A celebration of faith by people from all walks of life
On June 3 every year, the usually slow paced Namugongo village on the edge of Kampala becomes a hubbub of activity as millions of pilgrims from all over the world converge on it to celebrate the Uganda Martyrs Day.
The day honours the martyrdom of 45 young men both Catholic and Anglican who converted to Christianity between 1885 and 1887 to the annoyance of the then King of Buganda, Mwanga II. He killed them when they refused to denounce their new faith. Twenty-two Catholic Martyrs were beatified on June 6, 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, and on October 18, 1964, Pope Paul VI canonised them as Saints.
Organisers of the event at the Catholic shrine said an estimated three million attended this year’s celebrations, which could be less of a verifiable number and more of an expression of how the number appeared to be so big.
Almost everyone, except the very, very important people, arrives for the day on foot, as the roads are blocked to traffic and the nearest VIP parking is about a kilometer away.
As they walk in motley reds, greens, blues, and yellows of their clothing until the last one kilometer of road to the shrine, which a straight two-lane stretch, looks like it is covered in a quilt of many colours. Children, men and women, old, young, civilian and security personnel, pilgrims and traders and more march together with the pensively quiet, the teary, and the noisy excited.
There were pilgrims from Malawi, among them Spencer Chimaliro. He said they were 98 pilgrims that travelled by bus for five days to Namugongo.
“We started coming here in 2011, but since then faith and the number of people from Malawi is growing every day and some of our friends have promised that they will be coming for the same feast next year,” he says.
Thabitha Makola was among pilgrims from South Africa. A secondary school teacher, she says she believes coming to Namugongo will strengthen her faith and the martyrs will intercede for her personal problems and those of her country at large.
“Our country, South Africa is currently facing leadership challenges related to our president and divisions based on faith, nationality and others. We are hoping that by coming here and praying, these problems will be solved,” she says.
Rev. Jude Ssemambo, the chairman of the organising committee in charge of publicity said 12, 814 pilgrims from across the world attended this year’s celebrations. Of this total, 269 pilgrims walked on foot from the neighboring countries – Kenya (70), Tanzania (53), Congo (43) and Rwanda (103).
The rest used other means of transport including air and road – Rwanda (638), Zambia (15), Congo (2013), Tanzania (2103), Kenya (1258), Burundi (60), Mozambique (02), Malawi (111), South Africa (13), UK (07), France (01) and USA (15).
Locally, Ssemambo said 4, 130 footed from different diocese of the country to Namugongo – Hoima (3450), Fort Portal (257), Kasese (314), Kabale (412), Kampala (2647), Mbarara (500). The rest used other means of transport.
Along the way tragedy befalls some. This year, Scovia Moro, a three months pregnant mother, who was among the 460 pilgrims walking from Lira Diocese died just 20 kilometers to Namugongo on May 30. A moment of silence was observed for the late Moro. Another two people also died.
Ssemambo did not have numbers of previous years said, over three million people are estimated to have attended this year’s celebrations, which is almost the same number recorded last year when Pope Francis – the head of the catholic church in the world – visited Namugongo. In 2015, the number was estimated at around 2-2.5million pilgrims. The Archbishop of Kampala Diocese, Cyprian Kizito Lwanga, said the growing number of pilgrims means that many new people are continuing to believe in faith and in what the Martyrs did.