As the Catholic European missionaries (1885) were setting foot on the banks of the River Niger at Onitsha in 1885 to begin planting the Christian faith in Igboland in West Africa, tens of African Christians across in East Africa were witnessing to that faith with their lives. They are the Ugandan Martyrs, the celebration of whose memory is included in Pope Francis' visit to Uganda as part of his current Apostolic Voyage to Africa. As you read this write-up devoted to the Martyrs, the Pope has just on Saturday 28th November, celebrated the memory of the Martyrs - according to the official Vatican released schedule - by three specific activities, viz visit to the “Anglican Sanctuary of the Martrys of Namugongo”; visit to the “Catholic Sanctuary of the Martyrs of Namugongo”, and celebrating “ Holy Mass for the Martyrs of Uganda in the area of the Catholic Sanctuary”. Namugongo is the place where 13 of the Catholic Martyrs and some Anglican colleagues were burnt alive on June 3rd, 1886.
We are used to hearing of the 22 Martyrs of Uganda who were Catholics. But the above paragraph shows that besides those of the Catholic faith, there were also Anglican Christians, 23 of them who suffered and died for their Christian faith in Uganda at the same time. This is now being recognized and celebrated in the spirit of ecumenism ushered in by the Second Vatican Council. If this article dwells more on the 22 Catholic martyrs who are better known in Catholic circles, it is not to downplay the witness of those of “our separated brethren”.
Secular historians may point to political and social factors that got mixed up with the religious in the story of the Ugandan Martyrs. But that the 22 Catholic Christians certainly gave up their lives for their faith was recognized and confirmed by their beatification as martyrs in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. They were canonized on 18th October 1964 by Pope Paul V1 in a solemn ceremony in Rome in the presence of the throng of world Catholic prelates then attending the Second Vatican Council, as well as representatives of the Ugandan Government, clergy, religious and lay people from the land of the martyrs.
It should be made clear that modern Uganda and Ugandan government as we know them today had not yet been formed when the martyrdom took place in the later part of the 19th century. What existed then were fully independent traditional kingdoms, the largest, strongest and most highly organized of them being the Kingdom of Buganda with a hereditary ruler with the title, kabaka. This kingdom was the main theatre of events that led to the martyrdom which took place when the ruling kabaka was a despotic and cruel monarch called Mwanga. A chronicler said the kabaka “had uncontested rights over all his subjects, was a law unto himself and master of life and death” (J.F.Faupel, African Holcaust, the story of the Ugandan Martyrs, page 1). It reminds one of the bible's hint on the power of the Egyptian Pharaoh whose backing meant that Joseph could do anything in the realm. He told Joseph: “I, Pharaoh proclaim that without your approval, no one shall move hand or foot in all the land of Egypt” (Gen 41:44).
It was therefore during Mwanga's reign that the 45 Christians (22 Catholic and 23 Anglican ) were sent to death for their faith between November 1885 and January 1887. It is remarkable to note that most of the Catholic martyrs were in fact officers in the king's palace, the younger ones served as pages. Most accounts attribute the king's anger at the Christians to their refusal to yield to his immoral advances of a homosexual nature. The older Christian servants of the king made sure to protect the younger ones and exhorted them never to break their baptismal promises by giving in to the king's immoral desires.
The first victim of the king's fury was Joseph Mukasa Balikuddebe,(aged 25-26 ). He was known to be a senior adviser to the kabaka and a recent Catholic convert. He protected the Christian pages from kabaka Mwanga's immoral advances. In addition, he reproached Mwanga for executing an intruding Anglican Bishop James Hannington without offering him opportunity to defend himself. Mwanga, furious at what he saw as Mukasa's insolence, had him beheaded on 15 November, 1885. Seven other Catholic converts met their death in the wave of killings in May 1886. They were Matthias Kalemba Mulumba (aged 50 and oldest of the martyrs), dismembered and left to die; Denis Sebuggwawo (aged 16), beheaded; Pontian Ngondwe (aged 35-40), speared and hacked to pieces; Andrew Kaggwa (aged about 30), beheaded and hacked to pieces; Athanasius Bazzekuketta ( aged about 20) hacked to pieces; Gonzaga Gonza (aged about 20), speared and beheaded; Noe Mwaggali (aged about 35), speared and left to be savaged by dogs. One Catholic, the last of the 22 Catholic martyrs to be killed, was Jean-Marie Muzeyi (aged 30-35), martyred on 27 January 1887 by being beheaded and thrown into a swamp.
