Fr Anthony Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam
In the introduction to African Holocaust, The Story of the Uganda Martyrs, Bishop Joseph Willigers of Jinja, gives a description of the Uganda martyrs: “Here is a number of men and boys who, within a few years from first hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, have courage to live and die by its paradox: ‘Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it, but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it.'”(Luke 9:24) (J. F. Faupel, African Holocaust, The Story of the Uganda Martyrs, Third edition, 1984)
The 22 catholic martyrs were killed between 1885 and 1887 by Kabaka (King) Mwanga of Buganda in the South of Uganda; 13 of the martyrs were burnt to death at Namugongo. Many of the martyrs were pages (servants) in the King’s palace. At that time each family was selecting very hardworking and well behaved boys to go and work for the King. It was also a sign of showing loyalty to the King as it was prestigious to work for the King. It is in the King’s palace therefore, that the martyrs began to learn the Christian religion after the coming of the Anglican and Catholic Missionaries in 1877 and 1879 respectively.
The first martyr to die was King’s major domo (chief steward) and leader of all Christians, the 26 year old Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, on 15 November 1885. He was killed because he had pleaded to King Mwanga to abandon the vice of homosexuality and not to kill Bishop James Hannington, an Anglican missionary and his six colleagues who had entered Buganda from Busoga. The Kabaka ordered that Mukasa should be burned alive as a conspirator. But Mukasa told his executioner that “a Christian who gives his life for God has no reason to fear death…. Tell Mwanga,” he also said, “that he has condemned me unjustly, but I forgive him with all my heart, but let him repent, otherwise, I shall accuse him in God’s court” The executioner was so impressed with Mukasa that he beheaded him swiftly before tying him to the stake and burning his body. The death of Joseph dismayed but did not discourage the Christians. The King became angry with all Christians as they all refused to give in to his sinful demands and were persuading all other pages to do the same. Moreover he realized that the Christian converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king. Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to stop the ardour of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity.
Mwanga’s anger against the Christians reached its peak on 25 May 1886 in the evening, when he returned unexpectedly from a hunting trip and learned that a page named Denis Ssebuggwawo had been teaching the catechism to a younger boy. The king sent for the sixteen-year-old Denis and thrusting a spear into his body handed him to the executioners, who hacked him to pieces. The following day, Mwanga gathered all the pages in front of his residence. “Let all those who do not pray stay here by my side,” he shouted. “Those who pray” he commanded to stand before a fence on his left. (The Christians are those who pray). Charles Lwanga, who took over the leadership of the Christian community after the death of Joseph Mukasa led the way, followed by the other Christian pages, Catholic and Anglican. The youngest, Kizito, was only fourteen.
‘Are you all Christians?’ Mwanga asked.
‘Yes. We are Christians,’ the pages replied.
‘Are you unshaken in your resolve to remain Christians?’ Mwanga asked.
‘Yes, quite definitely! If you choose not to regard that as a crime, we shall be grateful to you, but we shall never cease to be Christians, whatever the outcome.’ the pages replied.
Mwanga then shouted, ‘Tie up all the Christians!’ Then turning to his victims, he said ‘I am going to burn you all!’ Then he gave the order to the chief executioner, Mukaajanga, ‘Take them to Namugongo and burn them!’
The Christians were peaceful and joyful in the face of this verdict. But the chief executioner, Mukaajanga was in confusion because his own son, Mbaga Tuzinde was among those sentenced to death. He pleaded desperately with him, to renounce his religion. “Give up this foolishness which will send you to the stake! Only say that you have abandoned religion, and I will hide you.” The seventeen year old boy baptized that morning by Charles Lwanga firmly rejected the offer. ‘Hide me?’ he said, ‘Father, what are you thinking of? I am a Christian, and I shall remain one to the last’. One of the other executioners told him to obey his father and he replied. “My Father whom I must obey is in heaven.” Fr. Lourdel, (the Catholic missionary) who tried to save them, reported that afterwards, “they were tied so closely that they could scarcely walk, and I saw little Kizito laughing merrily at this, as though it were a game.” Another page asked the priest, “Mapera [Father], why be sad? What I suffer now is little compared with the eternal happiness you have taught me to look forward to!”
Bruno Serunkuma, one of king’s bodyguards on his way to death said to his brother, “A fountain fed from many springs will never dry up. When we are gone, others will rise in our place.”
