Age got nothing on us: Women above 60 trek to Namugongo multiple times

What you need to know:

Pilgrims from Lira, Amolatar, Dokolo, Kole, Oyam, and Apac districts arrived safely at Namugongo Martyrs Shrine. Our reporter traced elderly women who have beaten the odds to trek the 340km distance more than once from Lira and Gulu to Namugongo.

Approximately 1,050 pilgrims from northern Uganda arrived at Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine for this year’s Martyrs’ Day fete on May 31.

 Of the numbers convened from Gulu Catholic Archdiocese and Lira Catholic Diocese, 80 percent are women, according to Francis Alia, the team leader and general coordinator for the pilgrimage, “Children are 16 in number ranging from eight to 12.”

 Accoding to Alia, out of the four days, the toughest was day one when pilgrims left Lira City, to sleep in Loro in Oyam District. ‘‘On the first day, most people experience swollen feet, fatigue and it is usually where some people give up on the journey,” Elia says.

 From Loro, he said that the pilgrims left for Diima in Kiryandongo District, where they were joined by a team of pilgrims from Gulu Archdiocese.

 “The Loro to Diima in Kiryandongo District, pilgrims faced harsh weather; the sun was scoching. In the past, we would camp along the road but because those sites were not slashed, we had to proceed to Kafu.”

  Pilgrims from Lira, Amolatar, Dokolo, Kole, Oyam, and Apac districts, all under the diocese, reported to the diocesan headquarters on Friday morning and had holy mass at Lira Cathedral Parish, before the trek.They were then flagged off on Saturday at 4am.

  This publication traced and interacted with elderly women who have beaten the odds to trek the 340km distance more than once from Lira and Gulu to Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine in Kampala City.

We interacted with four women from Lira, Amolatar, and Apac districts who are aged between 67 and 76 years old to share their experiences and the implication of the strenuous undertaking.

Ventrice Beatrice Ogony, 73

Ventrice Beatrice Ogony, 73

For Ogony, the journey requires physical preparation and self-reflection on the intentions on why one is walking, setting clear goals and committment one needs right from day one, until one arrives at Namugongo.

The resident of Amirimiri cell, Amirimiri ward, Amolatar Town Council, Amolatar District, has trekked to Namugongo for six years in a row.

‘‘It is a walk of faith, you are not forced. You need to mentally prepare  for the journey, what you must have in your luggage, what will not inconvenience you as you walk, beddings and only a few kits and some money for upkeep,’’ she says.

Aside from the physical items, Ogony says the journey also requires prior spiritual preparation. ‘‘It is not just about waking up in the morning and hitting the road. You need to forgive everyone who wronged you, ask God also to forgive you your sins, pray for protection and safety on the way, but also do it from deep inside your heart so that you can be successful in your prayer intentions.”

According to her, it also requires one to have deep faith because it is a tedious exercise; pilgrims’ legs swell, some fall sick on the way, others suffer from general body weakness and once one is not strong in faith, they are bound to give up.

 “Because you are walking with more than 800 people, you have to be sympathetic. At times a colleague will accidentally step on your heels during the walk or people scamper in areas of heavy traffic and you are probably knocked down.”

 According to Ogony, the trek is a true test of love and faith as pilgrims share food, drinks because they believe that the martyrs died out of their love for the church and humanity.

She says due to harsh weather and water scarcity, pilgrims had joint pains and swollen legs.

Rose Akullu, 76

As Akullu makes her second pilgrimage to Namugongo, she says access to safe water has been a major hurdle during the five days trek.

 “Unlike last year, the boreholes have all broken down, and bottled water that well-wishers gave us on the way, was not enough. We have had to tussle for it.”

 She says the same faith that drew her away from home led her safely to Namugongo.

 Akullu, a mother of 14 from Omwara village, Bala Sub-county, Lira District, says she embarked on the journey in 2019 for spiritual reasons.

