- The Uganda Martyrs Day is celebrated in memory of the 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican Christians who refused to denounce their faith and were condemned to death by burning at the stake on June 3, 1885, on Kabaka Mwanga’s orders.
- For almost two weeks prior to June 3, there was an ecstatic mood in Namugongo as the holy day was being commemorated for the first time since 2019 due to the Covid-19 containment measures that saw the government impose caveats on travel and public events for nearly two years.
By GILBERT MWIJUKE
Simon Mugezi sits in the vast gardens of the Uganda Martyrs Basilica in Namugongo, about 13 kilometres east of the capital Kampala, massaging his swollen and weary legs.
Mugezi, 32, is visibly fatigued after walking the more than 260 kilometres from Mbarara to Kampala in commemoration of this year’s Uganda Martyrs Day, which is observed by Christians from across eastern Africa and beyond every June 3.
The Uganda Martyrs Day is celebrated in memory of the 22 Catholic and 23 Anglican Christians who refused to denounce their faith and were condemned to death by burning at the stake on June 3, 1885, on Kabaka Mwanga’s orders.
Mwanga, then the king of Buganda, one of Uganda’s oldest kingdoms, perceived the new Christian converts to be disobedient when they chose to follow a “foreign” religion. The converts have since then been regarded by many Christians around the world as martyrs and heroes of their faith.
The martyrs became so significant to the Christian faith worldwide that in 1920 the 22 Catholic martyrs were beatified by Pope Benedict XV. In 1964, they were canonised by Pope Paul VI, making them the first African saints in Christian history. In 1993, Pope John Paul VI made a pilgrimage to Namugongo and officially declared the shrine a minor Basilica.
Among the canonised Ugandan martyrs are Noel Mawaggali, Adolf Mukasa, Mbaaga Tuzinde, Achilles Kiwanuka, Anatoli Kiligwajjo, Baanabakintu Luke, James Buuzabalyawo, Gonzaga Gonza, Pontiano Ngondwe, Denis Ssebugwaawo, Andrew Kaggwa, Mathias Mulumba, Mukasa, Kiriwawanvu and Mugagga Lubowa. Pilgrims to the Namugongo shrines usually pray to God through these saints.
Millions trek to Namugongo
For almost two weeks prior to June 3, there was an ecstatic mood in Namugongo as the holy day was being commemorated for the first time since 2019 due to the Covid-19 containment measures that saw the government impose caveats on travel and public events for nearly two years.
After a two-year lull, this year’s celebrations are expected to attract between two and three million Christians to the Namugongo shrines, according to Father Vincent Lubega, the Rector of Namugongo Catholic Parish, who spoke to The EastAfrican a week to the Holy Day.
“We already have about half a million people camped here and that number is expected to increase to between two and three million people by June 3. In fact, after missing the celebrations for two years in a row, this year pilgrims started arriving here on May 16,” Father Lubega told The EastAfrican on May 31.
Mr Mugezi is one of the 78 parishioners from Nyamitanga Catholic Parish in Mbarara who successfully completed the one-week trek to Namugogo to celebrate the Uganda Martyrs.
“The story of the Uganda Martyrs inspires us to remain firm in our faith. If they died because of our faith, then walking a long distance is a small sacrifice the rest of us can make,” Mr Mugezi said.
While most pilgrims arrive at Namugongo by foot from across the country and as far as Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond, others come by air and road, especially the devout elderly and the weak from far.
Seventy-five-year-old Rachael Wagalinda from Mbale, about 220 kilometres east of Kampala, is one of those who can no longer make the walk, so this year she took public transport to Namugongo.
“This is the 10th time I’m attending these celebrations but as I grow older I cannot walk long distances anymore so I came by car,” she said. “I still come here because the story of the celebration instils a sense of unity among us as pilgrims.”
According to Father Lubega, it doesn’t matter whether one walks or travels by vehicle from their homes to Namugongo.
“People mainly come here for spiritual renewal. So, how they get here doesn’t really matter as long as they get spiritual support from us,” he said.
Christians die on the road
The road of faith has never been easy, and as Christians celebrate the martyrs who were killed for their faith, others are still dying today as they find their way to Namugongo. The long trek takes its toll and pilgrims collapse from fatigue, and sadly others die in traffic accidents.
On May 29, for instance, a pilgrim from Rubirizi district, about 360 kilometres west of Kampala, collapsed and died after trekking for more than 10 days.
Forty-nine-year-old Jackeline Arinaitwe, who was among 102 Anglican pilgrims headed to the Anglican shrine in Namugongo, died just about two kilometres away from Namugongo due to extreme fatigue which could have raised her blood pressure.
In 2017, Scovia Moro, an expectant mother from Lira Catholic Diocese, lost her life as she trekked the 342 kilometres when she collapsed and died along Bombo Road, only about 20 kilometres to the end of her journey.
Foreign pilgrims have not been spared either. In 2019, four Kenyan pilgrims — Sarah Adhiambo, Godfrey Abaga, Kevinah Akila, and Roselyn Mutunga — were hit by a commuter minibus taxi (matatu) along the Iganga-Tororo highway as they trekked alongside other 106 elderly pilgrims from Bungoma Catholic Diocese in Bungoma County.
Two decades earlier, John Kibe, another Kenyan pilgrim, also perished on the road when he was hit by a speeding minibus taxi along the Jinja-Kampala highway.
Death on the road aside, some of the Christian faithful who gather in Namugongo to mark the holy day, especially those that are not familiar with Kampala, sometimes fail to find their way back to their homes and end up stranded at the venue.
In 2019, 65 pilgrims were reported stuck in Namugongo after the celebrations, including 14 children from the districts of Mbale, Wakiso, Kayunga, Mubende and Mbarara.
During the last celebrations in 2019, the Uganda Police recorded 46 cases of phone theft and more than 40 arrests, with some of the culprits including those selling counterfeit drinks.
However, the negative aspects of the celebrations aside, communities in Namugongo usually cash in on the business opportunities that always come with large congregations.
This year — like in the past years — locals have set up small businesses within the basilica premises and the surrounding areas, selling items such as clothes, jewellery, soft drinks, alcohol, snacks and rosaries.