The Namugogo Martyrs Shrine : Namugogo martyrs shrine is about 15 km east of Kampala city in an area called the Namugongo, outskirts of Kampala city along Kampala – Jinja road. This is where more than 20 catholic and Anglican martyrs were burnt alive on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga in June 1886. Consequently, Christians from eastern and central Africa and indeed the world over flock to Namugongo to pay their respects and renew their faith by paying pilgrimage to the martyrs on June 3rd, every year. A church was constructed in the shape of a traditional Baganda hut (akasiisiira) in memory of the martyrs. It stands on 22 copper pillars representing the 22 catholic martyrs. In front of the main entrance to the church, below the altar is the spot where Charles Lwanga, the leader of the Catholics was burnt on June 3rd 1886.The church was consecrated by Pope Paul VI on August 2nd, 1969.

History of the Namugogo martyrs shrine

Henry Stanley, British explorer and journalist, met King Mutesa, the Kabaka (king) of Buganda in April 1875.  After sharing the simple story of Christianity with King Mutesa, he became very enthusiastic about Christianity and asked Stanley to write a letter to Queen Victoria of England, appealing for missionaries.

The Namugogo Martyrs Shrine
The Namugogo Martyrs Shrine

Among the early martyrs of Uganda was English Bishop, James Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop of the Eastern Equatorial province.  Bishop Hannington approached the Buganda Kingdom from the East.  Unfortunately, unknown to him, there was a Baganda belief that its enemies would approach the kingdom from the eastern route.  So, the Kabaka (king) sent warriors to meet this encroaching enemy.  Before they killed Hannington on 29th October 1885, he is reported to have said, “Tell the Kabaka (king) that I die for Uganda.”  These words are inscribed on his tomb at the Namirembe Cathedral.

However, King Mutesa’s successor, King Mwanga, “became increasingly angry as he realized that the first converts put loyalty to Christ above the traditional loyalty to the king.  Martyrdoms began in 1885.  Mwanga first forbade anyone to go near a Christian mission on pain of death, but finding himself unable to cool the ardour of the converts, resolved to wipe out Christianity.”

On 3rd June 1886, King Mwanga ordered the killing of twenty-six of his pages – thirteen Anglicans and twelve Roman Catholics.  Today, 3rd June is set aside as a public holiday to commemorate the Martyrs of Uganda.  Thousands of people from all over East Africa travel to the site of the martyrdom to remember their courage, sacrifice, and testimony…even unto death.

These early Christians were martyred at Namugongo.  Their martyrdom produced a result entirely opposite of Mwanga’s intentions. 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 court.  The martyrs had left the indelible impression that Christianity was truly African, not simply a white man’s religion.  Most of the missionary work was carried out by Africans rather that by white missionaries, and Christianity spread steadily.  Uganda now has the largest percentage of professed Christians of any nation in Africa.

What to do

Exploring the roots of religion in Uganda, fellowships and restoration of faith.

The shrine – the Uganda Martyrs Shrine is a must visit for anyone interested in Uganda’s faith based tourism while on your Uganda safari. It stands tall with the grandeur of an ancient Cathedral whose structural design derives its inspiration from the African Hut. This Basilica has 22 copper pillars over 100 feet long supporting the shrine, with the capacity to accommodate 1000 people whose seats are organized in a circular form. Its construction started in 1967 and was completed in 1975. The lake was excavated in the Martyrs’ honour and bares a pavilion or Island which takes the form of a modern boat. It has a deck like feature on which the altar for Holy Mass is found and a cabin beneath the altar bearing the Sacristy, a kitchen and bedroom which Pope Francis shortly occupied on his visit to Uganda in 2015. The shrine stands on a massive acreage yet deeper is the fact that it is the land upon which 15 of the 22 Martyrs were burnt alive on the orders of Kabaka (King) Mwanga for their refusal to denounce their Christian faith The Catholic young men and some boys, Kizito, John Mary Mzee, Balikudembe, Charles Lwanga, Buzabalyawo and Bruno Sserunkuuma among others were subsequently beatified and canonized collectively as saints under the reign of Pope Benedict XV in 1920.

The Namugogo Martyrs Shrine
The Namugogo Martyrs Shrine

3rd June is not an ordinary day in Uganda. The sun may still rise from the east and water may still be the colourless liquid that quenches thirst; yet the streets, the residents, the shops and their keepers will for a day or more live a different version of events because of the masses of people that come to the Shrine.

Around this date, pilgrims from in and out of Uganda make their way to the Martyrs Shrine in Namugongo. For some the journey is not one travelled with the convenience of a car, but rather walking barefooted for miles, from as far as Kenya, as a sacrifice in honor of the Martyrs. The atmosphere is usually sweaty body upon body and pilgrims walking with visible exhaustion yet thriving on the spiritual inspiration drawn from these brave young men to whom they come to pay homage. You will not miss the sight of hawkers and vendors selling items ranging from souvenirs of the martyrs to teddy bears. A number of kiosks will also be within the vicinity selling pork (a local favourite) and cheap liquor for those that may have come to celebrate in ways other than the spiritual.

When to visit
Any time during the year but prepare to reach there before June 3rd (Martyrs’ day) of every year or visit the shrine at any time of the year when you plan for your Uganda safari tour.

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