Friday will mark 125 years since the brutal killing of 24 martyrs by the orders of Kabaka (King) Mwanga of Buganda, in the south of Uganda. The first martyr to die was King's major domo and leader of all Christians, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, on 15th November 1885. He was killed because he had pleaded to King Mwanga to abandon the vice of homosexuality and not to kill Bishop Hannington, an Anglican missionary who had entered Buganda from Busoga (the backdoor of Buganda kingdom). Thirteen of the martyrs were burnt to death at Namugongo. From that time he became angry with all Christians as they all refused to give in to his sinful demands and were persuading all other pages to do the same. On 25th May, 1886, King Mwanga ordered for a number of Christians to be brought before him and he passed on them the death penalty. The martyrs were killed between 26th May 1886 and 3rd June 1886. Some Martyrs were hacked to pieces like Andrew Kaggwa, Pontian Ngondwe, Matthias Mulumba and Denis Ssebuggwawo. Others were speared to death like Gonzaga Gonza, while others like Charles Lwanga and 12 others were burnt alive at Namugongo.
Millions of pilgrims are expected every year to pray and commemorate the day the Martyrs were killed. About 10,000 pilgrims have already made the journey to Namugongo. Most of the pilgrims are from the neighboring countries of Kenya, Tanzania, DR Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and southern Sudan. At least 90 pilgrims have driven from Malawi to Uganda. They left homes about a month ago and have already flocked the Uganda Martyrs Basilica in Namugongo.
When the pilgrims arrive, they will be asked to write sign in a visitor’s book where they give comments about Namugongo and the Martyrs in general. The pilgrims are then taken around the area by guides and visit among other things;
The Uganda Martyrs Basilica stands at the exact spot the gallant leader of the Uganda Martyrs, St. Charles Lwanga was burnt alive from toes to head.
The Uganda Martyrs’ Lake
This artificial lake was excavated just as another, the Kabaka’s lake was also being excavated at Mengo, also in Kampala. Many pilgrims often draw water from here and have later given testimony to its miraculous healing properties. Many pilgrims bathe in the water hoping to experience its healing properties.
The Pavilion (Island)
This is another unique feature at Namugongo with a clear view that can be seen from all angles of the Shrine compound. It is inside this pavilion where the main celebrant sits on big occasions like Martyrs' day, June 3. This grass thatched pavilion, also in circular form like the Shrine is supported by 4 pillars and can accommodate more than 300 priests and a number of bishops that turn for the High Mass on Martyrs Day.
The Martyrs shrine at Namugongo has over time been transformed from a center of pilgrimage for the Christian faithfuls, to one of the most lucrative business venue for all types of traders in Kampala. A number of people have profited from the mass pilgrimages to Namugongo many of them food vendors, hoteliers and alcohol dealers. The pilgrims need to eat and freshen up when they finally make it to Namugongo. They need a place to stay and food to eat, many of them staying for days before the actual event. Food and alcohol has however been banned at the shrine since the organizers of the event so the vendors have to do their business outside.
While pilgrims trek to Namugongo to pray and contemplate on the significance of the Uganda Martyrs, thousands of people have entered the Martyrs Day in their diaries as a day to descend to Namugongo to eat pork, drink alcohol and Dance to all sorts of tunes.
For the youths, it's time to realize the inner-self, while for petty thieves, martyrs day is usually a day to wreck havoc on the bags and pockets of the pilgrims.
Hopefully, this year’s martyrs day will be more about the remembrance of the 32 who died believing in their faith and not a chance to drink and party as hard as possible.