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 

by- Robert Mugagga

posted  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.

A debate has always raged as to whether Ssekabaka Mwanga II was justified in ordering the killing of the Ugandan martyrs or whether the martyrs could be classified as rebels who would not have survived any regime including the current NRM government.

A brief extract from The African Holocaust by J.F Faupel describes the situation at Mwanga’s palace just before the execution of the first martyr, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe in 1885. In Buganda then, it was strongly believed that whoever visited the kingdom using the eastern route would be an enemy and had something to do with the fall of the kingdom. For this reason, Bishop Hannington was executed on the orders of Mwanga.

One of the Kabaka’s pages, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe had dared to tell the Kabaka bluntly that he did wrong to put the European to death and that his father, Muteesa II would never have done such a thing. King Mwanga chose to regard this as an insult to his dignity and to the memory of his father. It was not only his grievance. Balikuddembe had constantly shown his disapproval of his master’s vices and had encouraged the Christian pages in their stubborn refusal to accede to his shameful demands on them.

These refusals were already sufficiently humiliating to a monarch who expected from his subjects a blind, unquestioning and slavish obedience which rulers of Buganda had been accustomed to receive from time immemorial and the taunts of his Muslim courtiers, that he was no longer a king when even young boys dared to “insult” him by refusing certain of his demands, did nothing to lessen his resentment against the Christians and especially, against their acknowledged leader at the court.

It is this that forced Mwanga to order the execution of his most trusted page, Joseph Balikuddembe. The following morning the Kabaka did not give an audience. Instead, he summoned to his presence all the pages who had served under Balikuddembe and gave an order for all those who did not pray with either Christian mission to rise and take their places near him. Only three responded. “I will have you all put to death,” shouted the Kabaka in a fierce voice. “Very well master,” came the calm reply, “You will have us all put to death.” This answer seemed to have taken Mwanga aback, for he did not then go beyond threats of killing all Christians and expelling the missionaries from Buganda.

The Kabaka, meanwhile baffled by the solidarity shown by his Christian pages, called on his chancellor for advice. The latter urged him to carry out his threats of killing all Christians, but Mwanga pointed out that the majority of his pages and guards were adherent of the missions, and that some 500 men and 500 women went to the English mission and a similar number to the French. If he were to put all these to death, it would be said that he was slaying the whole country and would give rise to discontent.

Were Mwanga’s actions justifiable?
What do some Ugandans say about the claims that Mwanga was justified in killing the martyrs? Anthony Kawooya of Nateete is both a staunch Catholic and conservative Muganda. He says no regime whether in the past or even today would spare the martyrs whom he compares to “Walk to Work (WTW)” protesters. “Interestingly and as you can clearly observe, the WTW protesters of today consider themselves as martyrs whenever tear-gased and arrested. Yet they forget that their actions cause havoc and disorder in town where the likes of traders lose their merchandise valued in millions.”

According to Kawooya, Mwanga at first did not intend to kill Christians whom he had spared for long and given a chance to reform, but they instead ended up disobeying and humiliating him in addition to failing to balance between their palace duties and religious obligations. Besides, he says, some of them had taken up “rebellious” names like Mawaggali (master rebel) , Buza balyawo (Ask others not me) , Tuzinde (let us invade) and Bazzekuketta (have come to spy) . Kawooya argues that Mwanga then being an absolute monarch of Buganda (actually the last one), was even too kind to spare them for such a long time.

In contrast, Walukagga Jerome of Busega reasons that it is not fair to regard Ugandan martyrs as having been rebels. “They at first always carried out their duties at the Kabaka’s palace and faithfully until when Mwanga tried to lure them into sinning by carrying out sodomy acts.” According to Walukagga, this was when they turned against him. Otherwise, if they were simply disobedient how come the Kabaka didnot kill their chief priest, Fr Loudel Mapeera as well?” he asks.

Godfrey Sserunjogi of Tick Plastics, Nalukolongo, strongly supports the martyrs decision not to give in to Mwanga’s shameful demands, let alone giving up Christianity. “The martyrs showed courage and that they could not easily be compromised like today’s parliamentarians and politicians who for instance are bribed to change their stand on important issues.”

