She had only come over to attend her regular choir practice sessions, at the St Maria Tumaininjena Catholic Church, in Kagunguli, Ukerewe Island, in Tanzania.
She dressed simply, in a dress, a light blue one checked with leafy designs, and a white kanga with blue leaves dotted all over it, wrapped around her from the waist, downwards. A head scarf was tightly knotted around her head, to complete a typical female African fashion look.
And it was while here, at the practice session, that she picked word of a Ugandan team that was doing rounds in search of descendants of Matia Mulumba. By then, we had been going around in circles in the village, for a little over an hour. Having run into stonewalls and with hardly a thing to show for it, we were just about to call off that leg of the journey, as another frustrating cold dead end.
Then she rose up to her feet, stood and told her choir master, who had broken the news to her, that her mother may know a thing or two about what we sought. The choir leader led her over to us, as we prepared to leave. And just like that, we had finally landed on the first direct descendant from the line of St Matia Mulumba, the martyr.
54-year old Restituta Gregory, a calm woman who chose to sift through her words before she spoke, peered long and hard at us. “My mother knows something about him,” she said. “What would you want with them?” she added after we read off a list of names of Matia Mulumba’s children, wondering whether she recognised any. It was clear, from the onset, that Ms Gregory was exercising caution in her discourse with us. She knew more than she was telling, and for a while, you sensed that she was not sure whether she should trust us.
The Tanzanian journalist, Moses Mathew who was part of the team and in charge of translation launched into a charm offensive to Ms Gregory, telling jokes and little nothings, to ease her up.
Slowly, her questioning gaze started giving way to smiles and short bursts of laughter. She lightened up, probably realising that we were not after any mischief after all. She told us about herself, that she had no husband, but had six children, two sons and four daughters. She did not explain further. She proceeded to lead us to her mother, who she said knew all about Matia Mulumba.
And it is here that it all came together like a jigsaw.
Devita Bazalaki Stephano, at 89-years-old, sat out in the yard behind her house, on a brown papyrus mat. The signs of old age, wore down on her like a mask. She shivered as she tried to move her muscles up to speak, even when there was no breeze from the sea and the afternoon tropical sun was in full force.
She tried her best smile, and yes, her eyes welled as she beamed with joy on learning that Ugandans had come all the way to Tanzania to look for her. She is one of a few Matia Mulumba descendants that have gone on to carry a Ugandan name, in this case, Bazalaki. And her grandmother, Julia Namukadde, the only known surviving child of Matia Mulumba, had taught her a few Luganda words. In her efforts to greet us, therefore, a webale nyo here, a nsanyuse nyo there and a ssebo.
The conversation was kept short, because she could not speak much. She directed us to her younger brother, a Venasio John Ruhutta, who she said had documented the entire history of the Matia Mulumba family and all its exploits.
She, however, summoned just enough strength to tell us how she descended from the saint. “Julia (Namukadde) gave birth to my father, John Museso Malima,” she said. She spoke of Julia with fondness. “She took very good care of me since I was a child. She died after I had got one child,” Ms Stephano said of Julia. “She was very firm, as a parent, but not very harsh. She used to tell us to be disciplined and advise her grandchildren to behave well. If you did something wrong, she would ask, “Why don’t you behave well?”
Ms Stephano gave birth to 12 children, two of who have since died.
When it was time to say goodbye, a few children were dispatched off into the gardens to get presents for the visitors. Yes, in this home, we were not treated as prying vultures like journalists are known to be, but as visitors. Ukerewe could as well be the cradle of all things orange and tangerine. And out of the family’s labours, they presented a bag of oranges to the team, such a show of warmth and hospitality that seemed to say, please, do come back again.
We, however, did not meet with this same level of hospitality at the home of Venansio John Ruhuta, Ms Stephano’s young brother. He, the knowledgeable source on the history and current affairs of the Matia Mulumba family, treated our visit with suspicion. “Who directed you here?” he asked, a small part of a long line of inquiry, which simply seemed to say that we were not trustworthy enough to give information.
He mistrusted our intentions. “What you are doing has no spiritual value,” he said. “I will only talk to the priest who directed you here, because he is doing God’s work; you are only interested in printing and making money,” he added. He barred us from taking any photos.
