“It is by faith that I do what many perceive as a hard task,” Bernardo Tibyangye, a retired teacher, speaks of the pilgrimage he has done nine times on foot, and 50 times by bus.
When I reached Namugongo Shrine, his group was the only one that had completed a 12-day journey from St Jude Sub-parish in Kikuba Village, Bushenyi District. Gathered in a tent, they look fresh though most of them have swollen feet. Children are engrossed in phone games. I ask if there is a family that made pilgrimage and the women around quickly point out, “That mzee walked with his sister and grandchildren.”
The grey haired parishioner in a cream kaftan shirt exudes energy and readies himself to share how he has managed to walk to Namugongo Catholic Shrine and more gratified that his grandchildren joined him this time.
“This is not my first but ninth time to make a foot pilgrimage and I always lead the pilgrims. My grandchildren David and Bridget showed interest from the time I confirmed to be part of the group that intended to walk to Namugongo. They persisted promising not to disturb,” Tibyangye recalls.
“I told them about the hurdles that lay ahead such as harsh weather elements but they were instead more than determined to tag along,” the 97-year-old man reveals.
Tibyangye saved Shs400,000 for this journey. He asked each of the grandchildren to prepare a few clothes, sandals and a water bottle. Spiritually, they recited the rosary two weeks before they set off. He cautioned them to focus on their destination and the reason they were walking.
As a leader of the group, he called for a preparatory meeting at St Kaggwa Catholic Parish to discuss their requirements and how they would move.
“On top of the meeting, we held a nine-day Novena for our journey that ended on the day we set off. We had Holy mass before we set off at 5pm,” he says while he beams.
Making stopovers at different parishes to refresh and eat, the group comprised the young and old. They walked more than 300km from Bushenyi District in Mbarara Ecclesiastical Province to Namugongo.
As a team leader, Tibyangye not only set the pace but also led them in prayer.
“I inspired them to walk in faith, brave the rainy, cold nights and scorching sun,” he explains.
Because Tibyangye had moved with his grandchildren, he had extra responsibility.
“I bought a big loaf of bread and a litre of bottled water. Whenever the children got tired, we would sit under a tree and I give each a slice of bread and water. When we came by a restaurant, we would break off to eat then, continue to the next parish where we spent a night.”
He says this year is historic because it is the 50th time he is attending the celebration at Uganda Martyrs in Namugongo, and the ninth time he is walking from Bushenyi. His first time to visit Namugongo shrine was in 1969 when Pope John Paul came to Uganda but he started walking in 2011 at 83 years.
“Since I started walking to Namugongo, all my prayers have been answered. Our home is peaceful and I have managed to take all my grandchildren to school. Some of them are joining university this year while others are graduates. I have also been able to get money to feed my family and also support church work; I visit the sick and work hand- in-hand with the church to take Holy Communion to the elderly and the sick who cannot walk to church or attend Holy Mass,” he reveals.
Then and now
Tibyangye adds that although they have been taking more days to arrive in Namugongo in the previous years, this time, they persisted and kept marching in faith despite the harsh weather conditions. The difference is that this time, he trekked with his family unlike before when he moved with other members of the church
He reveals that the maiden experience was difficult. By the time he reached Namugongo his feet were swollen and he had unbearable pain in the legs and back. However this time, he has not had any of such challenges.
“I was more than strong this time that I set pace for the rest. Sometimes I could walk and leave some energetic one behind, this is because I dedicated myself and the journey to St Andrew Kaggwa,” he says.
Tibyangye prayed for whoever had lost hope because of tiredness to reach their destination, “We were not scared of pain or rain because a pilgrim does not fear challenges,” says Tibyangye.
We would at a certain point stop and massage our feet with oil, sip some water and have snacks then continue in prayer and praise.”
On arrival at Namugongo, Tibyangye divulges that his group of 29 people was welcomed by the Rev Fr Joseph Mukasa Muwonge, the promoter of the Uganda Martyrs in Kampala Archdiocese, amid songs of praises, ululations and drumming. They have been lucky to be attended to since they arrived.
“Dr Mutabazi has been massaging our feet, giving medicine to those with several health complaints such as headache, body ache, among other medical help that we need,” he narrates joyfully.
His daughter Harriet Agaba, who resides in Kampala, received her father too. Tibyangye and the group arrived at the shrine on Tuesday May 21. Now that his prayers are answered, through the intercession of St Andrew Kaggwa, he is praying for people worldwide to know the goodness of the martyrs. “They [Uganda Martyrs] do wonders.”
Why he moved with family
“I want to leave a good legacy for my children. They need to know who the Uganda Martyrs are, what they went through and why we celebrate them. I am emulating the example the martyrs set. So, I endure the harsh weather conditions annually without complaining because I believe the Lord has a reason he has kept me strong. I have strode because not so many at my age can endure,” he smiles.
He adds that through the martyrs people can strengthen their faith. He wants the children to grow in faith and be a living example to their age mates and those around them.
His grandson, David Rukundo, 9, reveals that he wants to ask God through the Uganda Martyrs, especially St Kizito, the youngest martyr, to grant him wisdom and also heal his brother who has been vomiting for two years now.
“I decided to walk with my grandfather in rain to pray for my mother whose hands have been in paining for long and my family members. I believe through St Kizito, my prayers will be answered,” he relates.
Bridget Amuhimbise, 11, who wants to be a teacher like her grandfather says, “I want to pray for knowledge so that I study and become a teacher. I also want God to heal my grandmother of back and body ache ,” Amuhimbise says.
Previously, Tibyangye would be more focused in prayer despite the weather conditions and swollen feet but it became a little difficult when he walked with his grandchildren.
“It was not any easy walking with these children because they kept running around and hiding in bushes along the way. I had to look for them from time to time though I did not get tired of reminding them why I allowed them to walk with us. I am happy that they followed instructions, whenever we reached stopovers (parishes) where we ate, refreshed and got our legs massaged. They are not complaining,” he shares.
At times they would seek refuge at roadside shops when it rained heavily but moved continuously in drizzles and under the scorching sun.
Apart from exploring the different sceneries on the way, and wanting to reach Kampala where they have never been before, the children also lament of the pain they experienced. “Our legs hurt but we were given medication and we are now fine,” says Rukundo.
Bulandina Katontori, Tibyangye’s sister, has thrice consecutively walked to Namugongo.
“The first time was hard because the journey was too long with severe pain. It was different this time as we took less days but my feet got swollen. I am happy that my prayers will be answered because my faith is stronger than ever and my brother has also set a good example for me and others,” she says with a smile.
We part as they draw their rosaries to pray.