Walking Uganda’s martyrs’ route

Namugongo — It took him eight days, but Girimana Gasper finally reached his destination, the martyrs’ shrines in Namugongo village, just outside Uganda’s capital Kampala.

The 34-year-old Rwandan refugee lives in the Nakivale Refugee Settlement in the western part of the country, close to the Tanzanian border. Along with a small group of other refugees, he made the 212km journey on foot.

Gasper is one of an estimated two million people who this year undertook the annual pilgrimage.

Pilgrims from all parts of Uganda and the rest of the continent walk — often for weeks — to pay their respects at the shrines, which honour Catholic, Anglican and Muslim martyrs.

The executions, which took place in about 1886, were ordered by Mwanga II, the kabaka (ruler) of Buganda, for, according to the dominant narrative, the martyrs’ refusal to renounce their faith. Another has it that they were killed for refusing to do his bidding and a third is that the king was a homosexual and they refused to have sex with him.


Ten years earlier, under Mwanga’s predecessor Mutesa I, about 70 Muslims were burnt to death. Mutesa had accepted Islam but later regarded the religion as a threat to his power, according to changing-horizons.com. There is now a mosque on the site where the Muslims were killed.

Mwanga perceived the growing popularity of Christianity as a threat to his power, according to an online history of the Buganda people (www.buganda.com/martyrs), although the Christian faith “was received with much excitement …it denounced all the native religious behaviour and practices as heathen and satanic”.

As a young prince, Mwanga had initially “shown some love for the missionaries”. This, however, changed when he suffered “the ultimate humiliation … the insolence he received from the pages when they — the least subservient of servants — resisted his homosexual advances”.

The website adds: “Although homosexuality is abhorred among the Baganda, it was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king. Given those conflicting values, Mwanga was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers.”

Shortly after his assumption of the throne, he ordered the execution of the first three Christian martyrs in 1885, according to this history: “Between December of 1885 and May of 1886, many more converts were wantonly murdered. Mwanga
precipitated a showdown in May by ordering the converts to choose between their new faith and complete obedience to his orders. Those unwilling to renounce their new faith would be subject to death. Courageously, the neophytes chose their faith.”

The website records the names of the Anglicans and Catholics who were killed — dismembered, burned, beheaded, speared, castrated, but most were burned — and that 26 died on June 3, 1886.

It is this courage that Gasper and other devotees pay homage to annually. But the journey can be a treacherous one. This year, four Kenyan pilgrims were killed by an oncoming vehicle. Uganda’s The Observer also reported that at least 22 pilgrims were admitted to hospital as a result of “head injuries sustained while struggling to gain access to the Catholic Martyrs’ Shrine”.

More than 1 000 other cases had also been dealt with, including for swollen feet, eye infections and “chronic illnesses that intensified because of walking long distances and being in overcrowded places”.

Gasper says he undertook the pilgrimage in the hope that his prayers for respect as a refugee will be answered. “Rwandans here are not respected. We are not thought about. So doing this walk for the past few days, as a refugee, I hope to find acceptance in society. And respect. To be [seen as] a human being.”

Grace Ankuruje (38), who is part of Gasper’s group, echoes his sentiments. “This journey for me is to be able to exercise my faith. For the whole journey, walking by foot, I kept praying that whatever hardships I went through to get here will help getting all my problems solved.”

Her main problem? “The fact that I am a refugee. I want to go back home …,” she says, trailing off.

Charlotte (47), who did not give another name, also undertook the days-long trek. For this refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the journey is a show of solidarity. “I walked so I could feel the same pain those martyrs felt because of their faith. So it is a sacrifice, going through this pain. Because those men went through much more pain than I would ever. So I have to make these sacrifices for my faith in honour of them.”

A few days later, the last few thousands flock slowly, tiredly into the village. The chaotic traffic respectfully affords them space to walk.

Young adults and children walk alongside older men and women with walking sticks and tattered luggage bags. Everyone carries jerrycans used for drinking water and storing holy water found at the shrines. Some carry shoes that have become uncomfortable, preferring instead to undertake the last stretch of their long walk barefoot. Crosses are carried. Flags are flown.

Capitalising on this influx of pilgrims, traders sell all manner of religious paraphernalia: rosaries, bibles and hymn books in Luganda, brightly coloured “May God bless Uganda” posters. Two days later, on June 3, there were celebrations, prayers and songs, the nights sleeping in open fields along the road “or maybe in some churches if we are lucky” happily forgotten.

Once the day’s celebrations are over, Gasper and the small group of refugees will look for financial assistance to pay for their trip back to the settlement. There they will again wait patiently for their prayers to be answered.

“I just hope things get better for me in some way,” says Ankuruje. “That’s all. Just for things to get better.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

Subscribe to the M&G for R2 a month

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

And for this weekend only, you can become a subscriber by paying just R2 a month for your first three months.

Carl Collison
Carl Collison
Carl Collison is a freelance journalist who focuses primarily on covering queer-related issues across Africa

Related stories

Creating poetry out of violence

Maneo Mohale speaks about the silence around queer sexual abuse and how she creates beauty

Africa needs to hear queer stories

For the past three years, Carl Collison has reported on LGBTI issues and stories for the Mail & Guardian, covering queer peoples’ lives

Check coaches at the school gates

Without proper vetting, paedophiles can get into places where they have ‘unfettered’ access to vulnerable children

Drag queen’s push against gangs

In Lavender Hill, one of South Africa’s most violence-ridden areas, an unlikely activist is finding ways to keep children out of trouble

Slice of life: These women still shape me

Those women I know and those in the taxi whom I don’t — and how they shaped me

The ‘big three’ vie for queer voters in their election manifestos

'Whether LGBTIQ people vote for the DA or the Kiss Party or whoever, we need to see LGBTIQ people involved in political spaces'
Advertising

Subscribers only

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

Q&A Sessions: ‘I think I was born way before my...

The chief executive of the Estate Agency Affairs Board and the deputy chair of the SABC board, shares her take on retrenchments at the public broadcaster and reveals why she hates horror movies

More top stories

Zuma maintains his true colours at Zondo commission

The former president’s escapades at the commission of inquiry into state capture are a far cry from Nelson Mandela’s response when summonsed to testify in the high court

Gordhan tells Zondo how Moyane wanted to advance the objectives...

The public enterprises minister is being cross-examined by Tom Moyane’s lawyers at the state capture inquiry, as both men seek to defend their reputations

Burundian refugees in Tanzania face increasing danger

Human Rights Watch has documented cases of Burundian refugees being tortured and forcibly returned by Tanzanian authorities

Exclusive: Top-secret testimonies implicate Rwanda’s president in war crimes

Explosive witness testimony from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda implicates Paul Kagame and the RPF in mass killings before, during and after the 1994 genocide.
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…