Last month marked 42 years since Church of Uganda commemorated the muted centennial celebrations of Christianity in Uganda.
The first missionaries to come to Uganda were from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in London. They founded the present-day Anglican Church in Uganda having arrived here in June 1877.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of their arrival, Church of Uganda prepared an event on June 30, 1977, under the theme ‘A live church in Uganda’. Preparations were done both at provincial and diocesan levels across the country.
All sorts of souvenirs, ranging from lapel badges, ties, bags to clothes, were on sale ahead of the main event.
Death of Luwum
But three months to the D-Day, the country woke up to the news of the death of the main celebrant of the centenary celebrations, then Archbishop of the Church of Uganda Janani Luwum.
The official government statement was that it was an escape attempt gone wrong. But the government’s version did not stand the test of time.
The centennial preparations had put the church and government at odds because of the prevailing economic situation in Uganda at the time.
The church was receiving lots of hard currency which was in short supply for the government.
“Luwum’s refusal to surrender the money donated by foreign churches and entities towards the centenary annoyed the president because at a time the country was in dire need of foreign exchange. This may have contributed to the already souring relations between the head of State and of the head of the Anglican Church [in Uganda],” says a retired senior church administrator who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“[Then president Idi] Amin asked the archbishop to surrender the preparations of the centenary to government and also hand over all the donations, but the archbishop refused. Luwum’s refusal did not go down well with Amin.”
It was not only money that caused tension between the Church and the State, but also gifts given in kind for the celebrations.
“Each deanery of the Church of Uganda was to receive a vehicle donated by the Anglican Church in German. The government confiscated the vehicles and distributed them among its people and others to security agencies after the death of the archbishop,” says the retired administrator.
“The church leadership was too meek at the time to claim what belonged to it. Many of the cars sent later worked as taxis on the Kampala-Busega stage as late as 2009, until they were written off.”
According to the book In Defense of All God’s Children: The Life and Ministry of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, the author says the centenary was also going to celebrate the Uganda martyrs whose steadfast loyalty to their faith in the face of Kabaka Mwanga’s wrath led to their death in 1886, but strengthened the church.
“Strengthened by the example of Archbishop Luwum’s martyrdom, Christians turned out in droves to churches to celebrate 100 years of Christendom in Uganda. It was as if they were defying Amin’s attempt to exterminate Christianity,” the retired bishop writes.
As part of the celebration, songs and poems were composed. But among those that stood out was the song in praise of the martyrs.
This was because it rhymed with the death of Luwum who was looked at as a martyr whose life had been cut short by the regime at the time because of his faith.
The chorus of the song went: “Alleluya ku lwa Yesu batibwa nga bayimba… Bewayo Abaana bebazibwe, ku lwaffe bawayo Obulamu ne byonna.” (Alleluia in the name of Jesus, they died praising him. For our salvation, they gave up everything including their lives, thanks to them)
With the death of the archbishop vanished the pomp and steam expected at the centenary. The mood became lukewarm, and in some cases muted.
Although Luwum’s successor, Silvanus Wani, went ahead and presided over the provincial celebrations at Namirembe Cathedral, it was not with the glamour that had been anticipated.
Having realised the effect the death of the archbishop had on the Anglican Church, Amin offered to charter a plane for Ugandan bishops who were preparing to go to London for the Lambeth Conference of 1978.
“When Archbishop Silvanus Wani informed us that the president had chartered a special plane to transport us to the United Kingdom, we were both surprised and afraid. With scarcely another option we accepted the president’s offer though we knew he was against us. We put our plight in God’s hands,” says the retired administrator.
Rev Canon Geoffrey Byarugaba, the Vicar of the Church of Resurrection in Bugolobi, was a Primary Six pupil at Kagunga Church of Uganda Primary School in Kabale District and a member of the school choir that had started rehearsing for the celebration back in 1976.
“We were gearing up for the celebrations. Hymns and compositions of music were being done. Then in the midst of that pomp, the archbishop was killed. The preparations continued but the steam had been deflated,” says Rev Canon Byarugaba.
“There was concern of whether the name of the dead archbishop, or even the bishop’s name, should be mentioned in the composition without the authorities being offended.”
Rev Canon Byarugaba adds that it was a double loss for his home diocese of Kigezi.
“At the provincial level, we had lost the archbishop and at the diocesan level our bishop, Festo Kivengere, had fled into exile and the assistant bishop, Rukirande, had to preside over the event. At the end of the day we had a muted celebration, far from what we had anticipated. The mood in the air was more of mourning than jubilation.”
The post offices of the three East African countries issued commemorative stamps in their countries. The defunct Uganda Post and Telecommunications Corporation issued stamps together with its sister companies in Kenya and Tanzania.
In Kenya, stamps that were issued included one showing Rev Apolo Kivebulaya, the Ugandan Anglican missionary who took Christianity to present-day DR Congo, baptising a child and another of the first Namirembe Cathedral.
The one issued by the Tanzanian post office was of the grass-thatched church at Namirembe Hill.