On June 3, millions of pilgrims honor the 45 Catholic and Anglican men who were sentenced to death by Kabaka Mwanga II of the Buganda Kingdom. Ugandan reporter, Deborah Laker walks in the footsteps of the Catholic martyrs and unearths the tale of religious devotion, complex circumstances and colonial oppression.
KAMPALA, Uganda — It is 7:57 a.m. when I arrive at the gates of the Munyonyo Martyrs’ Shrine. I walk over to sit at the cafeteria where I enjoy my breakfast of lemon-ginger tea and rolex, a Ugandan delicacy of fried-flat and an omelet.
I wait for my tour guide Miti Kinaawola from Tembea Kampala Walking Tours to take me on a Martyrs Trail Tour following the path of the young men who died for their faith over a hundred years ago. He arrives with a smile as inviting as the lakeside breeze and introduces me to Happy Jane, who will be telling us about the historical significance of this place of worship on the shores of Lake Victoria.
The Beginning of Martyrdom in Munyonyo
“On the evening of May 25, 1886 Kabaka (king) Mwanga II returned to his palace here at Munyonyo after an unsuccessful hunting trip,” she begins. The Buganda king had sailed to Bulindanugwe island in Lake Victoria with hopes of hunting a hippopotamus but his golden gun fell into the water. He explained this to a trusted fortune teller upon his return to the Munyonyo palace who told him it was a sign of misfortune.
“The fortune teller reminded Kabaka Mwanga of the first sign of misfortune that occurred when lightning struck the palace in Mengo after the king’s sister became a Christian and burnt all the palace idols,” Happy continues to narrate. The fortune teller told the king, “See, your attendants are not even here to welcome you because they are busy with the bazungu (white people) worshiping their God.”
When Dennis Ssebungwawo, a musician and devoted Christian appeared before the king. Kabaka Mwanga asked him where he had been. “Teaching religion,” the sixteen-year-old page boy responded. Fuming with rage, Mwanga speared Ssebungwawo, leaving him bleeding. His body was later cut into pieces and left to be devoured by vultures.
Happy pauses to allow the picture of this horrific death to cement in our minds before leading us downhill to a monument of two men in a pool of water.
“At the dawn of May 26, 1886, Charles Lwanga, the leader of the Catholics Christians, secretly baptized four converts here,” she says pointing at the stone figure of a man holding a Bible and gourd. News of the king’s anger had spread and Lwanga was eager to baptize the new converts, Kizito, Gyaviira Musoke Mayanja, Mbaga Tuzinde and Mugagga Lubowa before grave danger befell them all.
Later, Kabaka Mwanga ordered all his palace workers to come to his court and separated the Christians from the rest saying “those who do not pray stand by me and those who pray stand over there.” Charles Luwanga, holding Kizito’s hand, walked boldly to the left-hand side and was followed by other men.
Kabaka Mwanga went on to ask the young men whether he intended to remain Christians to which they fearlessly answered, “Yes!” The furious Kabaka Mwanga sentenced the fifteen Christians to death. They were chained and led to Namugongo, the execution site.
Happy leads us to another monument with the name ‘Andrew Kaggwa’ engraved at the bottom and proceeds to tell his story.
“Andrew Kaggwa was not present at the king’s meeting. When he learnt of Mwanga sentencing Christians to death he rushed to take his wife and children to a relative,” says Happy.
The tour guide continues to explain that Kaggwa was captured from the Bunyoro tribe during a raid and brought to the Buganda kingdom. Andrew found favor in the eyes of Mutesaa I, Kabaka Mwanga’s father, because he was a great drummer and soon became the royal bandmaster.
Kabaka Mwanga did not want Kaggwa to be killed but his chancellor Kintu convinced him. Embarrassed to face Kaggwa, the king allowed Kintu to take over the matter. The chancellor ordered for Kaggwa’s arm to be brought to him before supper time as a sign that he had been killed. Executioners captured and butchered the devoted Christian. It is said that Kaggwa cried, “My God” before he was beheaded.
Looking up at the arm-less statue, I push the image of Kaggwa’s brutal death from my mind and instead focus on the complex ties between him and the king. They had grown up together. Perhaps there was a time they had raced around these lush-green palace grounds playing or climbing trees. But history remembers one as a saint and the other a heartless oppressor. Looking at their relationship holistically, they were clearly both strong-willed men. One committed to advancing the kingdom of heaven and the other committed to upholding his kingdom’s soverienty.
Around 9:30 a.m., Happy walks Miti and I past the Basilica filled with worshippers dressed in their Sunday best singing soulful hymns. I thank her for the tour and proceed with Miti down Salaama Road to the site of another martyr’s death. As we walk he tells me how he grew up on this street as the second child in a Catholic family.
“I don’t attend Mass anymore,” he tells me. “My family is proud that I take people on these tours thinking it is for religious reasons but really it is just for the love of adventure and history.”
I ask him if he identifies as an agnostic or an atheist.
“Agnostic. Being an atheist is also a form of belief just in nothingness,” he shares. “I’d much rather admit I don’t know. It’s more peaceful this way.”
After a 20 minute walk, we arrive at a gravesite with a red painted cross, dry roses and candles.
Miti tells me, “This is where Ponsian Ngondwe was speared to death.” The security guard and tax collector was falsely accused of stealing another man’s cow and thrown into prison without trial. When Kabaka Mwanga ordered the killing of Christians he remembered Ngondwe was a Catholic and commanded executioners to take him to Namugongo.
As the Christians marched to their death, Ngondwe surrendered saying, “If you want to kill me, kill me from here.” A spear was driven into his flesh several times before he collapsed, dying by the roadside.
“The bazungu had told them that if you die as a martyr you will not go to purgatory and instead meet Jesus right away. They were eager to die,” Miti says, distress and pity darkening his face.
Flashback to the First Martyr
We sit in a stuffy taxi that takes us downtown to Owino, the largest and most chaotic market in Kampala. I hold onto my bag tightly as we traverse the narrow paths of the market, careful not to step on the piles of second-hand clothes, fruit and kitchenware.
“I used to work here when I was a teenager so you are safe. I know my way around,” Miti says, sensing my anxiety.
He leads me away from the hawkers bargaining back-to-school prices to a peaceful clearing. As we walk through the gate to the sanctuary I notice the words “The Memorial of St. Balikuddembe and St. Anthanasius” in Luganda painted on the exterior. Inside the pews of the small church are empty apart from 4 people. The altar — decorated with red and white ribbons — has a painting of the saints of either side.
“Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe was a strong Christian leader who served in the courts of both Mutessa I and Kabaka Mwanga before he was killed here by the jealous chancellor Kintu in November 1885,” explains Miti.
Balikuddembe was the first Catholic martyr. His body was cut into pieces and mixed with ashes. This was done to confuse his ghost from haunting the executioners.
A year later, on May 27, as the chained Christian men staggered along to Namugongo an executioner asked who would like to be killed at the same site as their leader Balikuddembe. Athanasius Bazzekuketta, who had been in charge of Mwanga’s treasury and ivory, offered himself up. The 20 year old was speared to death.
“Ugandans really respect religion,” Miti mentions. “Just look at how peaceful and clean this place is compared to out there. They could easily come in here to sleep or urinate but they don’t because they believe this is a holy place.”
I agree to his observation with a nod and continue taking pictures of the gravesites and murals.
Flocks of Pilgrims Fetch Healing Water
When the guard comes to lock up the property and finds out we are on a tour of the martyrs trail he advises us to go to the gravesite of St. John Mary Muzeeyi in a near-by a swamp called Jugui.
Leaning into spontaneity and we take a boda boda (motorcycle) to the St. Yoana Marie Muzeeyi Shrine. The choir director welcomes us and offers to show us around the premises. He leads my tour guide and I to a passageway underneath the church where clear water flows.
“This is holy water. We allow pilgrims to wash their face, hands and collect the water to take to their loved ones. We believe this water can heal any sickness,” he explains.
A woman with a 5 liter jerry can walks past us to fetch the water. The choir director goes on to tell us why the water is treasured.
Muzeeyi was a brilliant learner and exceptional doctor respected widely for his knowledge of traditional medicine. When he was beheaded in January 1887 for refusing to denounce Christ his head fell into a spring. Over the next day locals in this area noticed that the banks of the spring widened as more water flowed.
“He is the patron for doctors, nurses and students because of his profession in medicine. That is why people with sick relatives or children in school come here to get this blessed water for where Muzeeyi’s blood was shed,” the choir director continues.
He thanks us for coming before the influx of pilgrims from across East Africa descend on this ground.
“If you had come close to Martyr’s Day (June 3),” he explains. “I would have no time to talk to you because I’d be busy with my colleagues ensuring that everyone gets what they came for whether that is holy water, soil or a piece of bark from the tree where Muzeeyi was tied up.”
Lakeside Lunch Break
For lunch we head to Kabaka’s Lake, the largest hand-dug lake in the world. On the shores of the lake is a life-sized statue of Kabaka Mwanga, wearing royal robes with his head wrapped in a turban and a staff in his hand. A sign beside the statue reveals that the king ordered for this lake to be dug between 1886 and 1888 with hopes that it would serve as an escape route if the Mengo palace was attacked.
Under the shade of trees encircling the serene lake, Miti and I sit drinking sodas and regaining our strength for a 40 minute journey to Namugongo, our final destination on the martyrs trail.
Namugongo is abuzz with pilgrims arriving for the June 3 Martyrs Day celebrations. Tables covered with rosaries, Mother Mary figures and other relics surround the entrance in a makeshift marketplace. In the shady grass those exhausted from days of walking rest on mats. Songs of worship are heard from the hut-shaped cathedral.
“Pray with all your heart for whatever has brought you here and believe God will answer,” says an attendant while placing a leaflet in my palm.
We descend to the arena where tourists pose for pictures in front of the priests’ walkway. A lady with a South African accent says, “Pray for us saints” as she smiles for her friend’s camera.
Growing up in Kampala, I would watch the Martyrs Day celebrations on TV every year but this was my first time at the Namugongo Shrine. As I look around I wonder what Charles Lwanga and the 12 other men who were executed here would think of the millions from around Uganda and beyond coming to commemorate their resistance and faith. They would certainly be surprised for while Christianity in Uganda was gradually dying in 1886, a century later 82 percent of the population is Christian. They could not have envisioned this as they were being tortured, tied in reed mats, piled on top of each other and set blaze.
The sun is setting as we leave the gates of Namugongo exhausted and covered in dust from our travels.
“While the Uganda Martyrs are praised for their heroic sacrifice, it is undeniable that religion was part of Great Britain’s colonial strategy to divide and conquer,” Miti says.
The tour guide explains that for years Mwanga signed away his powers to the British to protect his position as Kabaka. As the last sovereign king of Buganda, Mwanga launched an unsuccessful war on the British. Mwanga was captured and exiled to Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
In an ironic turn of events, the once blood-thirsty Mwanga converted to the Anglican faith and was baptized in 1903. He died on an island away from the kingdom he fought desperately to uphold.