Mr Ruhutta is a 79-year-old man who runs a guesthouse, just outside Nansio Port, the main gateway into Ukerewe Island. He is a dark stocky man, about 5ft 8’, with grey hair neatly combed backwards. His house speaks of a possession belonging to a staunch believer in his faith. Portraits of the Virgin Mary are around and about in the living room.
Images of yester-year popes also make the line up on the wall of fame.
In the far right hand corner of the living room, stood a small plastic Christmas tree, about three feet tall, with white tissue decorations still running all over it, in the middle of May. These features, given such prominence in his house, showed a man who placed his faith on a very high level in his life, or at least, the connection that his faith has with his family. He said he was a polygamist, with more children than he could remember.
He said two of his sons were working as Brothers in Mwanza, and, two of his daughters were nuns, also working at a convent in Mwanza. He refused to provide their contact details. Mr Ruhutta’s obstinacy held on to the very end. As we walked out his door, he offered to carry one of our bags for us, probably as is the custom. He wished us journey mercies and then bid us farewell. It showed that he did not really mean ill by refusing to give the interviews, and, that he had probably just done so as a matter of principle.
If his descendants had forsaken his faith for the world, not only would it sadden Matia Mulumba, it would also make it nearly impossible for us to find the family. But no, they have not. They may not all be nuns and priests overseeing flocks in the parishes, but their connection with the church is alive and well. And although we could not have an interviews with John Ruhutta, it made for great discovery that Matia Mulumba’s faith is very much still alive in great grandchildren, and their children, a whole 127 years after he died.
Matia Mulumba’s legacy in Tanzania
His might have been one of the most brutal of the martyr’s deaths, cut into pieces and left to bleed away in the days leading up to June 3, 1886. But Matia Mulumba, one of the Catholic Martyrs, now beatified and canonised as a saint, is a larger than life embodiment.
He is like a grand institution, with churches and schools all across East Africa, named after him. But more, is the legacy that the offspring he left behind managed to propagate, through an active role in missionary work to places that had not yet embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the communities along the southern shores of Lake Victoria, in Tanzania.
According to his great grandson, Venansio John Ruhutta, it is the work of his daughter, Julia Namukadde, together with her husband, Sirillo Ruhutta which brought about the first Catholic Church on Ukerewe Island, at a parish called Kagunguli.
Archived material in a book titled, Eddiini mu Uganda, written in the mid 20th century by Rev Fr J. L. Ddiba, reveals that Julia Namukadde married a catechist in the Roman Catholic Church called Sirillo Ruhutta. With him, they went on missions teaching the gospel in places like Bulamba and Koome, still around the southern shores of Lake Victoria.
Later, however, according to Venansio, the couple moved and settled on the western side of the Island, on Kagunguli parish. Here, they set out to start missionary work, teaching the gospel to the natives. He says they were sent by the missionaries in Mwanza to go start a Catholic Church in Ukerewe. And the result of their work is the St Maria Tumaininjena Catholic Church, built in 1895. It was not clear whether the structure we found at the site was the original structure from 1895, or whether another, more permanent structure, was built in its place.
Their work saw the growth of resultant features at any church parish as a primary school, the Kagunguli Primary school, and, a hospital, the Kangunguli hospital. All these still run to this day.
By John K. Abimanyi
The search for descendants of the Uganda Martyrs
Surely, they must be out there,” we thought to ourselves.
“It just cannot be that none of the martyrs had children or, worse, that the children died away and did not leave any biological strings to carry their genes on to the next generation.” And hence, without an idea where to start in the world, we threw our nets into a sea we hoped would give us back fish, but were not sure where we would find them.
The search for descendants of the Uganda Martyrs was a two-month long exercise that took this reporter back and forth from Namugongo, to Namilyango, to Kibuye and Makindye, on to Luweero, and, climactically, to the orange and tangerine scattered green-rich island of Ukerewe in Tanzania, on Lake Victoria. It is a three-hour sail north of Mwanza port. And out of the exercise has come a story that has not been told by any media house in recent history, until now.
Special thanks have to be given to Father Joseph Mukasa Muwonge, a priest at the Catholic shrine in Namugongo and journalist on Radio Maria, and, Reverend Michael Wasswa, a history lecturer at the Uganda Martyrs Seminary, Namugongo, for playing active roles in leading us to the descendants. Thaddeus Salvatori, the medical clinical officer at Kagunguli Hospital, played a big role, leading us to knowledgeable individuals in Kakunguli who finally led us to Matia Mulumba.
