While millions thronged the martyrs’ shrines at Namugongo on June 3 for prayers, outside, a group of pilgrim schoolchildren were in a nearby bar across the road dancing and drinking the morning away.
The group of about 20 girls and boys clad in school uniform entered the dimly lit bar after paying Shs 3,000 each. Authorities at the bar declined to speak to us on why they allowed schoolchildren in. This was before a bouncer closed the door behind our reporter.
Scattered outside this place in nearby incomplete buildings were lots of used condoms. Jesca Akiteng, a teacher of Our Lady of Consolata Kireka, who had come with some students, said this normally happens when students are let out without responsible supervisors.
“Some teachers come here with children and everyone is left on their own; some of these students then engage in drinking alcohol and sexual activities,” Akiteng said.
The drinking, sexual activities, theft, prostitution and extortion by policemen all starts mostly on the eve of Martyrs day.
The Observer strolled through neighbouring Kyaliwajjala township to witness firsthand what happens apart from the prayers in Namugongo. We talked to business owners, taxi operators, shop attendants and boda boda riders.
“Most of the people who come to pray are inside the shrines already. The ones you see around here are just taking advantage of the big number of people to come and either do business, steal or have fun. Even the prostitutes of Kireka have moved here,” James Kalema, a lodge owner in Kyaliwajjala, said.
He said business booms in the Martyrs week.
“My rooms are always filled and I don’t care what happens there as long as I am earning. My wife has a restaurant across the road and for three days, we don’t sleep as people need to eat,” Kalema said.
The bars are always filled to the brim. And the huge security people deployed also take a piece of the action. According to different accounts, police and army men demand for money from people found moving at night. You could be arrested for being idle and disorderly.
“It normally happens away from the main road. If you are walking home and you meet three or four of them, you will have to give them all your money in order to continue. A friend of mine was made to sit in the mud and beaten after giving the policemen only Shs 10,000,” Yosamu Sewagudde, a boda boda cyclist in Kyaliwajjala said.
Taxis found using back roads to avoid the gridlocked ones are also extorted.
Different people understand June 3, Uganda Martyrs day, differently. While others use it for renewal of their faith, others see an opportunity to make merry or boost their businesses.
At night, every open shop turns into a drinking spot and pork joints are overcrowded. Revellers dance to a cocktail of music playing loudly from different spots. Business in the area concentrates in Kyaliwajjala township and right outside the shrines.
Some vendors go to great lengths to sell their merchandise. “This towel was last used by Kizito Omuto, please come and buy it for blessings,” one vendor shouted at a passersby.
Kizito Omuto was one of the youngest martyrs killed. Even the corporates have jumped into the fray, marketing their products from well-positioned tents.
Justine Namusoke together with two fellow students of Kyambogo University have for two years now been frying chips outside the Catholic shrine.
“We camp here normally on June 1 and put up our stall, buy the material and sell. We leave on June 4. We put together our upkeep money for capital and for the two times we have done it, we have never regretted as the profits are much,” Namusoke said.
The increasing numbers of pilgrims has rendered the shrines too small to contain the numbers. On Sunday, June 3, just like last year, several people were locked out of the Catholic shrine because it had filled to capacity.
The only place that seemed a little less occupied was the space gazetted for a market. Getting a trade spot isn’t easy, though.
Sarah Nakalema, a food vender, said it costs one between Shs 200,000 and Shs 500,000 to secure a 10 square metre space and this can be done several months before the day.
The biggest nightmare remains access to places of convenience. All five toilet facilities in the Catholic shrine had a long queue. It would take one about two hours to get to the washrooms.