"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 April 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.
It's the Economy, Stupid!



Like most important ideas, the end of the world has a long history. What comes as a shock is just how well it's doing at the moment. While nobody in their right mind believes all the hype, the gut feeling is that there's some kind of a brave, new, global economy out there. We've all seen the signs, decked out in those easy-paradox images that work equally well for a globalization cover story and a Cisco commercial: traditional Islamic khadoors over designer jeans, Bedouins with cell phones, Bushmen conked by Coke bottles falling out of planes like manna from heaven.


But then, we've all seen signs in Uganda, too. Charred bodies, hacked bodies, strangled bodies, suffocated bodies. Buried bodies being excavated on a hill overlooking a school in Rugazi, where children gather to watch. On the news, they interrupt the empowered, soft-rock chime of corporate mergers like a nauseating blast of static (that's why they put this stuff on the news). While the shock makes for good dynamics, you have to listen carefully to understand that this isn't random noise. Because the recent events in Uganda are evidence of another global economy, still in full swing and closer to that shiny, new-looking one than we might think.


The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God preached a strict regime of Biblical law and self-denial, an antidote to the chaotic and promiscuous society around them. The group also preached that the world would end on December 31, 1999. It now appears that when it didn't, the Movement's leaders, headed by Credonia "The Programmer" Mwerinde, began killing their followers, reaching a total of at 924 people. Jim Jones, the runner-up, doesn't really come close: most of his followers killed themselves. The idea of ending the world looks pretty sick on a balance sheet: the numbers (0 correct predictions in 2000+ years; thousands, hundreds of thousands, of deaths) just don't add up. Yet there is an order here.



Make no mistake; it's still not entirely clear what happened. We do not know when the killings first started, we are not precisely sure who did them, we do not really know why. But let's take our ignorance itself as our first piece of data: compare how, after Heaven's Gate, police and reporters delivered us practically everything but Do's baby photos within a week. Body counts are easier to report than human motivations, and we've got so much to distract us — like a custody battle that delivers everything we loved about the Cold War in Nerf human-interest terms. So the long delays in discovering the bodies, the very reasons that exhumation of the corpses has been put on hold (a police force so strapped for personnel that prisoners were being used to excavate bare-handed, a single pathologist struggling with hundreds of bodies) remind us that not all apocalypses are created equal. These tiny towns in Southwest Uganda are different from Jones' agricultural colony in Guyana (among the most closely-watched American expatriates in U.S. history) or the big house in Rancho Santa Fe. Every apocalypse is negotiated under different terms — this one under Uganda's feeble infrastructures, minimal agricultural economy, and very distinctive history. A history intertwined with O.G. globalization: colonialism and cultural imperialism.

So here are some clues, to make this story even more complicated, and maybe in the end help make it make sense:


1) How did the end of the world arrive in Africa? In Uganda, as in many other parts of the world, the Apocalypse started off as a physical object, another imported commodity. At the end of the 19th century, as part of a competition with both the kings of Buganda and the Islamic apocalyptic Mahdist ("Messianic") empire, the British pushed Christianity and literacy, embodied in printed Bibles. These strange items carried models of the beginning of the world (the Old Testament, beginning with Genesis) and its end (the New, concluding with the Apocalypse of John) locked up in their pages. Like self-extracting files, they have instructions for how to read them (as the Good Book concludes, "I, Jesus, have sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches...I, John, give this warning to everyone who is listening to the words of prophecy in this book. If anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book...") but they're unpredictable: it all depends on the operating system you open them in.



2) In Canada, in the first decades of this century, Inuit read these same weird books and did some of the same weird things. Bibles were helpfully translated and written down in the Peck alphabet, a writing system devised by a missionary for the purpose of making the Good Book available in Eskimo, and handed out like candy bars. In the areas not under tight church control, the Inuit seem to have found the same good parts as our Ugandans: a series of violent messianic outbreaks occurred, wherein a marginal member of the community would assume prophetic powers. They would instruct people to kill their dogs (the Inuit equivalent of taking a 12-gauge to your engine block, basement furnace and PC) and wait for the end to come; they'd instruct people to kill other people if they disputed the prophet's vision. The events worked like a giant initiation ritual for Inuit society itself: the prophets were constrained by classic Shamanic patterns (not unlike the big J himself), the violence was limited by the shape of the small Inuit communities and, praise the lord, the Mounties. The Inuit ended as law-abiding Christians; just a few ended up dead.


3) But the Bible's operating instructions for the end of the world don't go into effect by themselves. People read them and actively carry them out, for specific needs, under specific circumstances. And this may provide the answers to why Uganda's troubles turned out the way they did. For centuries, the Buganda kingdom that was to become southern Uganda dealt with problems of authority in a kind of one-upmanship of symbolic violence. There's an often-told story of how one of these kings beat a group of English explorers at their own game: when the British demonstrated the power of their rifles by killing four cows in front of his face, he simply sent one of his men into the courtyard to shoot one of his subjects. Top that. When the British, departing, carved up a disparate set of traditional societies into the modern nation-state of Uganda, instruments of modern, industrialized violence were in place. The army (as Mayor Daley used to say of his beloved Chicago cops) wasn't there to create disorder, it was there to preserve disorder. While politically-induced ethnic differences have been the order of the day since then (the Sudanese Idi Amin relied on troops from the north, not Bantu-speaking Buganda, to kill his people), the structures of violence seem to have been handed down.



Thus Credonia Mwerinde's vision — one whose disciplines of self-denial aren't so far from those of modern monks, nuns and athletes. Her Movement's denial was equally ritualized, but massive enough to account for the problems of Ugandan society. In the face of a global economy of glut and a local economy of scarcity, its economy of retribution made sense. The Movement's apocalypse, carried out on the bodies of its followers, now seems as mystically self-justifying as Amazon's stock prices (whose apocalypse may or may not be yet to come).

courtesy of Hypatia Sanders
picturesTerry Colon

Hypatia Sanders