By Fr. Joseph Okumu
Ninety nine years ago in November 1917, one young Acholi Christian neophyte went to his Parish Priest Italian Fr. Cesare Gambaretto a Comboni Missionary and put this question to him: “Who is going to take over the work of my cousin?” Who was he? What had happened? Who was his cousin? He was Okello who took a new name David of Ogom Payira clan born of his Father Lode and mother Amona. His cousin was Antonio who died in an outbreak of meningitis, hunger and yellow fever in Paimol some 86 kilometers East of Kitgum. Okelo David had just completed his Christian formation in the catechumenate of Kitgum in 1916 along with a friend Irwa [Ermene] Gildo of Labongo Bar Kituba clan born of his Father Okeny Daniel and mother Atoo. The priest responded: “I do not have anyone”. The following day, Okello David returned to the priest with Irwa Jildo and he said: “If you wish, the two of us will go to Paimol”. Paimol was where Antonio died; a place where political tensions begun to build following the deposition by the colonial administration of anointed chief Lakidi of Paimol. It was where one needed to go and live with much prudence and in constant faith-filled discernment. Well knowing the dangers in Paimol, the priest decided to tell them all to the two youth. But still, the two insisted they would go all risks notwithstanding. “So you are ready to go to Paimol.
Do you know the people of Paimol can kill you? Jildo, you who are younger?” David who was older than Jildo responded that they would stay together. The priest also insisted: “what if they kill you?” David again responded that they would go to heaven where Antonio is without fear of death. All these conversations took place in front of Fr. Gambaretto’s room where he stood with the boys. One would expect that a young man like Okelo whose cousin died in Paimol and who had taken a girl to marry soon after completing instruction into the Christian faith would choose a safer life in his Ogom village. He did not. For Okello now, David by Christian vocation life was Christ (Phil 1:20c-24,27a). Stupefied by the demand of the two young men, the priest then entered his room, picked up a catechism and rosary, blessed them and recited a Hail Mary prayer and gave them to the young men.
They then went to Paimol where indeed they were killed. The fame of their heroic acts soon spread among all the people of Paimol who continued to say: David Okello and Jildo Irwa were killed for no reason other than teaching the new Christian religion. In 2002, this story of the two young Acholi Christians was recognized by then Pope John Paul II as selfless and heroic acts of faith in other words martyrdom. Testimonies of over sixty (60) people lead the Pope to declare that of David Okelo and Jildo Irwa was a case of martyrdom. To date, to the people of Paimol, the martyrdom is like a felix culpa not only dramatic and unforgettable but as Tertulian once anticipated also the seed by which Christianity multiply; it is a seed therefore by which Christianity is strengthened, renewed and identified with love and forgiveness. The name of this particular location where they were killed changed in 1926 from Palamuku to wiPolo this latter meaning in, heaven. It was also in this place under an ananga tree/kituba that the two taught the Christian “Our Father” prayer while sitting on a lela’/flat rock to the children of Palamuku. When in the same 1926 Monsignor Antonio Vignato picked up the remains of Daudi Okello and Jildo Irwa to bring them for a decent burial in the mother Church of Kitgum, the people of Paimol begun to spread the belief that the place of actual killing of the two was a holy sepulcher where they all must lay to rest. The clan’s people of Jildo forgave his killing.
In the Acholi people’s funeral rite practice, uncles of a diseased demanded of the parents an account of death in an attempt to avenge the killing of their nephew or niece. In the case of Jildo Irwa, his maternal uncles demanded of his father an explanation as to how their nephew was killed and what plans there were to avenge his killing. Okeny Daniel Father of Jildo responded to his in-laws saying that there was no need to investigate to avenge the killing of Jildo because he knew his son was killed on account of his faith. The maternal uncles of Jildo ended by accusing Okeny Daniel of neglecting such a serious matter as the killing of his own son. This they remembered in their famous royal bwola song:
oweko wode oto i tim
Latin oto itim.
Hmm… oneko latin odong Paimol
It is in this holy sepulcher that in 2004 that the Shrine’s Church was built, the priests’ residence and two 60 beds dormitories for pilgrims who come to pray the “Our Father in heaven” and donate in both cash and kind. Earlier on in 2003, those who belonged to the land where in 1917-1918 catechists David and Jildo taught religion offered it all about 15 acres to build the Church. In the same sepulcher, two Daudi Okello and Jildo Irwa arche curved at ten meters high to symbolize the gate of God’s infinite mercy. This gate has since its construction in 2015 been named by the local people: wek banyawa/ ”forgive our trespasses”. The name is again taken from the “Our Father”. By 2016, an estimated twenty five thousand pilgrims entered through the “forgive our trespass” gate. The multitude of pilgrims who come to the wiPolo Shrine of Blessed catechists David and Jildo believe they come to celebrate a typical selflessness of Christian vocation in two persons who are very much like them in many ways. Many times, Christians are called to go and supply Christian ministry in risky situations where there are not enough personnel. In 1987, the priests of northern were, for what the Government of Uganda thought their own security, asked to leave all their parish residences to relocate to the safety of the military protected and displacement camps. Over 800 catechists remained in the parish stations to minister to slightly over one million displaced persons in the camps until 2009.
In this way, the calling to evangelize remains true and the same at all times. It is a calling to courageous and generous self-giving to announce the good news of salvation and a calling to faith in the infinite mercy and love of God.
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