Well, after quite a long while, the second installment of From the Pulpit is finally here. Don’t ask me why it has taken ages as there’s a plethora of excuses, both legit and flimsy for that. Anyway, I bet you’ve all at one time heard of the great Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, or ever wondered why suddenly a Muslim friend of yours became known as ‘El Hajj…?’ Well, such an event exists in Christianity too (at least, limited to our East Africa region). Pilgrimage is after all a journey undertaken by a believer to a sacred place, right? Five years ago I embarked on one and it kind of inspired what I’ve brought to you here on this post.
Now as an (belated) 18th birthday gift, I was offered a chance to accompany mum to a tour of Uganda. Well, at least that was my initial impression of the whole thing. Destination? Namugongo, just off Kampala, Uganda. We were to visit the site of the brutal burning of the Uganda Martyrs and thereafter on the 3rd day of June, join other pilgrims from all over Africa and beyond in celebrating holy mass.
At Namugongo, as the guides explained, it really did dawn on me the reality of what had actually gone down there so many years ago. Young men, newly baptized into the Catholic (and Anglican) faith were persecuted, tortured, and burned on a pyre for professing their faith, which was contrary to the demands of then King of the Baganda, Mwanga II (whose name ironically means ‘light’ in Kiswahili). Of course there were no video recordings or actual photos for us to see, instead, they made sculptures, carvings and drawings that literally took one back to the happenings of 130 years ago. The guides’ narration of the events was chilling to say the least. I couldn’t help but wonder, if boys, some younger than me, could willingly accept such gruesome deaths all for their faith, then what was I doing in the world? Tellingly, there at the Namugongo Shrine at the point where most of the martyrs met their maker, a dam had formed from a stream where the martyrs’ tormentors would go to wash off the martyrs’ blood from their weapons. Now here’s the amazing part. Almost every pilgrim would go with a water container to draw some of that water, with the belief that it was blessed, some even swearing it had healing powers. I think I did fill up a 250ml bottle too.
The Maryrs Shrine at Namugongo, at the point where most of them were killed.
With a focus on the Catholic martyrs, since well, that’s kinda my area, here’s a profile of the 24 valiant souls who paid the ultimate price for the sake of Christ.
St. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe
He was the leader of all Christians and also the head Catholic Church in the absence of the Catholic missionaries. He was a Muganda from the Giant Rat clan and was a page and personal attendant on King Muteesa I and Majordomo under Mwanga II. Balikuddembe was baptized on April 30, 1882 by Fr. Lourdel and was the first martyr to be killed by being beheaded and thrown onto a heap of burning firewood and burned at Nakivubo (St. Balikuddembe Market). Balikuddembe is the patron politicians and chiefs.
St. Charles Lwanga
A Muganda, he was chief of the royal pages in Mwanga’s palace and was baptized by Fr. Ludovic Girault on November 15, 1885 on the exact day of Balikuddembe’s execution, after which he assumed the role of head of Christians. He was burned to death in a slow painting fire under a Ggirikiti tree at Namugongo where the Martyrs Shrine stands and died on Ascension Day, June 3, 1886. Among Lwanga’s last words were: “It is as if you’re pouring water on me. Please repent and be a Christian like me.” Lwanga is the patron of youth and Catholic action.
St. Athanasius Bazzekuketta
He was a Muganda of the Nkima clan and a page under both Muteesa I and Mwanga II, in charge of King Mwanga’s treasury. He was baptized on November 16, 1885 by Fr. Lourdel. Bazzekuketta eagerly volunteered when on their way to execution, Mukaajanga (Chief Executioner) asked for one of them to volunteer to be killed. He was speared to death and hacked into pieces on May 27, 1886. Bazekuketta is the patron of treasurers, banks and co-operatives.
St. Gyaviira Musoke
He was a Muganda of the Mamba clan, from Busiro County and was a page of the audience hall of King Mwanga II. Gyaviira was baptized by Charles Lwanga on May 26, 1886 then was burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Gyaviira is the patron of communication, traffic and travelers.
St. Mbaaga Tudzinde
He was a Muganda also of the Mamba clan from Busiro County. He was a page in the audience hall of Mwanga II and was baptized by Lwanga on May 26, 1886. Mbaaga stood firm amid pressure from his relatives including Mukaajanga, to renounce Christianity. He was clubbed to death then placed on the pyre of the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Mbaaga is the patron of religious vocations.
St. Bruno Sserunkuma
He was a Muganda of the Ndiga clan and hailed from Buddu County. He served as a page of Muteesa I then as a palace guard of Mwanga II. He was baptized on November 15, 1885 by Fr. Ludovic Girault and was also burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Bruno is the patron of the penitents; the tempted to lust for flesh, to drinking, violence and unlawful marriages.
