Wednesday June 4 2014

Nearly 200 years later, a new look at the Uganda Martyrs and King Mwanga

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Yesterday was a big day - the 50th anniversary of the Canonisation of the Uganda Martyrs. From Uganda and other parts of the world, thousands of pilgrims came to converge in Namugongo.

It was also the 128th anniversary of the martyrdom itself.
The passage of time, I believe, allows us to examine the events that happened sometime between May and June of 1886 with a little more dispassion.

For me as a neither-here-nor-there Catholic, and someone with an abiding interest in our history, it is also an opportunity to renew a long-standing fascination with King Mwanga.

First, I think it is difficult to believe in the sacrifice and meaning of the Uganda Martyrs, and still consider Mwanga’s execution of them as criminal. If the good Lord works in mysterious ways, then it can only be that Mwanga was his instrument for creating the Uganda Martyrs.

The Uganda Martyrs, in turn, were important in giving “local content” to Christianity and Catholicism in particular, in Uganda and Africa. As the Americans would say, they left skin in the game.

In a contradictory way, Mwanga, a conflicted anti-imperialist king, also comes across as very much ahead of his game.
Why did Mwanga order some of the martyrs to be burnt on the pyre, at a time when Western societies from whence the missionaries who brought modern Christianity to our lands had not yet themselves embraced cremation? Consider too that, even more than today, the 1880s were times when our societies were still deeply suspicious about modes of execution, and disposal of bodies.

In burning the martyrs, Mwanga went against the gods – thus suggesting that the chap was actually more scientific than he is given credit for.
In the decades to come, as Uganda’s population continues to swell, and land becomes scarce, like the Chinese and other nations, we too shall have to stop our inefficient burial customs.

Graves, in reality, are taking away land from tomorrow’s agriculture. Soon we won’t afford to bury the way we do. We shall either consolidate burial grounds, or cremate. Cremation remains taboo for most Ugandans, so it is telling that Mwanga consigned the martyrs to the fire.
If we focus on the big picture, Mwanga was more than 200 years ahead of his time.

Mwanga also understood the power of symbolism, and his decision to set the martyrs on fire was probably because he didn’t want them to have graves that are shrines of martyrdom - the way Namugongo has become today.

That Namugongo exists and the martyrs became what Mwanga didn’t want them to be, showed a serious flaw in his thinking. Mwanga didn’t know that he needed to control the story. And to do that, he needed to create a victor’s narrative – through writing, through song, through fable.

Mwanga didn’t do these things because he wasn’t a particularly scholarly and philosophical kabaka. He was a banal pragmatist, and thus lost the most important contest in the matter of the martyrs – the propaganda war.

But the martyrs were ahead of their time. Again, it was their politics that was truly revolutionary. Take recent “revolutions” in Uganda. For example, many foot soldiers and peasants died in the National Resistance Army/Movement war.

But the leaders, who were not at the frontline in the battles that mattered, lived to enjoy the fruits, and have tarnished their revolution with corruption and repression.

So why has the legacy of the martyrs lived for nearly 190 years, and travelled beyond Uganda? I think it is because, unlike the NRM’s “revolution”, all the martyrs died. None lived to enjoy the earthy rewards of their sacrifice.

You see, the biggest enemies of revolutions are those who make it. If those who make revolutions live long after it, they eventually eat their own revolution and soil its image. And so the lesson we should learn from the martyrs is that revolutions are not for those who make it. It is for their children. Understandably, that is a very hard lesson to learn in today’s Uganda.

Only two questions are left for us to ask: Mwanga, we have argued, was nearly 200 years ahead of his time in some respects. Are today’s rulers of Uganda ahead of their time even by a year, or are they actually behind? Probably the latter.

What about the ordinary citizens. Are there possibly still some who can make the kind of sacrifice the martyrs made? I think yes. In more recent years during the 1980s war in Luweero, some brave Ugandans there gave their lives for something bigger than themselves.
The story of the Uganda Martyrs, therefore, is only partially a story about the Church. Ultimately, it is a political testament to Uganda as a polity.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa ( Twitter:cobbo3