How the Uganda Martyrs were killed

Wednesday June 3 2020

A painting at the Uganda Martyrs Shrine

A painting at the Uganda Martyrs Shrine Namugongo illustrating how the Martyrs were killed. PHOTO/ FILE. 

By Henry Lubega

The place that came to be famous for the killing of the martyrs had originally been gazetted as a killing field for the royals, nobles and those condemned to death by the king. The gazetting was done by King Kyabagu Kabinula, the 25th king of Buganda, who reigned from1750 to 1780.
All convicts to be killed at Nakiyanja were burnt, but their blood was not spilt there.
However, the fire that burnt the convicts was never lit from Nakiyanja. It came from a special fire place in the palace called Gombolola. In the Ganda king’s palace, the fire at Gombolola never burns out as long as a king reigns. It was only put out at the death of a king and re-lit after the deceased’s successor has been enthroned.

Ssenkole, who was the deputy executioner, was also the official carrier of the sacred fuse, also known as the royal fire. The sacred fuse was made of a bark-cloth rope. This was what was used to carry the fire from Gombolola fire place from Mengo to Nakiyanja, the killing site. The bark-cloth does not give off flames when burnt, it just smokes. That’s why it was able to keep the fire from the palace in Mengo to Namugongo.

Ssenkole, the carrier of the royal fire, never reached Nakiyanja where the killing took place. From Mengo, he kept the sacred fuse at his home in Buwate, as the pyres for the condemned were being prepared. On the morning of the execution, Ssenkole brought the sacred fuse from his home in Buwate to a spot then called Suula Engaga (Present day location of the Catholic Shrines).
From here, flames were made on reeds from the sacred fuse and taken to Nakiyanja for the burning of the condemned people.
“Senkole was following the traditional ritual of execution, which prohibited the presence of the guardian of the sacred fuse at the actual scene of a large execution, “writes John Faupel in the 1984 edition of African Holocaust: the Story of the Uganda martyrs.

A monument at Namugongo Martyrs Shrine with the
A monument at Namugongo Martyrs Shrine with the names of all the martyrs. PHOTO/ FILE.

Besides being the fire carrier, Senkole was also responsible for protecting the king from being attacked by the ghosts of those killed. He used the ash from the sacred fuse to protect the king.
“The rite of tapping each of the condemned with the sacred fuse was designed to render the ghosts of the victims powerless to take their revenge upon the spirit of the Kabaka. As he tapped each person, he said ‘Your disobedience is responsible for your death and not the Kabaka.’”


Though barred by tradition from getting to the site of mass execution, Ssenkole did not miss out in taking part in the killing. After giving the fire to Mukajjanga’s team to proceed to Nakiyanja, he also chose his own victim.
Charles Lwanga was Ssenkole’s choice. He was taken away from the rest of the team as it proceeded to Nakiyanja. After making sure that he was dead, he cleansed himself of the dead man’s ghost by taking some of the remaining reeds and scattered them, saying: “We have not killed you, but Nende and Kabaka and all the gods whom you have despised, and they are the cause of your death.”
The final ritual before getting to Nakiyanja was at a place known as Ssezibuugo. This is just after the Shrines towards Nakiyanja. It was here that the condemned people were stripped naked. Mukajanga’s men kept their victims’ attires (bark-cloths) there and later returned to share them. Hence the name Ssezibuugo.

Also, relatives of the condemned people were not allowed to go to Nakiyanja to bid their loved ones farewell before they were killed. Instead, just near present day Kyaliwajjala junction, was a big tree near the road in the compound of a man called Jaala. It was under this tree that people said their last farewell to their relatives before being killed. The tree was nicknamed Ndazabakyala (Woman’s womb).
Due to the crying and wailing as people saw their relatives being marched to death at Jaala’s compound, onlookers were describing it in one word, saying Ekyali e wa Jaala, loosely translated as “what was at Jaala’s place,” hence the name Kyaliwajjala.

Our series continue tomorrow.