Every year, thousands of believers walk to Namugongo in commemoration of the martyrs killed for their faith in 1885 and 1886.
The majority were killed at Namugongo, where two shrines now stand and attract millions of pilgrims every June 3. On May 26, The Observer's ABUBAKER MAYEMBA joined thousands of pilgrims from Hoima diocese, this year's lead celebrants, to trek 223km to Namugongo and experience what saints Andrew Kaggwa, Anatooli Kirigwajjo and others endured.
FRIDAY, DAY ONE.
I arrive at St Cyprian Catholic church in Hoima town at 3pm. The pilgrims are still in mass. At 5pm, Fr James Tibezinda ends the sermon after guiding pilgrims. I am informed by one of the pilgrims we will be spending a night at Bukwiri town, about 46km from Hoima.
Gulp! That is like walking to Lugazi from Kampala.
“That’s very near, my friend. I have walked longer distances and we will be there by 2am,” he reassures me.
Well, I promised my editor I would walk to Namugongo and there is no backing out. Singing Twakushaba, a hymn that asks God for guidance, the congregation exits the church and we embark on our journey. Women adjust their bags to their backs and tuck lesus around them, which at a distance makes them look like they are carrying babies. We are about 2,000, mostly women.
We energetically march through Hoima town. I am not sure how I will make it to Bukwiri in my heavy shoes at this fast pace. It starts to drizzle and it cools off our hot bodies as the singing continues. People stand outside shops and homes waving, and a woman runs from her shop holding a packet of cough-drop tablets and hands me a strip.
“Safe journey and may Mother Mary bless you and may you pray for me when you reach,” she implores me.
I will possibly pray for her, but in a mosque and certainly not to Mother Mary, for I am Muslim. But I don’t tell her that. After about three kilometers, Bishop Vincent Kirabo Amooti of Hoima diocese, blesses our journey. It has stopped drizzling but my bag is heavy and the trousers feel tight.
As we approach Butangwa village, the singing fades; older women aged between 45 and 70 fall behind and I decide to walk with this group to Bukwiri, but my now burning feet worry me. One of the women tells me she has walked in the past years and the martyrs have answered her prayers. This year, she hopes Mother Mary will protect her children’s marriages and hers.
At 7pm my pace is slower than the older women’s and I am among the last people now. Even the last two women reciting rosaries are about to pass me. It has only been two hours! I scold myself. At that, I push for another two hours. At 9pm we reach Buhanika and I introduce myself to Angela Ayebare, 21, and Jolly Aheebwa, 18, also on their maiden pilgrimage.
My feet and groin hurt. I should have worn lighter pants and not tight jeans and boxers, I deride myself. We have been four and a half hours on the road and all the food I ate is gone and I am now ‘driving’ on an empty tank. I ask Ayebare how far it is to Bukwiri and she laughs.
“We have not even crossed River Kafu and you are asking about Bukwiri? It is very far from here. We will reach there in the morning,” she tells me and I stop for a moment, sending both of them into laughter.
I have seen Namugongo pilgrims arriving in slippers before and wondered; I wonder no more as I kick off my heavy shoes and slide my painful feet into Umoja slippers. After another kilometer, I take the slippers off and walk barefoot. The gravel is punishing, but its coldness numbs the pain; I wish I could kick the trousers off too! The pain in my groin is too much and I think I have bruised my thighs.
Still barefoot and another more than 3km later, we cross River Kafu at 10pm. The coldness here is biting and distracts me from thoughts of home. I have walked with Ayebare and Aheebwa for long now, but we have hardly talked. We are busy searching the horizon for signs of a town but the only lights we see are from distant cars.
After Kikonda, Aheebwa and I are worn out but not Ayebare. Never mind that I am carrying her bag even as she pulls ahead. No matter how fast we walk, there is no sign we will reach soon. After midnight, some pilgrims lie by the roadside and wait for the ambulance. Others cannot hold back their tears and disappointment.
“This is turning into a punishment, because walking 46km in one night is impossible. They should have made Kikonda our resting point,” one pilgrim says. I agree.
