Breaking down the Uganda martyrs!

Namugongo Shrine at Night. Picture by Stuart Tibs

Every year, the weeks leading to June 3, Christian pilgrimages from allover the world trek to Namugongo, Wakiso district, central Uganda. These Pilgrims, of all ages and social class mostly walk on foot from as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda etc. Others fly in from different parts of the world. The sole reason for their pilgrimage is to commemorate the lives of 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican young men who met their death on orders of Kabaka Mwanga II, the ruler of the kingdom of Buganda for choosing service to God over service to the Kabaka (king). These young men, the youngest of which was Kizito Omuto at 14 years of age were executed between 31 January 1885- 27 January 1887.


Kabaka Mwanga II

Earlier in 1875, Mwanga’s predecessor and father, Muteesa I had invited missionaries from Europe according to a letter published in Britain. This led to the arrival of Alexander Mackay of the Church Missionary Society from Britain and Fr. Pere Simon Lourdel (Mapeera) who led the White fathers contingent from France in addition to the Arab traders who had introduced Islam to Buganda. This therefore created a situation in Buganda, where there was a number of converts to the three faiths even among the Kabaka’s government. When he ascended the throne in 1884, Mwanga II was concerned about the influence of the new class of converts some of whom were among his chiefs. This class held a desire to break Buganda away from some of its traditional norms in favor of more religious based values. For example, the Kabaka held power of life and death where as the Christians considered killing a sin.

Events in Tanganyika, where the Germans had successfully annexed the territory sent shivers down Kabaka Mwanga II’s spine. He feared the foreigners would do the same to his kingdom as his fears were later proven true. The execution of Bishop Harrington who was Buganda bound from the east was a reaction to ward of further British invasions. This paranoia coupled with consistent persuasion from older conservative chiefs who were threatened by this new wave of younger, energetic and literate officials and pages whose actions were interpreted as despising to the Kabaka and other elders, Kabaka Mwanga II ordered their execution. Others say that the refusal and failure for the Kabaka’s subjects to be available whenever he called was the last nail in the coffin.

These young men were round up and matched to Namugongo where they were burnt alive. Others were killed in Nakivubo (Present Day Down Town Kampala) and Munyonyo. Mukajanga, Kabaka’s chief executioner and his men set the young men on slow burning fires, feet first, others were mutilated limb by limb in what must have been scenes of horror to the witnesses. They suffered slow deaths meant to give them a chance to denounce Christianity, none did. Mukajanga was feared and his loyalty to the kabaka was unquestionable, among the martyrs was Mbaga Tuzinde, son of Mukajanga himself. Others martyrs were; Achilleus Kiwanuka, Adolphus Ludigo-Mukasa, Ambrosius Kibuuka, Anatoli Kiriggwajjo, Andrew Kaggwa, Antanansio Bazzekuketta, Bruno Sserunkuuma, Charles Lwanga, Denis Ssebuggwawo Wasswa, Gonzaga Gonza, Gyavira Musoke, James Buuzaabalyaawo, John Maria Muzeeyi, Joseph Mukasa, Kizito, Lukka Baanabakintu, Matiya Mulumba, Mugagga Lubowa, Mukasa Kiriwawanvu, Nowa Mawaggali, Ponsiano Ngondwe and others


An Artistic Impression of how the Martyrs were killed

Beatified in 1929 by pope Benedict XV and canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964. The martyrs are commemorated on their feast day of June 3, which is the day of celebrations at the martyrs’ shrine in Namugongo. Daudi Okello and Jildo Irwa, beatified in 2002 although they haven’t yet been canonized were speared to death in 1918 in Paimol. Both Acholi by tribe, they were catechists in the early days of the Comboni missionaries. The church of Uganda also commemorates Bishop Janan Luwum who was killed by President Idd Amin in 1977 though his feast day is February 17.


Pope Francis Visited the Namugongo Martyr’s Shrine in 2015

The events of the martyrs formed the seeds for the foundation of Christianity in Uganda. It is the bravery of these souls that pulls Christians world over to pilgrimage to Namugongo annually. It is a modern example of undoubted faith in God. The Church Missionary Society used the story of the martyrs to garner broad support in Britain to acquire Uganda as a protectorate and later a colony. The British government offered security to the later missionaries.


Namugongo Martyr’s Shine

In the immediate aftermath, Kabaka Mwanga II planned to arrest and dump the remaining Christians together with Muslims on a crocodile infested island on lake Victoria where they would either starve to death or be eaten by crocodiles. On discovering this, the Christians and Muslims connived with Kiwewa, the Kabaka’s brother and overthrew Mwanga. Kabaka Kiwewa was made king but right refused to get circumcised according to Islamic tradition. He was overthrown and replaced by Kalema. This sparked off three way religious wars that only ended when Buganda became a British protectorate. Mwanga returned to power but picked up another squabble with British, he was exiled in 1899 and died in Seychelles at a young age of 35 in 1903.

Happy martyr’s day

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