On June 3 this year, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converged at Namugongo to commemorate the Uganda martyrs, most of whom were executed there.
Speaking to Muslims who converged for prayers to mark the occasion at a Namugongo mosque, the presiding Imam said he was happy that the Namugongo pilgrimage was for all religious denominations. He was happy that Uganda now had a ‘Mecca’ in Namugongo village.
Former President Idi Amin Dada, in his full Muslim regalia of an al-hajji, cut the tape to declare the official opening of Namugongo martyrs shrine on June 3, 1975. The occasion was blessed with the presence of His Eminence Sergio Pignedoli, who represented the pope, and the Catholic archbishop of Kampala, Emmanuel Nsubuga.
Speaking at the occasion, Amin said that it was not only Christians that were burnt to death for their belief at Namugongo. He noted that even Muslims, numbering more than 70, were executed here. He ordered that a mosque to commemorate the death of those people be built at the venue. It was eventually built and still stands today.
The martyrs came about because of the authoritarian reign of the Buganda monarchy. People who followed the teachings of Islam or Christianity were burnt to death. However, the brutality of Kabaka Mwanga, who is principally blamed for the burning to death of 22 Catholics and 23 Protestants, has turned into a blessing for Uganda. In August 1969, Uganda became the first African country to be visited by a pope.
While in Uganda, Pope Paul VI laid the foundation stone for Namugongo martyrs shrine. Much as some people may see the martyrdom at Namugongo to be a Catholic affair, it has always been a multi-denominational matter. There are people who also argue that there should also be traditional Buganda shrines at Namugongo, because some Buganda Kabaka should have, at one time, disagreed with some Baganda traditional priests and executed them there.
And although the misdemeanour was committed by a Buganda Kabaka, the Namugongo affair is not a historical affair for Buganda only.The people who were executed at Namugongo did not come from Buganda alone.
For example, two of the saints came from Busoga. St Gonzaga Gonza was a mulangira (prince) born in Bugonza, near Kaliro town in Busoga. St Matia Mulumba was born in the Luba kingdom of Bunya in Busoga, just a few miles from where Bishop Hannington was killed.
The three key presidents of Uganda, Apollo Milton Obote, a protestant; Idi Amin Dada, a Muslim; and Yoweri Museveni, another protestant, have all been anxious to associate themselves with Namugongo. Obote enthusiastically received Pope Paul VI in 1969, and also provided resources that made the pope’s visit comfortable.
He sponsored the building of the martyrs’ lake at Namugongo and the island on this lake from where the pope prayed and blessed the whole of Africa. Although there was a lot of opposition against Amin, a Muslim, opening the Namugongo martyrs shrine, al-Hajji Amin was happy to open the church, enter it and pray there. This partly made Namugongo martyrs shrine a place for all Ugandans.
At the most recent Namugongo pilgrimage, President Museveni prayed twice in the shrine. He was there on June 1 at the prayer for former Tanzanian President Julius Kambalage Nyerere and at the main pilgrimage prayer on June 3. Museveni, in response to calls by Catholic clerics, pledged funding to help improve Namugongo.
To Uganda and its entire people, Namugongo is not only a pilgrimage site: it is a cultural site and a citadel. Ugandans wait for June 3 every year with anxiety similar to that of the people of Saudi Arabia during the Mecca season. The Namugongo affair has immense potential to boost Uganda’s tourism, but it is also hugely anticipated by individuals around the shrine, keen to make a quick buck.
Therefore, although the martyrdom at Namugongo was a matter of brutality, anguish and suffering for the victims, it is today a matter of pride for all Ugandans. We should all support the drive to improve it.
The author is a former chief news editor for Radio Uganda and Uganda Television.