It is 2am and it is just Aheebwa and I on the road. Some pilgrims are ahead, out of sight and those we left behind are also out of sight; surprisingly, we are not scared and even take rests in the middle of nowhere.
After walking through almost half of the forest in Kalagi, about 40km from Hoima, our legs cannot take another step. At 3am, we meet six other pilgrims and we wait in the forest for the ambulance. It arrives an hour later and we pile in. We reach Bukwiri at 5am and join the rest on verandahs for some sleep.
SATURDAY, DAY TWO
At 7am we are woken up to head to Lwamagaali, about 6km from Bukwiri. We leave Bukwiri to allow shopkeepers on whose verandahs we slept to open up for business. St Mary’s primary school, Lwamagaali has many trees; we will rest there till evening. My muscles are stiff, my feet and the wounds between my thighs are hurting. I won’t be able to walk to the school.
Aheebwa is not feeling well too, so we hop on a boda boda. We reach Lwamagaali at 8am and I buy bandages, cottonwool, plasters and a balm. I join the queue at the borehole, fill the borrowed three-litre bottle with water and head to the maize garden – our bathroom today.
I finally eat at around 9am, find space under a tree and sleep until 3pm. I am woken up by calls for mass. I learn that MP Barnabas Tinkansiimire (Buyaga West) is also walking to Namugongo. Although he has walked more than 50km, the MP looks fresh. Mass ends and we set off for Kiboga, 27km from Lwamagaali.
Whew! That sounds more reasonable. But because my body is still hurting, Kiboga sounds like Timbuktu. It is hot and I silently salute the Alur pilgrims that declined to stop over and walked in the scorching sun. Ayebare and Aheebwa seem rejuvenated and are only slowed down by limping me.
Later, my muscles loosen up and I pick up the pace. Although we are not in the first group, we are among the leading pack now. I also notice the numbers have reduced; we are now about 1,000. About half have dropped out. Peter Irumba from Kiziranfumbi tells me he is walking to Namugongo to thank the martyrs
for helping him retrieve his stolen bike and reconciling him with his wife.
“I am planning to construct two commercial rooms in the village. Walking to Namugongo is a small price to pay for the great things [God] has done for me.”
Despite the road having many hilly parts, I’m not so tired, thanks to dressing my wounds and wearing lighter, big shorts. The muscles also adjust to the long distance. We reach St Felista Catholic church in Kiboga at midnight and exhausted, I doze off while talking to some pilgrims.
We are joined by pilgrims from Kibaale, Kagadi and Masindi. Our numbers swell again.
SUNDAY, DAY THREE.
It is 5am when I wake up to colleagues telling me they had been trying to wake me up in vain. They say I snored. I rarely snore!
We will be spending the day in Lwamata; so, we set off. By 9am we are in Lwamata resting and refreshing. I stretch my muscles and take a nap. I later meet a 75-year-old woman from Nalweyo who is heading to Namugongo to ask God for more life so as to care for her five orphaned grandchildren.
The grandmother is determined to walk all the way and vows to return next year. At 5pm we hold mass, then head for our next pit stop in Kateera town about 20km away. The worst is clearly behind us: that first day we walked close to 50km in a single night. I sigh with relief when I reach Kateera at midnight.
MONDAY, DAY FOUR.
It is strange how easily a tired body adapts to any kind of ‘bed’. I have no trouble sleeping and have to be shaken awake when it is time to set off. I am told we are walking close to 17km to Bukalamuli. Sounds good, but when I reach Bukomero, I doubt my ability to continue because my legs are weak and pray for an ambulance to come by.
After one hour and no ambulance, I trudge on. At midday, I arrive at Our Lady of Peace, Bukalamuli Catholic parish just in time for lunch prepared by the parishioners. We set off for Busunju at 5pm. The bruises between my thighs are yet to heal and I walk in pain. Because of the unusual fatigue, pilgrims are not always sensible and are ticked off by the smallest of issues.
After walking four hours, one pilgrim is knocked by a motorcycle. Luckily, the ambulance is nearby and she is rushed to Mulago hospital. By 10pm, we are at St Joseph Catholic parish. The church is packed to capacity; so, I sleep in the compound. I forgot to carry any linens; two shirts, two trousers and a pair of socks stand between me and the chilly night. I wake up trembling in the dead of the night.
