he went crazy, he would remove his clothes and walk naked,â€ his daughters said.
By this time, some women in the audience were crying.
The show went on in a solemn mood until Birungi said: â€œWe have come here to tell you that we did nothing. Even our husbands are abused. Our father and his group committed the atrocities. We didnâ€™t even get a chance to complete studies. Forgive us and regard us as fellow Ugandans.â€
At some point, Birungi and Ahimbisibweâ€™s eyes also became moist. Tibaleka remained composed. She smiled and said: â€œDonâ€™t fear. Take heart.â€
A series of Tibalekaâ€™s questions led to the core: Where is Kibwetere? Is he dead?
The two sisters said they last saw him in 1995 when the family had gathered for a burial ceremony. But even then, Kibwetere did not talk to anyone because the cult dictated so. Birungi said Kibwetere looked so weak and bony, comparable to a young boy suffering from Kwashiorkor.
They said Kibwetere succumbed to natural illness at least half a year before the inferno occurred, so he was not among those who torched themselves in the church. But they suspect Mwerinde buried him in one of her secret houses.
â€œSomeone told us he was buried at Mwerindeâ€™s home in Bunyaruguru,â€ Ahimbisibwe said. The children have since performed the last funeral rites for their father.
Constantine Karusoke, who led the Uganda Human Rights Commission inquiry into the inferno in 2000 also concurred with the two sisters. â€œThere is no reason to blame Kibwetere or his children because the actual perpetrator was Mwerinde,â€ he stated.
Before joining the cult, Kibwetere had worked as a primary school teacher.
He also served as assistant advisor of schools, and then chairman of the district service commission of the then Ankole Kingdom.
He also worked in Uganda Land Commission during the Obote II regime. He was a rich man who owned property and business in several parts of the country. He left behind eight children, but one has since passed on.
Of the two sisters, Birungi seemed to be more traumatised. Although she is younger than Ahimbisibwe, I had mistaken her to be Kibwetereâ€™s eldest child. She spoke slowly, wore a long grayish dress that was dotted with creamy flower-like decorations.
A black and not so classy veil covered her hair, as she sat with her barely one-month-old baby, who cried almost throughout the show.
Ahimbisibwe, on the other hand, looked a bit stylish. Clad in a short-sleeved coat and a matching knee-length skirt, she sat cross-legged.
The open high-heel shoes she wore exposed her red-painted toes. She was a bit relaxed; although her eyes remained moist most of the time.
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