By Paulino Mondo MCCJ
These men are the spark that ignited the flame of Christianity in modern Africa. In a good number of families and homes in Uganda, will can find a painting of twenty-two young men and boys in Ugandan tribal tunic. Some of them are standing in front of a backdrop of upraised spears; the rest, in front of flames as tall as they are. While it appears that they are about to be put to death, the expressions on their faces are of peace, trust and even joy. Some of them are holding a palm branch; others have their hands folded in prayer; and others are clasping a cross or a rosary. These are the men and boys whose martyrdom in 1886 is considered the spark that ignited the flame of Christianity in modern Africa in general and Uganda in particular. Canonized in 1964, the Holy Martyrs of Uganda are revered for their faith, courage and their counter cultural witness to Christ.
All those who have asked for the intercession of the Uganda Martyrs acknowledge publically the graces received and the strengthening in their catholic faith. Those who have made long walking pilgrimages to Namugongo on foot and by other means of transport, always witness that their prayers have been answered through the Uganda Martyrs. There are also witnesses around the world who feel a close connection to the martyrs to the extent that their children, businesses and Churches have been named after the Uganda Martyrs.
The question during this year of Golden Jubilee of their canonization should be; why are these men so important to people of all walks of life? Perhaps, as Pope John Paul II pointed out during his visit to their shrine, their sacrifice was the seed that “helped to draw Uganda and all of Africa to Christ.” The martyrs are truly the “founding fathers” of the modern African church.
The Journey to Martyrdom
In 1887, Kabaka Mutesa I welcomed Protestant missionaries in Buganda. He seemed open to Christianity, perhaps, because it had points of contact with his people’s belief in the afterlife and in a creator god. He even allowed it to be taught at his court. When the Catholic White Fathers (now the Missionaries of Africa) arrived in 1879, Mutesa welcomed them as well. However, he also flirted with Islam, which Arab traders had introduced in Buganda decades before, and began favouring one religious group and then another, mainly for political gain.
The king’s shifting of favour created an uncertain, often dangerous climate for Christians, but White Father Simeon Lourdel and his companions took advantage of every opportunity Mutesa gave. They founded missions where they could teach people about the faith and about medicine and agriculture as well. Unlike some missionaries of the day, the White Fathers took their time preparing people for baptism. They wanted their new converts to understand what it means to enter into new life with Jesus and to follow him.
Many Baganda were offered the living word of God. The depth of their faith became obvious during a three-year period when Mutesa’s hostility forced the White Fathers out of the country. The priests returned from exile after Mutesa’s death in 1884 and were pleased to find that their converts had brought their families and friends to the Lord. Many had renounced polygamy and slavery and were devoting their energies to serving and caring for the needy around them. It is recorded that one exceptionally active convert was Joseph Mukasa, who served as personal attendant for both Mutesa and Mwanga and introduced Christ to the over five hundred young men and boys who worked as court pages.
Mukasa had the king’s respect, too, for he had once killed a poisonous snake with his bare hands as it was about to strike his master King Mutesa I. Mwanga was soon affected by the poisonous lies and jealous advisors, who called Mukasa disloyal for his allegiance to another king, the “God of the Christians.” Their accusations were reinforced when Mukasa reprimanded King Mwanga for trying to have the newly arrived Anglican bishop put to death.
Furious that anyone would dare to oppose him, the Kabaka went ahead with the assassination. Mukasa enraged Mwanga even more by repeatedly opposing his attempts to use the younger pages as his sex partners. Mukasa not only taught the boys to resist, but made sure they stayed out of Mwanga’s reach. The Kabaka finally decided to make Mukasa an example, ordering him to be burned alive as a conspirator. But here, too, Mukasa proved the stronger and braver assuring his executioner that “a Christian who gives his life for God has no reason to fear death, go and tell Mwanga,” he also said, “that he has condemned me unjustly, but I forgive him with all my heart.”
King Mwanga went further by threatening to have all his Christian pages killed unless they renounced their faith. This failed to intimidate them, to the point that even the catechumens followed Mukasa’s bravery by asking to be baptized before they died. Among them was Charles Lwanga, who took over both Mukasa’s position as head of the pages and his role of spiritual leader. Like Mukasa, Lwanga professed loyalty to the king but fell into disfavour for protecting the boys and holding onto his faith. Even when Mwanga gathered all the pages in front of his residence and commanded that “Let all those who do not pray stay here by my side, and those who pray stand before a fence on his left. Charles Lwanga led the way, followed by the other Christian pages, Catholic and Anglican. The youngest, Kizito, was only fourteen. Mwanga sentenced the group to be burnt alive at Namugongo, a village twenty miles away. Three of them were speared to death before reaching the village. The others were led out to a massive funeral pyre. It was Ascension Thursday morning.
When Mukaajanga saw that all was ready, he gave the order, ‘Light it at every point.’ The flames blazed up and the murmur of the Christians was heard coming from the pyre as they died invoking God. The executioners themselves admitted later that they had never seen the like. ‘We have put many people to death,’ they said, ‘but never such as these. Each of the pages was wrapped in reeds and placed on the giant bonfire, which soon became an inferno. “Call on your God, and see if He can save you,” called one executioner. “Poor madman,” replied Lwanga. “You are burning me, but it is as if you are pouring water over my body.”
Dozens more Christians were killed in the surrounding. Andrew Kaggwa, a friend of the king, was beheaded. Impatient to meet his fate, he told his executioner, “Why don’t you carry out your orders? I’m afraid delay will get you into serious trouble.” Noe Mawaggali was speared, and then attacked by wild dogs. Matthias Kalemba was dismembered and pieces of his flesh roasted before his eyes. Before he died, he said, “Surely Katonda [God] will deliver me, but you will not see how He does it. He will take my soul and leave you my body.”
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