 “That sacrifice offers a unique experience and I had a lot of self-reflection. For a moment, I feel that God is in control of all the worries that were depressing me.  I enjoyed nature and discovered my new self,”she says.

 This time, Akullu left the village together with 36 others for the pilgrimage to cast her burden onto Jesus through the intercession of the martyrs.

 “There are many wrangles in my village over my estate; our neighbours are fighting against my family members.  I am sure these are issues God can handle.”

Akullu says the spiritual journey has also helped her to focus on what matters and to rediscover the joy of giving and to have a greater appreciation for life. ‘‘Every time I walk,  I think through the reasons why I am making the pilgrimage, what the purpose is, what I want to get out of it, including praying for others,’’ she adds.

Ketty Aduni, 65

Aduni says the trek to Namugongo has been a life-changing and transformational experience. ‘‘It is a time of letting go of the old to let the new come in, I pray a lot along the way and this sacrifice has changed my life.”

Not the destination, but the willingness to go in pursuit of God, I seek to forgive those who wronged me and ask God to forgive me of my wrongs, that characterises my pilgrimage intention,’’ Aduni says.

 Aged 65 and a resident of Alemere parish, Amolatar District, Aduni walked to Namugongo Catholic Shrine for the third time. She says she last walked to the shrine in 2022.

 “After the first trek in 2018, God listened to my prayers and last year, I told the parish priest that even if Namugongo was relocated to Israel, I would still faithfully walk.”

 Seven years ago, Aduni contracted a mysterious illness that made it difficult to eat food. She says she could only eat fruits and driwater for two years. She says her condition deteriorated to near death and she moved to several medical facilities across the country without getting the right diagnosis.

“I decided to commit my health to God. No one believed I could make it, but I arrived in Namugongo on June 2, before the fete in 2018.  When we got into the shrine and prayed, hunger pangs started emerging,” she recounts.

 I started eating normal food again. When I returned to Lira,  I was worried I would lose my appetite. But my condition got better gradually. For that reason, I owe my life to God and one of the sacrifices I make is making a pilgrimage to Namugongo.

 She says this year, she resumes the pilgrimage to ask God through the martyrs to bless her business.

 “I am constructing my house using resources from my fish business. I want God to bless my projects,’’ says Aduni. 

 She says while the trek requires that one loves their neighbour and supports each other, she has learnt to abscond from other things that can betray her faith, such as alcohol.  “You should also carry some money to help you buy some snacks to sustain you during the journey.’’

Christine Okello, 67

Christine Okello is a resident of Wiiodyek village Abwocolil parish, Wiiodyek Sub-county in Lira District. She goes to Ngetta Catholic Parish and has made the seventh pilgrimage to Namugongo. Whereas she has used vehicles four times, this is the third time she is walking on foot.

She says: “In moments when I had health complications, I was not able to make such long journeys.”

 She had a break two times; that was during the Covid-19 lockdown and last year, she resumed. ‘‘On day one, I was exhuasted. But by the fourth day, I had no complaints.

There is no major problem, I have been praying all through and I am happy that I have not fallen sick. I did not have any swelling and my body eventually adapted to the workout. I am thankful to God that I made it safely to Namugongo,” Okello says.

 She says that the decision to take the first trip eight years ago, was due to an illness that nearly caused the removal of her limbs, but eventually healed.

 “I have been sickly, and my leg was almost amputated, but I have since got a lot of changes and now I can walk. She says her other answered prayer is that her children are now more united and working together to develop the family, unlike 10 years ago when they were chaotic.

On her journey, Okello says she recited her rosary and prayed to the martyrs to intercede for her family’s well-being and good health.

 “I am a widow and I dedicate my life to God to help me to overcome the challenges I go through raising my family single-handedly, to ensure that my children succeed in life,’’ she adds.

Okello believes that walking for two weeks while praying to God is one form of fasting that God uses to bless her family and wash away all the misfortunes.