St. Matthias Mulumba Kalemba
He was a Musoga of the Musu clan from Bunya County and was the oldest of the martyrs since at the time of his death he was about 50 years old. He was an assistant of Mukwenda, the county chief of Ssingo and got baptized on May 28, 1882 by Fr. Girault. Mulumba’s death was the most brutal and longest, taking about 3 days from the afternoon of Thursday May 27 to Sunday May 30, 1886. He had his limbs cut off from his body, strips of his flesh cut off from his back then he was left there to die at Old Kampala. Mulumba is the patron of chiefs and families.
St. Denis Ssebuggwawo
He was a Muganda of the Musu clan from Bulemeezi County. He was a page of Muteesa I and a page in personal attendance of Mwanga II. Ssebuggwawo was baptized by Fr. Lourdel on November 16, 1885 and was tortured and speared by Mwanga II who then handed him over to the executioner on the evening of Tuesday May 25, 1886. He was first beheaded then hacked into pieces to death at Munyonyo. Ssebuggwawo is the patron of choirs and musicians.
St. Gonzaga Gonza
He was a Musoga of the Mpologoma clan from Bulamoogi County and was a page of the private courts of Muteesa I and a page in the audience hall under Mwanga II. He was baptized by Fr. Lourdel on November 16, 1885. On his way to Namugongo, Gonza’s legs bled due to the tight grip of the chains stuck to his flesh and collapsed at Lubaawo, about 4 miles off Namugongo. He could not move anymore so the Mukaajanga speared him to death, on May 27, 1886. Gonzaga is the patron of the prisoners and the afflicted.
St. Ambrose Kibuuka
He was a Muganda, of the Lugave clan, from Ssingo County and like the others, was a page in the audience hall of Muteesa I and Mwanga II. He was baptized on November 16, 1885 by Fr. Lourdel and was burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Ambrose is the patron of societies like Scouts, Guides, Young Christian Workers, Xaverians etc.
He was a Muganda of the Ngo clan from Mawokoota and was a page in the inner private courts of Mwanga II. He was baptized by Lwanga on May 26, 1886 and was burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Mugagga is the patron of clubs, tailors and community development.
St. John Mary Kiwanuka Muzeeyi
He was a Muganda of the Mbogo clan from Buddu County and doubled up as Muteesa I’s page as well as his herbalist. He was baptized on November 1, 1885 by Fr. Lourdel. Muzeeyi was beheaded on January 27, 1887 and his body thrown into Jugula Swamp between Mengo and Namirembe Hills and was the last Catholic martyr to be killed by Mwanga II. Muzeeyi is the patron of doctors, nurses, hospitals and dispensaries.
St. Noe Mwaggali
He was a Muganda of the Ngabi clan from Ssingo County and was a potter to the county chief of Ssingo and maker of earthenware. He got baptized on November 1, 1885 by Fr. Lourdel. As it were, Mwanga II commissioned Mbugano, an executioner, to kill all Christians at Mityana. When Mwaggali exposed himself for execution, Kamanyi, an aide of Mbugano speared him to death on the morning of May 31, 1886 at Mityana. His body was subsequently devoured by village savage dogs. Mwaggali is the patron of workers, the poor, artists and technicians.
St. Pontian Ngondwe
He was a Muganda of the Nnyonyi clan from Kyaggwe County and was a page of Muteesa I and a palace guard of Mwanga II. On November 17, 1885 he was baptized by Fr. Girault who gave him the name ‘Pontian’ in honour of the martyred Pope whose feast day occurred two days later. Pontian was speared severally by Mukaajanga, his head cut off, his body hacked into pieces and scattered all over. He died on the evening of May 26, 1886 at Ttaka Jjunge, near Munyonyo. Pontian is the patron of soldiers, policemen and militia.
St. Luke Baanabakintu
He was a Muganda of the Mamba clan from Ggomba County and was a servant of the county chief of Ssingo and supervised the chief’s fisheries on Lake Wamala. He was baptized on May 28, 1882 by Fr. Girault and was burned alive at the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Luke is the patron of sailors, fishermen, merchants, students and blacksmiths.
St. Anatoli Kiriggwajo
He was a Munyoro, though neither his parents nor his county of origin are known as he was captured during the inter-kingdom wars and brought to the king’s palace where he served as a page of the audience hall of both Muteesa I and Mwanga II. He was baptized on November 16, 1885 by Fr. Lourdel and burned in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Anatoli is the patron of dairy farmers and vets.
