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