OFWONO OPONDO: Celebrating Christian Martyrs, Political Heroes, or Traitors in Uganda

June 3rd and 9th are commemorated in Uganda as Martyrs and Heroes Days respectively under what some scholars still consider controversial circumstances that perhaps don’t deserve as there are many unsettled questions. However, even if many disagree with this narrative, conventional wisdom dictates that we don’t ruffle feathers, but instead maintain and enjoy the prevailing social harmony. And little know or celebrated in Uganda, 2nd June is also celebrated worldwide as the International Whores Day (Sex Workers Day) which some may find improper. We should take full advantage around these events to build an active base for tourism and economy as numbers keep swelling every year.

Many consider the religious martyrs celebrated every June, 3rd as traitors to Buganda’s traditions because they were the early unwitting tools who paved the way for imperialism, colonial rule and the subsequent mental subjugation of Uganda that continues to-date. The heroes declared in 2001 in furtherance of the NRM revolution launched on 6th February 1981 with the military assault on Kabamba military training school in Mubende district as a result of the disputed election of 1980, has attracted as much opprobrium from opponents of the NRM. This year’s theme “Commemorating our heroes and heroines; An opportunity to consolidate our efforts in securing Uganda,” speaks to the collective task ahead.

The UPC political apparatchiks against whom the war was started had described the heroes bandits and traitors who should been hanged, but they since been subdued, and compromised with NRM on many issues. Initially, the NRM celebrated heroes linked to its struggle but has now broaden the categories to include and recognise those who have make contributions beyond its political orbit which in has slowly been embraced by a broad majority of Ugandans. Today’s heroes and heroines in Uganda may include frontline health workers risking their own lives to protect the public from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Religious groups, the Catholic and Anglican Churches teach that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” in Uganda because if the forty five young Buganda pages murdered between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887 on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II had capitulated, probably the Church wouldn’t be here. June 3rd is commemorated every year in Uganda as Martyrs Day in remembrance of the groups of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic Christian coverts executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887 on Kabaka Mwanga’s orders as missionaries descended on Uganda to begin their penetration.

Their murders took place against the backdrop of a three-way power struggle among the emerging Catholic, Anglican and Muslim factions represented by Mwanga II, and his two estranged brothers Kiweewa and Kalema for political influence at the Buganda royal court. It was also on the back of the “Scramble for Africa” at the Berlin conference 1884, which sanctioned the division, invasion, occupation, colonization and annexation of Africa by European powers. Soon after, the English Church Missionary Society (CMS) as well as the Catholic Church used the deaths to enlist wider public support back home for Britain to acquire Uganda.

The Times newspaper of 30 October 1886, quoting the dictum, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church”, added that “On the success of the Uganda experiment, in alternation of favourable and adverse circumstances, depends the happiness of the interior of the vast continent for generations”. With the aid of the CMS, Captain Frederick Lugard persuaded Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone and his cabinet not to abandon Uganda. Subsequently, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) that had earlier set its foot here was transferred to the British Crown on 1 April 1893, and on 27 August 1894 Mwanga accepted Buganda to become a British protectorate. However, on 6 July 1897 Mwnga declared war on the British but was defeated on 20 July, captured and exiled in the Seychelles in 1899 from where he died a vanquished man in 1903, aged 35.

The beatification of Charles Lwanga, Matiya Mulumba, and their twenty companions on 6 June 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, and canonization by Pope Paul VI on 18 October 1964 simply sealed what had been going on for nearly a century. It was at the canonization of the martyrs, that Pope Paul, as footnote, mentioned the Anglicans, saying: “Nor, indeed, do we wish to forget the others who, belonging to the Anglican confession, confronted death in the name of Christ”. Apart from the Catholic Church’s veneration of Saints, its celebration is more high-pitched than that of the Anglican one perhaps because the later was for decades allied to Mengo establishment and couldn’t offend its benefactor. In a sense, the Anglicans are the Jonny come lately in publicly celebrating its martyrs.

Whichever way, the Christian martyrs of Namugongo, or heroes of June 9, there are valid reasons to emulate their ideals of commitment, sacrifice, courage, and conviction. Their examples serve well that a just cause can be a rudder in times of trial and temptation, and can help in building a better Uganda.

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