Now I know why most walking is done at night, sleeping during the day.
TUESDAY, DAY FIVE.
We set off at 6am for Namayumba, 17km away, and we are now about 900. Three hours later, we reach the budding town, where we shall spend the day. In the evening, we leave for Kakiri and I know Namugongo is not that far off, because I have started hearing of familiar towns. I have been to Kakiri several times before by car and never realised how hilly the place is. Each hill drains my energy.
In the villages, bystanders were in obvious awe of the pilgrims; as we approach urban areas, the attitude changes and bystanders do not seem impressed by what we are doing. A woman states to our tired faces: “Mutambulira bwerere kuba musinza bibumbe. Mulokoke, kuba Yesu lye kkubo n’amazima.” (You are walking in vain, because you worship idols. Become born-again, because Jesus is the wayand truth.)
A few kilometres on and one boda boda rider shouts: “Abo aberamaza bebasinga n’okwonoona.” (Those who walk to Namugongo are the biggest sinners.)
Not a single pilgrim answers back. The road here is bumpy and I have since developed a blister on my left foot, adding to my anguish. I trip but manage to break my fall and I am helped to the roadside by an older woman. The pain in my groin returns because the bruises have been exposed again.
For the next two hours, I plod on to Kakiri, alone; no Ayebare, no Aheebwa. I plug earphones into my phone and Adele (Can’t Let Go, One And Only and Someone Like You) and Beyoncé (Halo, Crazy In Love and Disappear) guide me to utopia, where there is no walking alone through dark places at 10pm.
Considering others are probably reciting novenas and the rosary, my choice of music would be frowned upon. As I approach a steep hill a few kilometres from Kakiri, my phone battery dies and takes my energy with it.
For the second time in five days, the ambulance picks me up and by 1am, I am warmly sleeping in a church in Nadangira. I am lucky Ayebare booked me sleeping space. Most pilgrims sleep outside in the cold.
WEDNESDAY, DAY SIX.
We are near Kampala and today is going to be the longest walk we have made during daytime. Nansana will be our last pit stop before heading to Namugongo. It is about 18km from Kakiri.
It starts to drizzle as we set off at 6am from Nadangira, but no one is bothered, because rain is considered a blessing. While most of the pilgrims make it to Nansana at midday, I arrive at St Joseph church at 3pm. I am among the last five pilgrims.
Luckily, there won’t be any more walking today; so, I take a bath and Joseph Ssenkula helps massage my sore muscles and I dress up the wounds. I am too tired and don’t know if I can make it to Namugongo.
THURSDAY, DAY SEVEN.
At 5am, we embark on our final journey to Namugongo, 20km away. Not even the knowledge that I will not be walking tomorrow boosts my energy levels. We hit the Northern bypass and head towards Naalya, whose junction is punishingly far from the Ntinda one. My legs lose their strength at the sight of the hill crossed by the Kiwatule flyover.
I hold onto the rails at the roadside and slowly drag my swollen feet. Although the ambulance stops for rescue, I decline. I have walked most of the journey and there is no way I am making the final lap of just 6km in an ambulance.
At 9am, I reach the Naalya roundabout and finally face Namugongo. Those two hills, Naalya and Kyaliwajjala, are the steepest hills I have met since I began this journey six days ago. It takes me almost two hours from Naalya roundabout to Kyaliwajjala trading center.
There, I am directed to a seminary where the other Hoima pilgrims are. When all have gathered, we walk to Namugongo from the seminary. Although we reach the shrine within 20 minutes, we have to line up for more than two hours in the scorching sun.
At 1pm, we jubilantly enter Uganda Martyrs Shrine, Namugongo. As other pilgrims rush to the lake to wash their weary feet with the blessed water most Namugongo pilgrims fetch and drink without boiling, I look for where to sleep. Martyrs day is two days away but the entire place is packed.
I spend the next four days allowing my body to heal enough for my Ramadan fast, albeit 10 days late.