Uganda is a superstition-prone country. Some Ugandans sacrifice animals, and sometimes human beings because they want to be rich. Others sacrifice in order to get ‘blessings’ or to cover a new car or house with the blood of an animal or human being.
There is now a story of some people in Rakai District who practice ritual cannibalism. Many flock to traditional shrines these days in order to get cured of all sorts of ailments, control their spouses or get visas. Others are said to be going under the lakes - whatever that means - in order to become wealthy.
The Ugandan spiritual space is currently overflowing with superstitious beliefs, some steeped in Christianity and others in traditions. It is against this background that martyrdom and sainthood commemorated at Namugongo may be abused.
Every year, June 3 has increasingly become an important day in the calendar of Christian faith in Uganda and beyond. It is the day on which Christians commemorate the martyrdom of Christian converts in Uganda between 1885 and 1887.
The blood of the Christian martyrs is said to have sown the seeds of Christianity in Uganda and the annual pilgrimage paid to the shrine where most of the martyrs were burnt to death, is said to be an act of watering that seed that was planted by the blood of the martyrs. The commemoration of the day is supposed to give inspiration and enhance Christian belief.
However, far from arousing sentiments of Christian faith, pilgrimage to Namugongo may be turned into a ritual that may turn away people from God. For example, one cardinal sin of Christianity is excessive reverence, veneration and adoration of a place. According to Christianity, the excessive reverence of a Christian site is committing the sin known as topolatry. Watching the behaviour of Christians at various martyrs’ shrines such as Namugongo and Mengo-Kisenyi, one wonders whether it is not bordering on topolatry.
Believers are literally scooping the soil and water to eat and drink respectively in order to get cured or get blessings. At the Anglican shrine at Namugongo, pilgrims have been cutting off the bark of a tree on which the martyrs are said to have been tied before execution and then eating it. This has even caused the tree to dry up.
Some unscrupulous con men and women have even gone as far as selling the bark tree pieces from other species of trees from elsewhere to the unsuspecting pilgrims in the past. Some pilgrims are seen fetching dirty water from the martyr’s lake at the Catholic shrine and from Mukajanga’s well at the Anglican shrine, drinking it and taking some home.
The pilgrims do this in the hope of getting miracle cure from various ailments or getting blessings. According to Christianity, the behaviour of these pilgrims borders on a sin known as matolatry. That is the worship of miracles.
Another sin that some Christians may be committing according to Christianity is known as symbolatry. At the Anglican martyrs shrine, there are clay engravings wrapped in papyrus symbolising the manner in which the martyrs were killed.
You find some pilgrims, if we go by their body language, supplicating to these symbols in a manner that may suggest that these pilgrims believe those were remains of the bodies of the martyrs. In some instances, the excessive adoration of the various statutes and symbols of martyrs at Namugongo by some Christians borders on idolatry, which is the worship of idols.
The bottom line is that reverence given to symbolic signs of honour to saints is accepted by some Christian traditions, particularly the Catholic Church as a method of faith enhancing. What matters is the intention behind one expressing himself before the symbol or site.
It depends whether one’s intention is to venerate the one Almighty God through these image representations or whether one thinks the blessings or salvation is obtained from that very symbol. If the intention approximates to the latter then that is idolatry and it is a sin according to the Christian belief.
Therefore, the clergy must study the behaviour of Christians at the shrines during pilgrimage, try and understand the intentions of the pilgrims and then offer theological guidance to the flock accordingly.
Otherwise, the spiritual euphoria, exuberance and excessive reverence and veneration so far exhibited at the martyrs shrines may tantamount to misapplication, abuse and misuse of sainthood and martyrdom in the Christina faith. This would be an irony as paying pilgrimage to Namugongo is meant to be a faith enhancing Christian ritual and by extension, bringing the Christian to salvation and not damnation.
Mr Ndebesa is a History lecturer at Makerere University. firstname.lastname@example.org