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St. Janani Luwum

By Patrick Kagenda

Uganda’s forgotten martyr

As hundreds of thousands of Christians throng to Namugongo Martyrs shrine to commemorate the Uganda Martyrs day that falls every June 3, one Ugandan 20th Century Martyr seems not to feature on the list of the martyrs.  Could it be because he was laid to rest in a far off place or is it because he was martyred at a time when Uganda was at its darkest time in history?

About 15kms North of Kitgum town in northern Uganda is a small trading centre called Mucwini in Mucwini Sub-county. Very few people if any know that this is the finalresting place of Uganda`s martyred Archbishop Janani Luwum.

Every 16th day of February for the last 37 years a small function to commemorate the late Archbishop has been taking place at Mucwini primary school where the late Archbishop now St. Janani Luwum rests.

This February, the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, His Grace Stanley Ntagali, was in Mucwini, and celebrated St. Janani Luwum Day with the local community. He is the first archbishop to do so in a long time.

While some individual parishes within the Church of Uganda celebrate February 17as alesser festival, there is no obligation on the church to celebrate it. However, on the International scene it is a very big occasion because the day is widely celebrated as the day of St.Janani Luwum who was pronounced a saint by the Church of England.


In 1978, the Canterbury Cathedral in England dedicated a special chapel – the 20th century Martyrs Chapel – to the martyrdom of the Archbishop and every February 17 the Church of England celebrates this day as the Festival of Janani Luwum.

In July 1988 Janani Luwum’s statute was unveiled in Westminster Abbey in London as one of the ten martyrs of the 20thcentury. Others include Maximillan Kolbe (Catholic Poland), Martin Luther King Jr, (Baptist, USA), Deitrich Bonhoeffer (Lutheran, Germany), and Archbishop Oscar Romero (Catholic, El Salvador).

That same year, the House of Bishops and Provincial Standing Committee of the Church of Uganda passed a resolution to have an annual observance throughout the Church of Uganda on the Sunday immediately following February 16 as the Day of Martyrdom and the offertory that would be collected from the service would be used to construct the Janani Luwum Memorial House (Church House) on Plot 39 Kampala Road in Kampala. To date the day is not observed seriously in the Church of Uganda and no reason has since been given as to why it is not.

In that same meeting of Bishops sitting at Bishop Tucker theological college, now Uganda Christian University, the 9th Provincial Assembly of the Church of Uganda unanimously resolved that when built and complete Church House shall be called Janani Luwum House.

When he was in Mucwini, the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, His Grace Stanley Ntagali, is said to have promised the local community that Church House which is being built in Kampala would be named after their fallen son who is now a saint.

However sources within the Church of Uganda leadership say a group of people have stealthily dropped the `Janani Luwum House’ name. If true, could this be another reason that St. Janani Luwum is not remembered in the Church of Uganda?

As a result of the international recognition, in 2007, when some U.S. Marines were on their tour of duty in Uganda, they visited St. Janani Luwum`s resting place at Mucwini and asked the family to allow them do some work on the grave whose slab had started to wear out because of time. They cast a new slab on the grave. However, the action sparked complaints against the Church of Uganda for not valuing its own.

St. Janani Luwum`s son, Ben Okello Luwum, who lives in the Naguru suburb of Kampala says not maintaining St. Janani Luwum’s grave, considering his standing in the Church of Uganda, is a weakness of the church.

He said around 1980, the church had wanted to relocate St. Janani Luwum’s remains to its headquarters at Namirembe Cathedral in Kampala but the local community in Mucwini had protested against it.

“People feel St. Janani Luwum Day should be celebrated in big style with a big function,” Okello said of the low key commemoration events.

Janani Luwum`s daughter, July Adriko, says simply, “the Church of Uganda has forgotten the Late Archbishop and not done much in keeping him in the lime light”.

“The church house was his Idea and in 1988 the provincial assembly unanimously agreed that it be named after him, but see what we have now. Even on the commemoration side, it’s not the provincial assembly that remembers him but a few individual parishes,” she says.