The other 13 Catholic martyrs (with their Anglican colleagues) were led bound with ropes, shackles, iron rings and slave yokes from the royal enclosure up an eight mile stretch to Namugongo where on Ascension Thursday , 3rd June 1886, 12 of them were burnt alive. Charles Lwanga, (aged 25), the head of the royal pages and Mukasa's successor in guiding the young converts , was put to death the same June 3 but before the execution of the rest of the young men. One account wrote: “He was wrapped tightly in a reed mat, a yoke was hung on his neck, and he was thrown onto a pyre. Taunting his executioners, Charles is said to have shouted, 'You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body!' Before he died, he cried out, “Katonda' or 'My God'” (AMERICA magazine, June 3, 2011). The others that perished at Namugongo are, Luke Banabakintu (aged 30-35), James Buzabaliawo (aged 25-30), Gyavira (aged 17), Ambrose Kibuka (aged 18), Anatole Kiriggwajjo (aged 20 or more), Achilles Kiwanuka (aged 17), Kizito, the youngest (aged 13-14), Mbaga Tuzinde (aged 17), Mugagga (aged 16-17), Mukasa Kiriwawanvu (aged 20-25), Adolphus Mukasa Ludigo (aged 24-25), Bruno Serunkuma (aged 30). It is known that four of the young pages were earlier baptized by Charles Lwanga when danger loomed and none of the priests was accessible.
Namugongo is now the symbol of the Ugandan Martyrs. Five years after their canonization in 1964, the same Pope Paul V1 who performed the ceremony visited Uganda - the first Pope to visit Africa in modern times. He laid the foundation stone for the shrine now built up in Namugongo in honour of St Charles Lwanga and his companions. This is the shrine that Pope Francis visited as mentioned above.
The Catholic White Fathers (so called not because of their skin colour), now known as Missionaries of Africa, arrived and began missionary work in Buganda in 1879. It is remarkable that under ten years, the faith implanted had produced Christian converts strong enough to withstand furious persecution without wilting. In this age of gross materialism and sexual permissiveness, the Martyrs of Uganda have a big lesson to teach. They were young - most were in their teens and twenties. But they were not seduced by the values and security of the royal court. They took a stand for God's law even when it meant defying the king himself.
In Pope Paul V1's homily at the Canonization Mass, he linked the Uganda Martyrs to the glorious chapter of ancient African Christianity. “Who could forsee”, he said, “ that with the great historical African Martyrs and Confessors like Cyprain, Felicity and Perpetua and the great Augustine, we should one day list the beloved names of Charles Lwanga, Matthias Mulumba Kalemba and their twenty companions. And we do not wish to forget the others who, belonging to the Anglican confessions, met death for the name of Christ”.
The Pope's linking the tales of the early Christian martyrs in Africa with the more recent saga of the Uganda Martyrs recalls to me a quote from the third century Christian writer, Tertullian: “As often as we are mown down by you [i.e. persecutors of Christians], the more we grow in numbers; the blood of Christians is the seed”. The famous American-based Pew Research Center projected in its April 2015 research that by 2050, the number of Christian adherents in the U.S., and the West in general, would continue to decline. But sub-Saharan Africa would see the opposite. “Four out of every 10 Christians in the world will live in sub-Saharan Africa”. Is the blood of Christians shed in ancient and modern Africa, the seed-bed for this comparatively remarkable growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa?