My brother and I wanted to experience Namugongo this year for a change. We drove from Kampala to Namugongo. Every few metres, we drove past droves of pilgrims trekking to the Uganda Martyrs shrines. Some of these were visibly exhausted from hundreds of kilometers from in and out of the country. They were now on their last leg.
A second look revealed that they were overjoyed by the prospect of soon arriving at their destination. They sang and raised banners like soldiers returning home from war. One could only imagine what they had been through on the journey. One could only wonder what their prayers and aspirations could be.
We bypassed the busy Catholic Shrine, and arrived at the Anglican shrine at around 7.30pm. Finding parking space was more complicated than calculus and paying for the space was like procuring for gems. This would be our home for two nights. We were at the cusp of the religious experience of our lives and we did not even know it.
Entering the Anglican shrine, the queue at the checkpoint was long. The people held containers of all colours and sizes. It turns out, the water from the artificial lake at the Catholic shrine is not so much sought after as the water at this Anglican shrine. The reason is, the Anglican shrine sits in the exact location where the Buganda Kingdom executions took place in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is believed that this natural spring is where chief executioner Mukajanga and his team washed his bloody tools after killing the martyrs. Twenty five of the 45 martyrs including 12 Catholics were executed from here, a number higher than all the other places where martyrs died combined. Therefore, the spring has an unbreakable blood connection to these fathers of the faith. It is believed it has healing powers. We counted over 1,500 souls in the queue, and estimated that the people at the tail end of it would spend not less than four hours waiting for their turn.
At the Uganda Martyrs museum
This is a powerful story telling tool when it comes to the Uganda Martyrs. We witnessed pilgrim upon pilgrim burst into tears especially on seeing the recreation of the execution scenes.
These steel and concrete sculptures depict the martyrs being tortured in the most brutal of ways. One of them, depicts a young man lying on his belly grotesquely, with broken limbs and his ribs at the back showing after losing the skin. The depiction is so realistic there should be a warning to let the fainthearted choose to look away.
A story is told of how this place got to be known as Namugongo. It is told that by the time most of these men reached this place for their execution, they would be so tired from walking long distances and exhausted from the beatings that the executioners would be forced to pull them on the ground by their back, hence the loss of skin on the back. That is how the place would come to be named Namugongo relating to the word mugongo which in Luganda means ‘the back’.
Not so religious
Outside, the road between the two shrines was one big party: blaring music, drinking and eating, puking, prostitutes, merry-go-rounds and vendors of all sorts.
We dawdled shabbily through the street party, eating and drinking all our little cash could afford us. We stopped to gawk at anything that was slightly interesting because we wanted to experience everything.
It took us about three hours to cover the one kilometre between the two shrines. All the while meeting group after group of pilgrims just arriving for the big celebrations.
We entered the Catholic shrine at about 1am. It was as though we had been teleported between parallel worlds. The difference between the shindig on the streets of Namugongo and the soul-searching spirit on the inside was stark. Pilgrims walked around silently offering supplications. Others kneeling before sculptures of saints (the martyrs).
The area is more than 10 acres, and on the eve of June3, celebrations, it transforms into a sea of sleeping souls. On every inch, save for the walk ways, there was someone sleeping. People were anything between 200,000 to 500,000 in the same place.
Keeping their property and holy water close to them, the pilgrims sleep next to the other. Did they have a bath? Had they eaten anything? A frail old woman likely in her 90s, lay on a concrete pavement as her hands clutched on her thin blanket. One could only imagine why she was enduring this cold night. One could only hope and pray that her prayers would be answered.
In the end
It is highly conceivable that God allowed the martyrs to suffer and die so that today, He would touch all these people with his love and grace. Maybe the martyrs did not die in vain.
We felt the presence of God in Namugongo and by the time we walked back to the car, we would never be the same.
To describe the Namugongo experience is like trying to explain the feeling you get when you hold a new born baby in your arms. Suddenly you feel wiser even when a million questions are running in your head. You tend to perceive God better and appreciate life more. All of a sudden your heart grows tender towards humanity and you start to think about all the suffering in the world. Your brain buzzes with puzzles and causes a lot of introspection. At the end of the day, there is possibly nothing that could ever prepare you for the experience.