By Abbey Kibirige Semuwemba
Namugongo Martyrs shrine
Namugongo Martyrs shrine
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Dear readers,
I have been thinking about the Uganda Christian 'martyrs' prosecuted on June 3,1886 at Namugongo and its significance to Uganda as a country after one of the Ugandans raised it at the Ugandan At Heart(UAH) forum. So I asked myself questions like: were the Uganda martyrs really deserve to be called 'martyrs' or not? Could Catholics killed for faith be called “martyrs”? Why did kabaka Mwanga took this decision at the time?

Now it is my understanding that within the Bugandan culture the execution of the Christian martyrs was both political and religious. It is the Buganda kingdom that invited the first missionaries who arrived in 1877 and the kingdom benefited tremendously from them particularly in developmental projects like schools. So we thank the insight Kabaka Mutesa 1 had at the time to invite these people.

Nevertheless, I'm still puzzled that we continue to call these people 'martyrs' due to the fact that they challenged the power structures of the Bugandan culture at the time because of their faith. If we are to go by the Muslims who keep challenging the power and social structure of the western countries because of their faith, then the word 'martyr' is not truly applicable to these people. Muslims or Christians who attempt to do today what these 'martyrs' did during Kabaka Mwanga's reign will feel the wrath of the law and some are even branded terrorists. However, we should not forget that those who die in this way in places like the Middle East are still branded as 'martyrs�� by some Islamic factions. In Bugandan culture, which the kabaka (leader of Buganda) represents, the kabaka ruled with great authority, and to refuse anything he asked was not only to offend the kabaka but to dishonour the entire Bugandan kingdom. Mwanga perceived that Christians were a challenge to his political power, since Christian pages were not honouring and were taught not to honour their obligation to obey him. If we are to continue to call these Christians killed at Namugongo martyrs, then we have got a lot of martyrs now in Uganda.

Second, it is important at the outset to realize that the persecution of Christians in Uganda was not the norm. There were relatively few Christians actually killed for religious reasons compared to the large number of Christian Baganda. So I don't think Kabaka Mwanga set out to kill Christians as in Christians or Protestants as in Protestants.

Third, all of the martyrs were Bugandan natives converted through the missionary efforts of British Anglicans and French Catholics. Thus, their lives and deaths were embedded from start to finish in a culture they were familiar with and understood; they were not killed due to a lack of cultural knowledge or a “foreigner's mistake.” A man like Joseph Mukasa was the personal servant of the kabaka who oversaw all of the kabaka's pages. He knew what he was getting himself into by confronting kabaka Mwanga over murder of Anglican Bishop Hannington. Mukasa told Mwanga “bluntly” that his ordering of the death of Hannington was wrong; this angered Mwanga, and Mwanga took Mukasa's outbursts as a form of treason. Mukasa knew the drill about Buganda cultures at the time very well. To disagree with the Kabaka was not uncommon in Buganda but Mukasa's assertive confronting of Mwanga was unique. The Kabakas used to allow passive forms of resistance and there were effective.Lastly, Mwanga chose Namugongo as a spot to execute these people because to die at Namugongo made one an enemy of the Buganda state. Namugongo was an equivalent of the England's “Tower Hill.”

Personally, I don't think we should continue to call the 1886 Namugongo religious people 'martyrs' in the sense of the word in relation to the present events happening in the world. However, I'm happy to say that Buganda kingdom has changed greatly since that time. There is a lot of religious freedom. Catholics, Protestants, Christians and Muslims can all interact within the kingship of Buganda without any problem. It is more reason for Ugandans to support this kingdom that is not afraid of changes that make it stronger. What Kabaka Mwanga did at that time is inexcusable but at least we all learnt from it but most importantly we understand why he did it.

Furthermore, a total of 32 Baganda including the leader of the Christian 'rebels' called Charles Lwanga were killed. 13 of those were Catholics, 9 were protestants and 10 were unbelievers (who had been awaiting execution for non-religious crimes).Historically, protestants and Catholics refused to recognise each other as 'martyrs'. So why was it so important for these two religious sects to agree on the title 'martyr' at that moment in time? Don't you think that this happened as a result of the fact that this tragedy had happened to both of them at the same time and therefore, they both saw it as convenient to grant 'martyrdom' to the Namugongo 'political rebels'. Don't you think that this was also done as an act to forge unity between the Christians and protestant rather than the self belief to grant martyrdom to the namugongo 'political rebels'?

The important issue at stake here is that Catholics and Protestants did not recognise each other as martyrs. In the 16th century, both protestants and Catholics affirmed that it was not the punishment, but the cause that made one a martyr. Could Protestants killed for faith be called 'martyrs'? The Catholics answered,' No''. On the other side, could Catholics killed for faith be called 'martyrs'? The Protestants said,�No'. An example is when Puritan minister Giles Wigginton told catholic Margaret Clitherow, on trial for treason, that she was deceived if she thought that dying for catholic faith counted as martyrdom. What makes it worse is that even protestants did not affirm other protestants as martyrs as evidenced during the time of Luther. Luther thought the deaths of Zwingli's followers should not be compared to the 'holy martyrs' and condemned people for making such a comparison. Try to teach yourself this religious and political history when you get a chance because it is interesting.

Given the above history and facts how can anyone attempt to name the protestant and Catholic victims at Namugongo to be 'martyrs'. It was only during the reign of pope John Paul 11,particulary in 2001, when in Ukraine, that he tried to address this issue of division in opinion between Catholics and protestants- in regard to 'martyrs', when he gave an address to bless 27 Greek catholic martyrs. The wise pope recognised both sides as 'joint' martyrs. He was doing the same thing that was done at Namugongo: to forge unity between the two sects (Catholics and protestants). The pope knew the use of 'Unity' in everything human beings want to do and that's why some of us have been pushing for the union between opposition political parties before 2011. Like the baganda say:'agali awamu gegaluma enyama'.

Overall, I don't think that we should recognise June 3 as a national holiday in Uganda. I also highly doubt that the people that died in Namugongo were really 'martyrs' as we were made to believe. If there were really martyrs,, then we have got a lot of martyrs in Uganda that deserve recognition and, therefore, we need a lot of national holidays in Uganda, because so many people have died for what the causes they believe in.

Abbey Kibirige Semuwemba