Father Muwonge was especially instrumental, in providing research materials and last known details of the children of the Catholic Martyrs. This information led us to the parishes of Namilyango and Kibuye, where available research suggested that the children of Andrea Kaggwa, one of the Catholic martyrs, had settled. The search run dry and cold in Namilyango. And in Kibuye, where it almost bore some fruit when an elderly priest’s eyes seemed to jump up in excitement at seemingly recognising one of his (Andrea Kaggwa) grandchildren’s names, the trail turned cold too. It turned out, after all, that after crosschecking with other elderly faithful in the parish, the name just could not register.
It was at Uganda Martyrs seminary Namugongo, that we began to hit gold. The principal of the seminary led us to Reverand Wasswa, who already knew some descendants of Uganda Martyrs.
He led us to the family of Reverend Simon Serwanja, who also taught alongside him at the seminary. Rev Serwanja then provided a wealth of information about his extended family, all the way from his grandmother, to descendants living today.
Thereafter was the arduous journey to Ukerewe in Northern Tanzania, where the last trail of Matia Mulumba’s (one of the Catholic Martyrs) last descendants were known to live. It was a lone shot into an echoing dark realm. With the hardships of language barrier, tied around the fact that many Tanzanians cannot speak English, and, most Ugandans cannot speak Kiswahili, the chances of any success were dim. But we ventured into Ukerewe, to a parish where information from Mwanza’s Catholic parish had suggested that a Ugandan missionary had settled.
It would have been impossible to pull this off without the help of Tanzanian journalist, Moses Mathew, who acted as a guide, interpreter and co-journalist. And it is near this Catholic parish, called Kagunguli, that we found Matia Mulumba’s descendants.
Yes, the symbolism of the whole discovery was almost too much, even for this reporter to take.
By John K. Abimanyi
Julia, Matia Mulumba’s only known child
According to the book, Eddiini mu Uganda, by Rev Fr J.L. Ddiba, there is a possibility that Mathias Mulumba had many more children, but, due to poor record keeping, they are not known. This is because he had kept many wives before becoming a Christian, when he let go of the rest and stayed with one, Iriza Kikuwaza Netese. He had a son called Matia, who was baptised in the very year that the martyr died, August, 1886. The son, however, died the following year.
That thus left only Julia Namukadde, as the only known surviving child of the martyr.
The book reveals that upon his death, she was raised by a woman called Matilda Nnaku, at Nalukolongo, in modern day western Kampala, where a Catholic mission stood. When Buganda descended into religious wars and conflict, missionaries, who were taking care of her, fled on a canoe down South along Lake Victoria, to modern day Mwanza.
What had meant to be a limited time of refuge turned out to be a permanent move as Julia matured into an adult, married, gave birth to children, and was buried there.
There is a bit of conflicting information on her adult life, between what the book says, and, what her grandchildren say.
The book says that Julia first settled in Bukumbi in Mwanza, where she married a Zaa Omukangara.
He, however, died after he drowned in the lake. The two had got two children, the book says. It is after this marriage that it was arranged for her to marry Sirillo Ruhutta. However, Venansio John Ruhutta, Julia Namukadde’s grandchild, says, Julia only married once, and, that it is Mr Ruhutta that she married. What we can be sure of is that she indeed did marry Mr Ruhutta, and, that the two gave birth to four children, John Museso Malima, Bazila Kapilo Muzira, Melania Nansige and Martina Kahabi.
In fact, the grandson says that it is Mr Ruhutta who had first married a Ugandan wife. However, after she passed away, he was advised to marry Julia.
The couple settled in Kagunguli parish on Ukerewe Island, just north of Mwanza, where they worked as missionaries, and set up the first church on the island. Her husband is said to have died in 1905, according to Eddiini mu Uganda. She stayed single, raising her children, and later her grandchildren.
In the 1920s, when the Uganda Martyrs were beatified by the Pope, Rev Fr J.L. Ddiba’s book says she flown to Rome as a witness to this grand occasion.
She is said to have died on January 12, 1941, and was buried in the cemetery, just across the road from St Maria Tumaininjena Catholic Church, in Kagunguli. Because so many years have passed, her grandchildren could not pin point the exact location of her grave, in the cemetery. Many of the graves as well, did not have legible markings, which made it hard to point it out.
By John K. Abimanyi