Elsewhere, Gerald Mukitale of Katwe Metal Works, who comes from the same region (Bunyoro) like St. Andrea Kaggwa couldnot agree more. According to him, the martyrs picked on what was best for them and couldnot continue serving the Kabaka who was trying to stop them from worshiping their discovered true God. “We cannot term them as rebels, it was Mwanga to blame for not having sent away the missionaries in the first place if he didnot want them to pray .”

Joyce Nalwanga, a bar owner in Bulwa village, Lubaga, however disagrees. “There can never be order in any society if every member is allowed to do as she or he wishes. The martyrs should have politely turned down Mwanga’s sinful requests and may be pleaded with him to allow them time for prayers.” Like her mother, Nalwanga’s daughter, Aida Namutebi compares martyrs to today’s members of the opposition and other minority groups who always find fault with the establishment in order to cause trouble. “The martyrs should have given up their palace work rather than trying to serve and appease two masters at the same time. Surely, they were more or less like rebels.”

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


Proud to be named after St Charles Lwanga

Veteran freelance journalist Charles Lwanga and resident of Musigula zone in Lubaga division usually wears nice suits and a wide smile on Martyrs Day. He is very proud to have been named after one of the Uganda martyrs, St Charles Lwanga.

His late father, Ssalongo Tobi Makumbi decided to name his son after the martyrs while serving in World War II in Burma. This is where Makumbi witnessed to all sorts of suffering and death, not sure whether he would make it back to Uganda alive or in a coffin. An idea then struck his mind to pray to the Ugandan martyrs (Even though they were yet to be canonised) and make an agreement with them to spare his life and promising that after the war the first son to be born in the family would be named after one of the martyrs.

Another reason Makumbi admired the martyrs for was realising that many of the World War II combatants feared death and usually took cover whenever an enemy fired in their direction. He then wondered what sort of people the martyr were not to fear death and even sung while being executed.

Ssalongo Makumbi survived the war and returned to Uganda in 1944. Unfortunately, the next son was born on Christmas day and had to be named Emmanuel. Then came another son on March 27, 1946. Ssalongo remembered his promise and named him Charles Lwanga. By coincidence even the martyr, St Charles Lwanga belonged to the Ngabi (Bush buck) clan of Buganda.

Later a problem emerged for the young Charles Lwanga at Lubaga Junior school. Because there happened to be so many Charles Lwangas, one of the teachers, Brother Peter Katanga advised that Charles adapt another clan name in order to avoid the confusion at the school. But his father totally disagreed saying there was no way he was going to change the boy’s name and even argued that after all, St Charles Lwangas too belonged to Engabi clan.

Since childhood, Charles Lwanga has been instructed to live an exemplary life like the saint. He has on several occasions walked to Namugongo on Martyrs Day with the last time being in 1973 in a group that comprised among others, then Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga and Maurice Cardinal Otunga of Kenya. Another moment Charles Lwanga will never forget was when he was at the 11th hour included in the Ugandan delegation that in 1980 went to Rome, Italy to witness to the opening of the Ugandan Martyrs church there.

“After much struggle, I managed to raise the required Shs15, 000 but unfortunately, all the places had been filled. Later, I decided to confront then Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga at his Pope Paul building office. I argued that there was no way they were going to leave me behind when I was named after a Ugandan martyr yet many people on the list weren’t.” The archbishop attentively listened and looked at Lwanga and after thinking for a while, said that “the young man surely had a strong point.” He added him on the list.

Charles Lwanga treats the June 3 in a very special way more or less like his birthday. “On this day, I must go to Namugongo, pray for the martyrs blessings and have a very special meal.” At Namugongo, he looks at the mammoth crowds and indeed feels proud that his patron saint is partly responsible for such.

Charles Lwanga is not alone. There are so many people, schools, hospitals, parishes and other places all over the world named after the Ugandan martyrs. Not long time ago I met a White catholic priest serving in Nairobi, Kenya and going by the name of Father Kizito. An ignorant friend wondered how a mzungu came to have a Ugandan name he seemed to be proud of. And of course there is another friend and Daily Monitor columnist Kaloli Semogerere, the son to former DP president general Dr Paul Ssemogerere. Kaloli too is proud of his Christian name Kaloli (not the bird) but the local name for St Charles (Lwanga.)

- Robert Muggaga

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