St. Mukasa Kiriwawanvu
He was a Muganda of the Ndiga clan from Kyaggwe County and was a page of the audience hall of Muteesa I and Mwanga II. Unlike all the other martyrs though, he died before he got baptized. He was burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Kiriwawanvu is the patron of hotels, restaurants, bars and all kinds of recreation.
He was a Muganda of the Mamba clan, born at Waluleeta, Bulemeezi County and was the youngest of all the martyrs, dying at the age of just 14. He was a page of the inner private courts of Mwanga II and was credited by fellow pages for his love and determination to follow Christ. He was baptized on May 26, 1886 by Lwanga and burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Kizito is the patron of children and primary schools.
St. Andrew Kaggwa
He was a Munyoro from Buganganyizi County but the identity of his parents is not known as he too was captured from his homeland by the Buganda raiders. He was a Mugowa, Mwanga II’s Bandmaster-General. He was baptized by Fr. Lourdel on April 30, 1882. Kaggwa was arrested at his home and taken to the Katikkiro (Chancellor) Mukasa who ordered the executioners to cut his arm off and bring it to him as proof of Kaggwa’s death before he could eat anything. Thereafter he was beheaded and hacked to pieces at Munyonyo and died on the afternoon of May 26, 1886. Kaggwa is the patron of catechists, teachers and families.
St. James Buuzaabalyawo
He was a Muganda of the Ngeye clan from Mawookota County and was the official keeper of the royal well (Kalindaluzzi) and second in command to Andrew Kaggwa. He was baptized on November 15, 1885 by Fr. Girault and was burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Buuzaabalyawo is the patron of traders, merchants and co-operatives.
St. Achilles Kiwanuka
He was a Muganda of the Lugave clan, from Ssingo County and was a page of the audience hall of Mwanga II. He was baptized on November 16, 1885 by Fr. Lourdel and was burned alive in the Namugongo furnace on June 3, 1886. Achilles is the patron of clerks, journalists, writers and the press.
St. Adolphus Mukasa Ludigo
He was a Munyoro from Mwenge-Toro whose parents’ identity is unknown as he was captured in the inter-kingdom wars and brought to the palace as a captive then served as a page of the audience hall of Muteesa I and Mwanga II. He was baptized by Fr. Lourdel on November 16, 1885 and was burnt alive in the Namugongo furnace of June 3, 1886. Adolphus is the patron of farmers, herdsmen and hunters.
Blessed Daudi Okello
Born around 1900, his father was Lodi and his mother Amona, of Ongon Payira clan. He was baptized on June 6, 1916 by Fr. Caesar Gambaretto, a Comboni missionary at the then newly founded Catholic Mission of Kitgum and was confirmed on October 15 same year. Okello was speared to death on Sunday October 18, 1918 at Paimol in Acholi, Northern Uganda and was beatified in Rome on October 20, 2002. Daudi is the patron of Catechists.
Blessed Jildo Irwa
Jildo (short for Ermenegildo) was born around 1902 by Tongpfur Daniele and Atoo from Labongo Bar-Kitoba clan of the Acholi. He was baptized by Fr. Gambaretto on June 6, 1916 and was confirmed on October 15, same year. Jildo was speared to death on the same day and place as Daudi Okello and was beatified too on October 20, 2002. Jildo is the patron of Catechists.
Well, at the end of that excruciating profiling of the 24 martyrs, I bet you got bored midway but hey, look at the bigger picture. Those were young men, some even still just boys, who despite being novices into the faith showed that their faith was stronger than any of ours could ever be. That, for me is the mystery of the Uganda martyrs. We talk about being saved, accepting Christ as our personal saviour, but really, is there substance to all that? If cut, can we bleed and still sing praises to the Lord till we draw our last breath?
And these are not just stories. These martyrs are not just a myth. They existed just close here, at our next door neighbours, so to speak. Twenty minutes from where I live, is a small market centre, called Mbaga, after one of the martyrs, St. Mbaaga. I mean, it’s that real. The truth probably is that we can’t give up everything and die for Christ, who are we kidding? But, wouldn’t it be nice if you and I could? Meanwhile, maybe you could take a few days off your schedule and go for this year’s pilgrimage to Namugongo in June, you know, just to confirm these things…and also get a chance to meet me if you haven’t (heh!).
Whatever you do, don’t let your faith waver. Love and serve the Lord, for He is with you, till the end of days.
Special thanks to one Fr. Alfred Kotol as most of his earlier work has been borrowed here.
In loving memory of Connie, whose charm and verve made the Namugongo pilgrimage of 2009 blissful and awash with laughter. Sorely missed.