What do we Learn from our Martyrs?

Ali Akiim Ojok
The Uganda Martyrs are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between November 1885 and January 1887.

The publication in Britain of an 1875 letter purporting to be an invitation from the king of Buganda, Muteesa I, to send missionaries, resulted in the arrival of the Anglican Church Missionary Society to Buganda in 1877. A group of French Catholic White Fathers appeared two years later. This was followed by a Zanzibar-based Arab attempt to introduce Islam in the region.What followed was a three-way religious struggle for political influence over Buganda. By the mid-1880s, many members of the royal court had converted and become agents in the religious and political conflict being played out in the court.

Kabaka Mwanga II, upon his ascent to the throne at the age of 16 after the untimely death of his father, was concerned at the increasing role of priests and missionaries, which he felt threatened his power and privileges enjoyed by his predecessors.

According to old tradition the king was the center of power and authority and could dispense with any life as he felt. Nobody questioned the authority of the king. It was unheard of for mere pages to reject the wishes of a king to molest them at will. Adultery with another man’s wife was a “blessing” to their family.The ultimate humiliation for Kabaka Mwanga was the insolence he received from the (male) pages of his court in resisting his sexual advances; an act considered sinful before Christianity.

Given those conflicting values, Mwanga was determined to rid his kingdom of the new teaching and its followers. He took an aggressive approach, expelling missionaries and insisting that Christian converts abandon their faith or face death.

A year after becoming king he executed Yusufu Rugarama, Makko Kakumba, and Nuwa Serwanga, who had converted to Christianity. On 29 October 1885, he had the incoming Anglican archbishop James Hannington assassinated on the eastern border of his kingdom.

He instructed the killing of all the young men who disobeyed him. The murdered young men were considered martyrs because they resolved to die for their new religion rather than surrendering their bodies to the king.

In total, at least forty-five Catholic and Protestant neophytes met their death; although the actual number is likely to be higher. Twenty-two of the men, who had converted to Catholicism, were burned alive at Namugongo in 1886 and later became known as the Uganda Martyrs. Among those executed were two Christians who held the court position of Master of the Pages, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe and Charles Lwanga.

A shrine dedicated to the catholic martyrs of Uganda in Namugongo

They had repeatedly defied the king by rescuing royal pages in their care from sexual exploitation by Mwanga which they believed was contrary to Christian teachingWorth mentioning are the two martyrs of Northern Uganda, Blessed Daudi Okelo and Blessed Jildo Irwa. These two Catechists were pierced to death with a spear immediately the years following the establishment of Kitgum mission by the Comboni missionaries in 1915.

A few years later, the English Church Missionary Society used the deaths to enlist wider public support for the British acquisition of Uganda for the Empire. The martyrs were venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican Communion and Lutheranism; beatified by Pope Benedict XV on 6th June 1920 and later canonized by Pope John Paul on 18th October 1964.

Christians all over the world commemorate the Uganda martyrs on 3rd June every year. Regardless of all political forces and targets then; these gallant young men exhibited utmost faith in God. They defied all odds to be an example for all Christians to appreciate and understand the fact that faith is the evidence of what we hope for and the substance of what we don’t see. Truth always conquers!

What are you doing as person to express your faith? You don’t have to die like the martyrs did. What seeds are you sowing in your community as a Christian? Are you exemplary and do you uphold moral values in your community? How are we representing Christ on earth?

It’s not enough for us to be Christians or believers because faith without action is dead. As we celebrate this year’s Martyrs Day, let’s not just wine and dine but also reflect on all these and gauge whether we stand for Christ or we are a bunch of hypocrites who think going to church every Sunday is all we can do.

Happy Martyrs Day!!!

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