On the road with Gulu pilgrims

Friday May 31 2019
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Walk of faith. Pilgrims from Gulu on their way to Namugongo Martyrs Shrines in Wakiso District. PHOTO BY ANDREW KAGGWA

Pogba, Pogba….,” a bystander calls out.
They are somewhat baffled by a gentleman holding high a crucifix of Jesus Christ and seemingly in prayer while he walks on, in the jersey of his favourite English football team, Manchester United.
But he is not the only one, in front of him is a girl wearing a blue Samsung jersey bearing the number 11, made famous by Ivory Coast striker Didier Drogba, another one is putting on Arsenal’s red and white with Ozil’s name at the back.

Probably, it is that attachment football fans have for the game has caught the attention of passersby in Luweero District. May be they had never seen a crucifix-carrying Pogba.
But this is a procession of people who have been walking for two weeks. They are from different parishes of Gulu Catholic Archdiocese heading to Namugongo Martyrs Shrine in Wakiso District.
Such pilgrims are common every mid-May. Some come from as far as Lira, Moroto, Mbarara and neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, DR Congo, Kenya, among others.

But for Gulu pilgrims, this particular walk means much more considering that it is their archdiocese that is leading the celebrations this year.
They were flagged off on May 15, after a Mass celebration at the cathedral, with 337 pilgrims starting the journey to the shrines.
At 6am, they start the journey, moving even before having a starter meal.

“The people with our food have been moving ahead of us in order to prepare meals,” says Florence Lamunu Komakech, the team leader for the pilgrims.
This is Lamunu’s fourth time to trek to the Uganda Martyrs Shrine. The 66 year-old woman first made the journey in 2015, then with a group from Lira District.
On the way, they are joined by a catechist walking alone and other smaller groups of pilgrims.

The journey
Lamunu says the journey from Gulu is not a smooth one. She says after they made the first stop, they took a longer time to resume the journey as many people were not feeling well.
“Some were complaining about muscle pulls, joint pains and all the effects that come with moving long distances,” she says.
But luckily, an ambulance following them makes it easy for them to get help and medical attention whenever needed.

On some days, they are intercepted by heavy rains in the middle of nowhere and have to walk on, singing and praising.
Lamunu says the rain had its effects on some of them, for example, the youngest pilgrimage in the group, a nine-year-old, developed a fever but fortunately, he received treatment and was able to continue with the journey. Lamunu says only two pilgrims were unable to complete the journey.

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However, the one thing that gave the group a scare during the 334km journey is the day they left Dima through Karuma.
“On that route, you pass through a game park,” narrates one of the pilgrims, before his friend chips in: “See, as we were walking early in the morning, we met an elephant.”
The elephant story has become famous among the pilgrims but what happened during their encounter with the giant beast is a story full of contradictions. Whereas one pilgrim says the animal tried to attack them, others claim it simply crossed the road and went on with its business.

As the group leader, Lamunu and a few of her lieutenants had to earmark stations the pilgrimages would have to stopover for a night and meals during the journey.
Like many events in Ugandan, the celebrations of the Uganda martyrs has turned into a business venture for many people and a chance for some politicians to square off or show allegiance to the public.

For example, the Gulu pilgrims’ journey from Emmaus Centre in Luweero District saw the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Mr Jacob Oulanyah, briefly joining them and like many that were to follow, he moved with a gift pack that included cartons of water, soda and food.
“These are people willing to walk the full length for their faith and this should inspire us,” he said.
Others that joined the group included Gulu MP Lyandro Komakech, and Gulu Woman MP Betty Aol Ochan.

Former Uganda Peoples Congress party president Olara Otunnu joined the group at Dima on the second day of their walk. He says he was supposed to leave with them but there was a mix up in the communication.
“There were supposed to be two groups leaving Gulu and I booked with the second one. Unfortunately, they were merged into one and flagged off on May 15.”
He says walking with the group for 10 days was a very humbling experience. “These are ordinary people, not intellectuals or academia. This reminds you that before God, our influence doesn’t count,” Mr Otunnu says.

The Gulu procession is an exciting affair other than just a long walk. The group has a lead car blaring music from the land, with the procession singing along. A good number of soldiers and police officers help manage the traffic for the group as they approach their destination.
Proscovia Akumu, 17, says at first, her parents had refused to embark on the journey with them but after convincing them, they joined the group.

Her friend, Miriam Alanyo, 16, says she needed the parish priest to talk to her mother to convince her to make the pilgrimage.
The two constantly talk about village mates, who reportedly laughed at them thinking they would not make it.
In the group, an 18-year-old boy says he made the journey because he wants to pray for his father’s health. Some pilgrims say they made the journey not only to pray, but also tour the city since it is their first time to the city.

The most exciting thing about the procession, though is the love the pilgrims are showered with by onlookers and other people they meet on the way. Some onlookers join the group and trek with them for some distance just to offer moral support.
In other places it was the vibe and ululations that got people abandoning their kiosks to join the pilgrims on their trek.
Sarah Nansubuga not only offered some refreshments to them in form of soda but she also walked with them for almost an hour.
“It is the least I can do. They have done the biggest part of the work,” she says.

In other areas, people are waiting for them with items such as fruits, boxes of mineral water and cash.
The group reaches St Francis Catholic Church Matugga, their last resting place before before the final stretch to Namugongo.
Like in the other places, the community here is happy to see them and continuously cheers them on as they make their way to the church.
On entering the church, many fall to their knees in prayer.

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