Namugongo Martyrs’ History and the Birth Of Faith In Uganda

The Martyrs’ Trail is a route guiding us to various historical and emotional sites that today stand as important religious sites marking the brutal treatment that the Christian faithful then were subjected to for their faith by Kabaka Mwanga 11 as he competed for influence and recognition among his subjects with the Christian missionaries.

The arrival of Christian missionaries set a new twist in the religious and political sphere of the people of Buganda in particular and Uganda as a whole as it set a big social revolution among the Kabaka’s subjects. The missionaries then brought with them new teachings aimed at transforming people’s lives. The parallel forces then included; The Arabs (the Moslems), the Catholics, Protestants and the traditionalists who all operated within the inner circles of the King’s court. Un like Mutesa 1 who let his subjects subscribe to any religious faith of their choice, Kabaka Muwanga 11 who succeeded his father  Mutesa 1 as a youth following the un timely death of his father had little experience in handling conflicting forces and did not want to see himself subscribe to any religion saw Muslims denouncing him for his denial in getting circumcised and wanted him replaced by a Muslim prince and he could not as well join the Christian faith for fear of his polygamous lifestyle that saw him die a traditionalist.

The competitive struggle among the religious groups in converting people who received it with much excitement required that the people (Kabaka’s subjects) denounce all their old faith and cultural practices as satanic and evil and show allegiance and adhere to the new religious faith saw the Kabaka’s subjects shift their loyalty from the Kabaka abandoning their cultural practices and took on new lifestyles and religious faith. Kabaka Muwanga 11 rightfully realized and saw that the powers and loyalty his old predecessors had enjoyed were no more for him and the disintegration of the kingdom and the humiliation and isolation he continuously received made him turn into an intolerant and vicious persecutor of Christians and all foreigners. 
According to the old traditions, the Kabaka was the center of power and authority, and he could dispense as he felt. Given a shift in loyalty, power and values, Kabaka Mwanga 11 was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teachings and its followers who were regarded as rebels.

In less than a year after Kabaka Mwanga 11’s assumption of the throne, he ordered the execution of the first three Christian martyrs;Yusufu/Joseph Rugarama, Makko/Mark Kakumba, and Nuwa/Noah Serwanga  who were killed on 31.January 1885 in Busega Natete. In October 1885 the Anglican Bishop James Hannington who had been dispatched to head the Eastern Equatorial Africa with headquators in Buganda was murdered in Busoga on his way to Buganda on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga 11 as he attempt to come to Buganda through Busoga a then shorter route than that taken by earlier visitors south of lake Victoria. The kings of Buganda regarded Busoga as a backdoor to Buganda with a believe that anyone coming through the backdoor must have evil intentions towards the kingdom and therefore could not be spared.

On 15th November 1885, Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe became the first Catholic martyr, when he was beheaded at Nakivubo. Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe was a senior advisor to Kabaka Muwanga 11 and a Catholic convert who condemned the Kabaka for ordering for Hannington’s death without giving him a chance to defend himself as was customary. However, this annoyed Kabaka Mwanga 11 on how Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe could question his actions and therefore ordered for his (Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe) arrest and killing.

Between December 1885 and May 1886 many more converts were murdered when Kabaka Mwanga 11 ordered the converts to choose between their new faith, and complete obedience to his orders. Those unwilling to renounce their new faith would be subject to death. Courageously, the neophytes chose their faith. The execution of twenty six Christians at Namugongo on 3rd June 1886 was the climax of the Mwanga’s campaign against the converts. The last person killed in this campaign was Jean-Marie Muzeeyi who was beheaded at Mengo on Jan 27, 1887.The list of forty five known Catholic and Protestant martyrs includes only those who could be formally accounted for. Many more murders went unreported in many parts of Buganda/Uganda without record.

The martyrdom of these early believers sparked off the growth of Christianity in Buganda, Uganda and Africa as a whole. The blood of the martyrs became a seed of faith as Christianity is now the dominant faith in Buganda and Uganda as a whole. The 22 known Catholic martyrs were declared "Blessed" by Pope Benedict XV in 1920 as one of the key steps in the catholic tradition that eventually leads to canonization. The 22 Catholic martyrs were indeed canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 18, 1964 during the Vatican II conference. Thus recognizing these martyrs by the universal church as being worthy of being honored as Saints. This was the first for modern Africa and a source of pride throughout the continent.

In honor of these modern saints, pope Paul VI became the first reigning pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa when he visited Uganda in July 1969, a visit that included a pilgrimage to the site of the martyrdom at Namugongo where he dedicated a site for the building of a shrine church in honor of the martyrs at the spot where Charles Lwanga was killed. The shrine church was dedicated in 1975 and it was subsequently named a basilica church, a high honor in Catholicism. Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion also came on pilgrimage in January 1984. Pope John Paul II in turn honored the martyrs with his own pilgrimage in February 1993.

To date, every year, June 3rd, when most of the martyrs were killed, is marked as a national holiday in Uganda. It is also marked worldwide on the church calendar as a day to honor the Uganda Martyrs. Come join a list of pilgrims.

The martyrs trail.
This is a one day itinerary that will guide us to key execution sites however; there other areas where martyrs were killed as will be explained by your guide.

After your breakfast, you will be picked by your guide who will then transfer you to our first site where the first three Christian martyrs; Yusuf/Joseph Rugarama, Makko/Mark Kakumba, and Nuwa/Noah Serwanga  who were executed and burned on 31.January 1885 where the Anglican missionaries set up a church that still stands to date.

Ndeeba Monument
We proceed to Ndeeba just close to Natete where the last martyr was sentenced by King Mwanga was Jean-Marie Muzeeyi who was beheaded in Mengo on Jan 27, 1887 who even after the execution of his fellow converts could not denounce his faith. Though executed in Mengo, a monument was built in Ndeeba lust a few meters from Mengo.

This was Kabaka (king) Mwanga II's palace where some of the Martyrs were sentenced to death. Mwanga lived here with all his palace officials and wives till the time when the palace was burnt down and he relocated to Munyonyo.

Old Kampala
We proceed to old Kampala where Matia Mulumba was brutally killed. His limbs were cut off; strips of flesh cut off from his back and he was left in this condition for three days  but he never gave up/denounced his faith but instead prayed for his executors and the Country at large till he took his last breath. A church was set up here (St. Matia Mulumba Parish) and still stands to date as a symbol of Christian faith.

This is a site that marked the killing of the first catholic Martyr Joseph Mukasa Balikudembe, who was beheaded on 15th November 1885. A big and busy city market was named after him on the site-St. Balikudembe market previously Owino market.

We then will proceed to Munyonyo where there three sites; The King's palace/court, a shrine where Andrew Kagwa was killed and its named after him (Andrew Kagwa’s shrine), and Ssebugwawo's monument built in his honor. Ssebugwawo was speared by Kabaka (king) Mwanga 11 personally but later killed at the age of 16 years by Mukajanga.

This is where more remaining martyrs that included about 13 Catholics and 10 Anglicans were condemned and burnt to death on 3rd June 1886 and this date is marked as a national holiday in Uganda and worldwide on the church calendar as a day to honor the Uganda Martyrs and Pilgrims from all parts of the world come to Namugongo on that date to mark and honor these modern saints including pope Paul VI became the first reigning pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa when he visited Uganda in July 1969, a visit that included a pilgrimage to the site of the martyrdom at Namugongo. Pope John Paul II in turn honored the martyrs with his own pilgrimage in February 1993 and also Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion came on pilgrimage in January 1984 among other high ranking religious leaders, politicians, and the local people of all walks of life. Come join a list of pilgrims this year.

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