On The Martyrs’ Trail: CHRISTIANITY’S DARKEST HOUR, UGANDA’S BRIGHTEST MOMENTS

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By Emmanuel Ukpong

Around 1886, in the Kingdom of Buganda in present day central Uganda, 45 young Christian men defied a ruthless king and refused to renounce their faith. Their fate was unspeakably gruesome: they were burnt alive, beheaded, castrated and dismembered. Of the 45 martyrs, 22 were Catholic, while 23 were Anglican.
They are now known as the Martyrs of Uganda.

It is said that while the early missionaries sowed the seed of Christianity in Uganda, it was the blood of the martyrs that actually watered it.
Given the record-keeping limitations of 19th century Uganda, their inspirational stories would have been lost. In the 1920s, witnesses to the brutalities were tracked and identified, making them of great interest to The Vatican. Perhaps the most famous of them was Dennis Kamyuka. Kamyuka, one of the few who narrowly escaped martyrdom, lived to tell the story, passing on at the age of 90. The most credible witnesses were invited to The Vatican in Rome, were their accounts of the martyrs’ torture and executions were documented in graphic detail.

Since then their story has captured the imagination of the world. In Uganda, Martyrs’ Day (June 3) is a public holiday to commemorate their sacrifice. Three Popes (Paul IV in 1969, John Paul II in 1993 and Francis in 2015) have visited to pay their respects. Shrines have been built in their honour. Universities, schools, churches and institutions have been named in their honour. Following the Catholic Church’s stringent verification processes, all of the 22 Catholic martyrs are now saints. The martyrs have become a big draw for faith tourism in Uganda, pulling in 60 million people yearly and millions of dollars in much needed foreign exchange.

A Dominant Presence
The Catholic Church has built a vast network of faith tourism infrastructure to support the inflow. Yes, the Catholic Church. The Mother Church has an unquestionably dominant presence throughout all of Uganda. Nearly 70 per cent of Uganda’s population of 40.10 million (2018 estimate) is Catholic. The largest bank in the country (Centenary Bank) is Catholic-owned. Its investment in human resources and support infrastructure is massive: well-developed martyrs trail, a museum, martyrs shrines, tour guides, helpful literature and signage, publications and documentaries, efficient transport system, to name but a few.

In short, the Ugandan Martyrs has become a viable industry in its own right.
Close collaboration with the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB) means tourists and pilgrims can enjoy an absorbing spiritual journey, retracing the footsteps of the martyrs. Pilgrims can relive the arrest, torture, the slow and painful death match of each of the martyrs.

It is also a great opportunity to soak in the sights and sounds of some this magnificent country, from Kampala, the bustling capital city to Jinja, the source of the River Nile. UTB offers London-style city tour services, and there is so much to savour. Uganda’s 93, 065 sq. km sits in the rainforest. It means lush vegetation, picturesque houses shrouded in green trees, sugarcane and coffee plantations stretching endlessly on either side of the highways, dense tropical forests, giant avocado and mango fruits. And then there are hills of Kampala, originally seven hills but now 21.

Where the Saints Went Marching On….
For a true feel of the martyrs’ ordeal, we kicked off our tour from the Munyonyo Martyrs’ Shrine in Kampala. A fitting point to start because this was where King Nwanga in May 26, 1986 summoned the people of Bugunda to his palace to set off an orgy of unutterable torture and mass executions. Separating the Christians from the rest, King Nwanga uttered the infamous words, “Those who do not pray stand by me, those who do pray stand over there.” Fifteen young men stood apart. The king asked them again if they wanted to remain Christians. They answered with an emphatic “yes.” He then summarily condemned them to death.

Three young men – St. Denis Ssebugwawo, 16, St. Andrew Kaggwa, about 30, and St. Pontiano Ngondwe, 38 – were the first to be martyred. It was a slow, painful and ghastly death. Denis, a prominent member of the Church choir, was the first to pay the supreme price for Christ.

As soon as the king handed down the harsh judgment, the torturers and executioners took charge. In the chilling words of Elizabeth, our guide, “Denis was just bleeding and they took him around and showed other Christians what was going to happen to them if they continued their faith. When they started their journey, it was the same day of 26th May of 1886. He was beheaded in the morning and in the afternoon it was discovered when they were going on their journey along the road that other martyrs were killed the same day.” Denis Ssebugwawo is now the patron saint of musicians and choirs.

Andrew was beheaded and cut to pieces in Munyonyo. A statue stands at the exact spot where he fell. Pontiano, a guard at the royal palace, was speared. As he bled slowly, he begged his captors to finish him off but they refused. They wanted other Christians who witnessed or heard of the gruesome executions to have a rethink. It had the opposite effect; it strengthened their resolve instead. Pantiano bled to death several days later. His statue, complete with a spear on its chest, stands in the shrine. Another monument featured two sword- and machete-wielding solders leading two exhausted martyrs on a journey of no return.

The Munyonyo Martyrs’ Shrine is set on a hill surrounded by a dense forest. According to Elizabeth, the thick trees predate the dark era of the massacre but test results were being awaited to establish their exact age. The tropical forest was on the verge of losing its virginity, no thanks to a two-lane highway being constructed through it. The Shrine is also home to a magnificent Cathedral completed in 2016 following groundbreaking in 2015 by the visiting Pope Francis. Inside the 1, 600-seater auditorium, we saw five pilgrims on their knees, all deep in meditation and completely unaware of our presence.

Like all good tour guides, Elizabeth encouraged us to visit the souvenir shop on the grounds of the Cathedral. It was well stocked with items ranging from rosaries to wooden carvings of the Virgin Mary. The colourful rosaries caught our attention. Remi, the Managing Editor, picked two rosaries and asked for the price. I was jolted when the attendant replied, 30, 000 apiece. She meant UGX30, 000, not N30, 000. And one USD could fetch you as much as UGX3, 744. Meaning we only needed to pay $3 or roughly N2, 400. So, heart, be still. We snapped up a pair and left substantial change in Ugandan Shillings for charity – a perfect way to show our appreciation for our time at the Shrine. Time to leave, but not before Elizabeth stressed the point that a parish priest was not only a Nigerian by the name Father Cyprian but also a “very nice gentleman.”

One up for Nigeria.

In Love with Nollywood
The good feeling wasn’t going to last. Regina, our UTB guide and Vincent, our driver saw to that— by introducing football into our conversation. No big surprise here: It was the eve of the Word Cup in Russia, downtown Kampala was brimming with giant digital billboards promoting various product tie-ins and Nigeria had announced its final team list. So, with the global soccer fever in the air, they were eager to remind us that Nigeria has never beaten Uganda in any competitive football match. As I am more familiar with rocket science than the beautiful game, I looked at Remi to rescue us from the Ugandan duo. But Remi’s expressionless look seemed to suggest they had a point.

“Do you know the only time Nigeria can beat us?” Regina asked, cashing in on our momentary vulnerability. “The only time Nigeria can beat us is if you cheat or bring Patience Ozokwor to come to the field and do juju!” That set off an uncontrollable, all-round laughter in the tour truck.

Another one up for Nigeria, the “juju” part notwithstanding.

Like most Ugandans, Regina and Vincent had seen many Nollywood movies and knew all the big stars. Their dream was to meet Aki and Pawpaw. Vincent had a memory stick full of Nigerian music plugged permanently on the dashboard. From Davido to Tekno, tunes after tunes blared endlessly from his audio system. Mind you, they were not trying to impress us: Nigerian music and movies are truly popular in the East African country.

We had no way of confirming this, but the word around town was that Ugandan girls love Nigerian men. And quite unlike their Nigerian counterparts, who they claim worship money, Ugandan girls are all for the care and attention.

As we maneuvered our way through the hilly and winding streets of Kampala, we came face to face with the magnificent Uganda National Mosque. A stunning architectural masterpiece, the mosque sits on the Kampala Hill and is visible from much of the capital city. It seats up to 15, 000 worshippers with provision for another 1, 000 in the gallery. It is also known as the Gadhafi Mosque, apparently in honour of the late Libyan strongman, who donated it to Uganda in 2006. The beautiful mosque attracts worshippers as well as tourists. The word on the street was that Gadhafi had a mistress in Toro, one of the Kingdoms in Uganda, and built the mosque partly as a monument to the romance. Grateful Ugandans have since returned the compliment, honouring him with Col Mohammed Gadhafi Way just opposite the mosque.

We almost got carried away admiring the imposing mosque before our guide sounded the alarm, “Watch your phones and bags!” We were in no particular danger but the warning was repeated at distressingly regular intervals, particularly as we entered the busy part of Kampala Road. It was quite a scene: young men parading menacingly; snarling traffic; shops and shoppers; the heavy presence of financial services institutions; sleek telephone and electronics outlets; trucks barely out of the way, disgorging their wares; all enveloped in the humidity of the tropical rainforest.

And what better time to be reminded that it was nearly lunch break. So off to one of the finest Indian restaurants in Kampala.

Can you smell the curry?

• Emmanuel Ukpong, Aviation and Travel journalist, wrote in via emmanuelukpong@gmail.com