Delivering the Eid sermons at Masjid Musa at Hotel Africana in Kampala, Sheikh Hamza Kateregga asked us to pray for our brethren in Mecca.
He had just received the news of the stampede at Mina in which hundreds had died and scores injured.
Accounts of the cause and extent of tragedy are as many as the pilgrims.
Some accuse Saudi authorities of negligence, while others say it was “intentional”. Disaster eclipsed the 2015 pilgrimage in the eyes of the world, but Ugandan pilgrims, proudly tell a different story.
I met Hajjat Farida Kyeyune at her home behind Najjanankumbi Mosque, on Entebbe Road. Fresh from Mecca, this young wife of Imam Ahmad Kyeyune, a regular pilgrim, shares her experience with fervour.
“The pilgrimage was good, except a few challenges, especially for us first timers,” she opens up. “We left on September 10 at about 7pm and reached Madinah after four hours.”
Their group and other Ugandan pilgrims pitched camp at Erias hotel near the historical Masjid Nabawi, the mosque of Prophet Muhammad. In Islam, it is believed that one prayer performed here is equivalent to 1,000 prayers.
“We were lucky that for the week we spent in Madinah, we performed our daily prayers in the Prophet’s mosque,” Hajjat Kyeyune says.
In Madinah, Ugandans visited other sites such as Mount Uhud, where the historic Battle of Uhud occurred; the Madina Museum and other two mosques Qiblatain and Qubbah.
After one week, they went to Mecca for the pilgrimage.
They stayed at a hotel about 2km from the main Haram mosque. The moment pilgrims set foot in Mecca, they have to walk around Ka’ba (the black cubic stone in the middle of the mosque).
“We did Tawaf (going round the Ka’ba seven times); and run between the hills of Swafa and Marwah seven times,” Hajjat Kyeyune narrates. From there, they retreated to their hotel to replenish.
Going around Ka’ba is mandatory, but touching it is a pleasure many miss due to the large numbers. “But I got the opportunity to touch and hug the Ka’ba twice,” Hajj Abdussalaam Ali Kinobe, a presenter on Pearl FM, shares with a big smile.
He was the only Ugandan guest of the King of Saudi Arabia. He enjoyed the royal treatment from residing in the magnificent Marriot Hotel to dining with the King, without spending a penny.
On the eighth day of Dhul-Hijja (the last month on the Islamic calendar), pilgrims left for Mina.
Hajjat Kyeyune says the 4km trek would have been okay save for the excessively hot temperatures. “Madina is very peaceful and cool but Mecca and the other areas are very hot. I struggled to cope.”
Compared to Kampala, she says Mecca is 10 times hotter. “There are air conditioners and fans in every tunnel but the heat stings and the drinks were hot,” she recalls. “I fainted thrice due to breathing problems and I was put in an ambulance.”
Thankfully, she was in company of her husband, Hajjat Fatuma Nakayiza and Dr Abdussalaam Kizito, a competent health team.
Moment of fame
Hajj Kinobe’s fluency in English and Arabic bought him to the limelight. For 30 minutes, he addressed the Muslims on Saudi 2 TV.
He talked about imbalance in media in Uganda and implored Arabs to invest in the media. He said Kampala has only three Islamic radio stations and about three others upcountry. Yet even those are not well established.
He compared one Islamic TV to the many owned by other religious institutions.
“I wrapped up my message calling for unity among Muslims in Uganda and the world,” he beams.
At the end of their stay in Mecca, Hajj Kinobe and 17 others dined with the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. At the dinner, the King echoed Kinobe’s call for unity among Muslims and urged them to fight terrorism. “I will treasure these moments forever,” Kinobe says.
When disaster struck
Hajj Kinobe was a sleep in his tent but his Tanzanian friend woke him up to the tragic news on TV. “Dead bodies spread all over were being lifted from the scene…it was horrible. And we had just left that place.”
Perhaps, the deadliest hajj incident occurred when two groups collided, causing a stampede at the Jamaraat Bridge. Hajj Ssenkuba says the numbers could have reached 2000 by now.
But how did Ugandans survive? “We were punctual and patient. All Ugandan groups had just finished stoning the pillar where the incident happened, ” Hajjat Kyeyune says.
Ssenkuba recounts, “I moved in a group of my fellow youths, reached Mina early in the morning, stoned the pillar and left the scene. By the time the tragic news broke, we had returned to Mecca.”
Hajjat Kyeyune had already lost her phone in Mecca as she rounded the Ka’ba, her mother could not talk to her in these trying moments.
“But I knew they were anxious and I was always worried about my children especially my three-year old child.”
Ssenkuba received many calls from home and he could not leave two little girls and a wife guessing. Via Facebook and WhatsApp, he sent messages,pictures and videos keeping them updated.
Yet amid the sombre mood, the events had to continue in the prescribed time.
Throughout the pilgrimage, there are helicopters following events. Ssenkuba says suddenly, eight of them had already descended on the scene, ferrying the victims to the hospitals to separate the dead from the injured.
Islam does not allow moving bodies for long distances; the dead were buried instantly in several mass graves in Mecca. And the following day pilgrims returned to Jamaraat for the final stoning of the pillars.
Ironically, while death is scary many Muslims would wish to die during the pilgrimage, because it is a blessing dying in the holy cities of Mecca and Madina.
For easy identification, all pilgrims carry tags bearing their names, nationality, group and contacts of a group leader. In case of disappearance or death, the authorities can easily communicate to the leader.
Desist from deceit and treat everyone fairly.
We are all equal in the eyes of Allah and we must seek unity in our diversity; We were with extremely rich people but mixed freely with them. If only we could remain as pious.”
“People have a wrong perception that they should observe Hajj when they are old and have explored all the worldly pleasures,” Hajj Ssenkuba, in his early 30s, advises.
“The Prophet said that Hijja fights poverty, so everyone should perform it when they are still young and productive.
Praying at Mount Arafa where Allah directly answers one’s prayers is so overwhelming.
“Every morning, we prayed for at least 50 dead people. It shows that death is so near so we ought to seek Allah’s mercy and seek paradise.
“And the day we were pronounced Hajj and Hajjat, was memorable…I felt so blessed and humbled. I feel obliged to uphold this honour.”