Matthias Mulumba, assistant judge to a provincial chief who was about 50 years and the oldest of the martyrs was made to suffer more than others. The prime minister taunted him by asking, “will your God save you?” and Matthias replied: “Yes, God will rescue me. But you will not see how he does it, because he will take my soul and leave you only my body.” His arms and legs were cut and pieces of his flesh were burned in front of him. He was cut up and left on the road to die. He died after three days of agony! Andrew Kaggwa, chief of Kigowa who had converted his wife and several others was also killed. At the village of Mityana, Noe Mawaggali, a Catholic leader sent the Christians into hiding, but refused to hide. He told his sister, “I know there is another life that is why I am not afraid of losing this one.” He was speared and tied to a tree and he died on May 30 after several hours of agony! A Christian soldier named James Buzabaliawo was brought before the king. When Mwanga ordered him to be killed with the rest, James said, “Goodbye, then. I am going to Heaven, and I will pray to God for you.”
When the martyrs arrived at the place of execution after 17 miles long and painful match, they kept saying to one another, “Here we are, at Heaven’s gates. In the twinkling of an eye, we shall see Jesus.’ Charles Lwanga, the leader of the group was separated from the rest to be burned separately. In taking leave of the rest of the group, he said, ‘My friends, we shall before long meet again in Heaven. I stay here and go on ahead of you. Keep up your courage, and persevere to the end.’
They were stretched on reeds held together with fibre thongs, their hands tied firmly behind their backs, and their legs strapped together. The edges of the reed covers were folded over their bodies, and they were rolled in them so as to make movement impossible. They were placed in the giant bonfire! 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. On other occasions the victims did nothing but moan and weep, but the Christians were wonderful. There was not a sigh, not even an angry word. All that was heard was the soft murmur on their lips. They prayed until they died.” John Maria Muzeeyi was the last of the 22 catholic martyrs to be killed. He was beheaded on 27 January 1887 and his body was thrown into a swamp. There were also Anglican Martyrs.
The twenty-two Catholic martyrs were beatified by Pope Benedict XV on 6 June 1920 and canonized by Pope Paul VI on Mission Sunday 18 October 1964 in St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. While paying tribute to the 22 Catholic martyrs Pope Paul IV also paid tribute to the Anglican martyrs in his homily at the canonisation. “And we do not wish to forget”, he said, “the others who, belonging to the Anglican confession, met death for the name of Christ.” All these martyrs are honoured on 3rd June every year.
LESSONS FROM THE MARTYRS OF UGANDA
The Uganda Martyrs are revered for their faith, their courage, and their witness to Christ. “In their lives and in their deaths, the Martyrs revealed the power of the Cross, the power of a faith that is stronger than fear, a life that triumphs over death, a hope that lights up the future, and a love that reconciles the bitterest of enemies.” (Pope John Paul II, Homily during Eucharistic celebration at the Shrine of the Holy Uganda Martyrs of Namugongo: Kampala (Uganda), Sunday, 7 February 1993)
They endured horrible cruelty with heroic courage and died nobly for Christ.
James E. Kiefer notes that The Namugongo martyrdoms produced a result entirely opposite to King Mwanga’s intention (resolve) to wipe out Christianity. The example of these martyrs, who walked to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their enemies, so inspired many of the bystanders that they began to seek instruction from the remaining Christians. Within a few years the original handful of converts had multiplied many times and spread far beyond the royal court. The martyrs had left the indelible impression that Christianity was truly African, not simply a white man’s religion. ( J. E. Kiefer “Biography: The Martyrs of Uganda (3 Jun 1886)”
The blood of the martyrs was indeed the seed of the church. Today Uganda has the largest percentage of professed Christians (85.2% of the population) of any nation in Africa.
“The martyrs of Uganda were young, but they were not seduced by the values of the royal court. They took a stand for God’s law, even when it meant defying the king himself. Out of allegiance to a higher king and a nobler law, they rejected the earthly security that could have been theirs had they given in to the king’s lusts. Their example is extremely important today, Caroli Mpoza points out. It shows how faith can become a “rudder” that sustains us in times of trial and temptation. It also shows how critical it is to instill godliness in our children. If they learn to honour God and put him first, he says, they too will stand firm against the seductive values of our culture.” (Bob French, “The Uganda Martyrs: Their Countercultural Witness Still Speaks Today”, in The Word Among Us, August 2008 Issue.)
The story of the Uganda Martyrs invites us to examine our faith and commitment to the Lord. How deep is your faith and commitment to the Lord?
O Lord Jesus Christ, who wonderfully strengthened the Holy Martyrs of Uganda St. Charles Lwanga, and his Companions; and gave them to us as examples of faith and fortitude, chastity, charity, and fidelity; grant, we beseech Thee, that by their Intercession, the same virtues may increase in us, and that we may deserve to become propagators of the true faith. Amen
The twenty two Uganda Catholic martyrs are:
Denis Ssebuggwawo Wasswa
John Maria Muzeeyi
Fr Anthony Ibegbunam is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi