Were the martyrs rebels who would not survive any regime?

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Left, believers drawing water from the pond at the Uganda Martyrs Shrine. It is believed to bring blessings.  Photo by Mojong Osere

Left, believers drawing water from the pond at the Uganda Martyrs Shrine. It is believed to bring blessings. Photo by Mojong Osere 

Posted by Robert Mugagga

on  Sunday, June 3  2012 at  00:00


UGANDA MARTYRS. There has always been debate over the years about the decision the martyrs made that led to their execution. Nonetheless, the Uganda Martyrs are celebrated not only in Uganda but the world over.


But these views do not sink in well with Mzee Abdu Tenywa who runs a maize mill plant at Nalukolongo. “Who can dare call the martyrs rebels? Despite being a Muslim, I strongly support the martyrs stand of never accepting whatever our leaders preach when they are the ones in wrong.” Tenywa urged Ugandans to emulate martyrs by always avoid sinning.


The story of the Uganda Martyrs

Today, June 3rd, 2012 Catholic and Anglican Churches the world over commemorate the feast day of the Ugandan martyrs. In the Catholic Church, from America to Australia, from Greenland to South Africa, holy masses will be celebrated with special mention and honour given to the 22 brave youthful Ugandans that gave up their lives for their Christian faith. The “world” converges at Namugongo to honour the Uganda martyrs. Among foreigners making it there are hundreds of Kenyans, some of whom have for years been walking to Namugongo from the Busia border. Last year, a big group of pilgrims representing Nigeria made it here just in time and visited a number of places associated with St Matthias Mulumba, who is very popular in their country. Such is the popularity of the Uganda martyrs and the June 3rd day. The Ugandan martyrs’ story undoubtedly helps make up for Uganda’s bad historical record of dictators like Idi Amin and rebels like Joseph Kony, HIV Aids and other ills.

Not only a Christian affair
It’s now 126 years since the burning of many young men for their newly and fervently embraced Christian faith. The majority of these (both Catholics and Anglicans) were burnt to death at a spot a few yards away from where the Anglican Martyrs Shrine at Namugongo stands. Historians and religious scholars have since confirmed that the burnt youth included Muslims who actually were the majority. On one Martyrs Day during the 70s, when Idi Amin mentioned this, some considered him a great liar. The truth is that on that day, June 3rd, 1886, Ssekabaka Mwanga II ordered the killing of all those that had carried out various forms of disobedience and whether the Muslims group was condemned for their religious belief, it is yet to be verified. A mosque Idi Amin erected in honour of the Muslim “martyrs” can today be seen somewhere between the Catholic and Anglican shrines.

According to Rev Fr Anthony Musuubire of Ntinda Kigowa Catholic parish, Namugongo used to be the main execution centre for people that used to disobey the Kabaka. “The Uganda martyrs were executed with so many such people. It’s true that some Muslims were also executed together with the Christian martyrs for various reasons not clearly known,” he said.

Irrespective of these accounts of history, the significance of the martyrs is a big part of the lives of many Christians. Retired Bishop of Jinja Joseph Willigers once stated, “Saints are special gifts which God make to the world. They are given to us not merely to be objects of our admiration to be safely locked away in a shrine or as a source of national pride, but meant to inspire us and spur us on to be in our own times and to our own world, living signs of God’s saving power.”

However, Annet Lubowa, the catechist of St Jude Catholic sub-parish Lubaga noted with sadness that many Ugandans do not hold Martyrs in high esteem today unlike many foreigners. “Unlike in the past, nowadays few people are naming their children after the martyrs and let alone praying to them regularly. Is it because of what they say that prophets are never respected in their homeland? She wondered. Musomesa Lubowa urged Catholics to entrust their lives in the hands of the martyrs.

A marriage of faith and business
A friend and Kenyan journalist usually remarks that a big number of Ugandans go to Namugongo to feast by eating, boozing and stealing while the majority of Kenyans go there primarily to pray. Anyone who has been to Namugongo on Martyrs Day will agree that the day has greatly been commercialised. Kampala vendors and traders usually shift business to Namugongo where they can earn a quick shilling. Food, roasted chicken, beef and pork stalls make a brisk business. Pork remains the day’s most favourite dish and its advertised right from Kampala taxi parks where taxi operators are jokingly heard calling for passengers ready to depart for Namugongo’s pork feast.

Some Christians like Michael Luganda of Ndeeba see nothing wrong with this. “Let it be clearly known that there is no need for Ugandans to mourn the death of the martyrs. Martyrs Day should be a day for us to celebrate their victory and having been brave and faithful to Christianity.” Luganda sees nothing wrong with the selling of beer and foodstuffs at the shrine, but cautions that this should be done only after the service.

Meanwhile the Martyrs Day business goes beyond the selling of foodstuffs and various types of beer. People residing near the shrine and all along the Kyaliwajala Road usually earn big by accommodating pilgrims from far away for a fee. Besides, small hotels and motels have year after year been mushrooming in Namugongo area for the same purpose.

- Robert Muggaga

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