At his office in Kampala, His grace the Archbishop Stanley Ntagali, was not available to comment on the subject of St. Janani Luwum. His personal assistant Rev. Moses Bushendich promised to arrange an interview for The Independent but it had not materialized by the time we went to press. Rev. Bushendich said, however, that the issue of naming the church facilities is not for the Archbishop to decide on alone but goes through committees and the board. It remains unknown what name Church House on Plot 39 Kampala Road will assume next year when it is officially commissioned for occupancy.

Who is St. Janani Luwum?

Those who knew the late archbishop Janani Luwum describe him as a giant of a man, with an imposing physical stature, yet a remarkably un-intimidating presence.   “His real giant-hood flowed ever so gently from very deep within,” is how one of them put it.

“Janani Luwum is remembered for his deep dark gentle face; that was always glowing, always creased in that warm smile and easy laughter. His was a most natural charisma, and he never lost his simplicity and unassuming ways, even when he became a big celebrity. He had about him that aura of everyone’s favourite uncle”.

Remarkably what is not widely known among the Uganda citizenry and appreciated apart from a very few people is the fact that it was the martyrdom of St. Janani Luwum that marked the pivotal turning point for the toppling of the Gen. Idi Amin regime and subsequent liberation of Uganda in 1979 by a combined force of the Tanzania Peoples Defence Force (TPDF) and Ugandan exiles under the KikosiMaalum(KM) and Museveni`sFronasa.

With the assassination of the Archbishop on February 16, 1977, the international community was dramatically jolted from its complacency about the Amin regime, because an unthinkable line had been crossed.  A sober realisation dawned on the international community particularly the Western World that decided Amin had to go.

St Janani Luwum was born in 1922 to EliyaOkello and Lamego Aireni. Janani was a product of the East African Revival that stretched from Buganda to Ankole,Kigezi and to Rwanda and Eastern DR Congo then-called Zaire.

Janani,who by then was a school teacher, soon joined his parents in the new East Africa Revival on January 6, 1948.He became a parish priest in 1956, a position he faithfully held until 1969 when he was elected to serve Northern Uganda as Bishop.In 1974 Janani Luwum was elected Archbishop of Uganda.

Janani earlier on had begun to pursue a vision and commitment for development particularly in the fields of education and rural uplifting. One of the living fruit of his development vision and planning is the current Church House on plot 39 Kampala road opposite the bank of Uganda. The aim of the project was to generate income for the church than relying on donations from the mother church in England.

Following his  election as Archbishop of Ugandahe served as the  prelate of the church presiding over four countries, Uganda, Rwanda,Burundi and the now Eastern DRC.During his days as Archbishop he made it his business to confront the injustices and atrocities of Idi Amin.

He did this at first with private admonitions later making his criticism public in a radio address in 1976 at Christmas. His sermon felt the power of censorship before he even finished.

The ArchbishopBishop then threatened a public demonstration, and for some time worked to bring the Anglican community together with other protestant groups, and the Catholics in opposition to Amin.

Amin’s reaction was swift and without mercy. The Bishop’s home was raided by the security operatives on February 5, 1977. They said they were looking for guns but none were found. Janani was arrested and locked up in the torture chambers of Amin’s secret police, the State Research Bureau in Nakasero.

Two days later he was accused of treason and arms smuggling and displayed at a public rally in Kampala. He was tried by Amin’s court on February 16 and was shot that same night.On the National Radio (Radio Uganda), it was reported that Luwum had attempted to escape and, in his flight, was involved in a car accident that resulted into his death.

St. JananiLuwum is one of the very few 20th century Christian martyrs  who unlike the past martyrs and saints has immediate family and surviving relatives including witnesses to his final ordeal and martyrdom. He was survived by two brothers and four sisters all alive, his wife and eight children. Two of his children have since passed on. His children who are alive are three boys and three girls.

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