Martyrs’ day count down: A night with pilgrims at Namugongo

The writer talking to pilgrims from Soroti Diocese. Photos by Abubaker Lubowa.

What you need to know:

As the Uganda Martyrs’ Day approaches, Bernard Kahwa tells a story on what the pilgrims do while awaiting Martyrs’ Day.

From as distant as Kenya and far-off corners of Uganda to neighbouring towns, pilgrims are arriving at the historical martyrdom site at Namugongo. Hour after hour, groups carrying their home diocesan flags chanting mostly Catholic hymns arrive for a historical Martyrs’ Day.

This is the result of long distance trekking, sacrifice and muscle pain. Rosaries hanging around their necks while clasp onto them in their hands, one would think the D-day is the next day. Not at all, it is Wednesday night and Uganda Martyrs’ Day is five days away.
Although you wouldn’t tell from the mood at old taxi park where Namugongo-Kyaliwajala stage is, what is at Namugongo is a different story all together. Perhaps most pilgrims chose trekking over using vehicles.

From Kampala city centre was messy with heavy traffic. But this had nothing to do with pilgrims. Not until I reached Kyaliwajjala trading centre did we meet a group of pilgrims carrying crosses and singing hymns.

They were blistered and parched, though fired up. I was tempted. I asked the conductor to alight. I joined the group and trekked to the shrine with them. There were about 200 metres remaining to arrive at Uagnda Martyrs Basilica.

On arrival
7:45pm: We arrived at the shrine. Some pilgrims were already sleeping on the veranda of the shrine, others under make-shift tents few metres away.

The chilly evening is punctauted, with less hymns, and some overtones of music from the small trading centre in the vicinity. The church is closed. Although the few were singing in their respective languages, from Runyankole to Runyoro, Luganda, Luo and Ateso, the common word was “God”.

From where I stood, I saw a number of people who had spread out their mats, carpets strewn with merchandise that included rosaries, portraits of martyrs, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It was booming business. Other pilgrims still arriving and spreading out their carpets to display their merchandise. A few were dining on tea and bread as time for preparation for the night drew nigh.

More arrivals
Another group of middle-aged, the elderly and youths carrying crosses, singing hymns energetically as they waved their diocesan flag arrived. These were from Isingiro District, 300km away from Kampala. They sang a Runyankole hymn, Mukama Imuuka Obe Niwe Wakora which means God arise and have your way. I moved closer as they descended to the main entrance of the church and knelt down in supplication. Later, I learnt that they were thanking God for having enabled them walk over 300km in seven days.

“I sacrifice because I love God and this way he answers my prayers,” said Octavious Kalyabeba, one of the Isingiro pilgrims adding: “Since I started walking to Namugongo, God has been answering my prayers consistently.” This is the third time for Kalyabeba to attend Martyrs’ Day celebrations at Namugongo.

Among them, also was Gitosire, a 76- year- old woman. Asked why she preferred walking to vehicles, she scratched her wrinkled forehead saying; “I sacrifice so that God can give me what I ask for. And it is my second time walking.”

Surprisingly, she didn’t look tired and you could hardly tell that she had just arrived. They would start walking at 4am and stop at 10pm to find where to sleep. The first option was at the nearby church, but where there is no church they would sleep in lodges before resuming the following morning at 4am.

Next in line...
8pm: Food vendors started moving around asking the pilgrims if any had orders to place. A few people did. Meanwhile, another group from Hoima arrived. In a few minutes, they started applying liniment on their legs, a gesture of muscle aches.
Whoever arrived had to look for a spot around the church where they would sleep at later on.

As I move around, I found an 88- year-old man who had come from Bushenyi. This is his 49th time to come to Namugongo, and his third time in a row to trek to the shrine.
Asked how he managed to get here. Benardo Tebyangye, a former catechist, runs his scraggy fingers through his grey hair. “God has given me energy and good health, so I have to use it. When I sacrifice, God rewards me,” Tebyange says.

Next to him was an elderly woman. 78-year-old, Maria Tebesigwa. This is her third time to walk. This is nothing short of devotion and dedication. While most of them come with packed food, Tebyangye says their friends and relatives who live in Kampala often bring them food.

Though elderly, Tebyangye’s memory sounds undoubtedly excellent-plus a sense of humour, he looks straight to the camera to explain how the journey was. The two look vibrant and fresh. I couldn’t agree more that God has blessed them.

Sleeping in turns
9pm: Some groups started singing hymns of praise. As one group sleeps, the other one wakes up and resumes singing. You would think they had turns albeit uniform order or time table and languages kept clashing as each group speaks a different parlance.

11pm: The music did not last. Most of them couldn’t resist sleep as they lay on the church verandas surrounding it. Others were down at the martyrs’ lake, the lower side of the church, about 100 metres away. It was dead silent except the sounds of reptiles in the lake.

As they lay on mats, wrapping themselves in bed sheets, black polyethylene and bed covers from head to toes - a sign that cold was becoming unbearable. I foresaw a time I would be the only one awake maybe in company of police men.

For security, there were about five policemen with a parked pick up at the entrance to the premises. I kept moving with them around, and down to the martyrs’ lake to ensure that pilgrims sleeping there are safe, while I jotted my sketchy notes.

12-3am: The cold hit its peak. Singing is no more. Each of them ensured bed sheets, bed covers, and black polyethylene covered their entire bodies. At this time most of them were dead asleep. Some covered themselves so well that you wouldn’t tell there were people underneath. Even shops across the road had closed already.

3-5am: I dozed off for some minutes, just on the veranda as I leaned by the church wall only to be woken up by a woman in her 40s whom I found standing right in my face praying for me; “Oh God bless this young boy. He sacrificed his warm bed to come here to sleep on a bare floor,” She prayed loudly. She proceeded moving around the church praying loudly.

4am: Most of them woke up and started reciting rosary again. Coldness increased and mist set in. The sky wasn’t clear. I feared it would rain in the next hour or so. I moved around verandas only to find most of them still a sleep.

5am: Majority of them woke up, sat upright wrapped in bed sheets, started praying and reciting rosary. It was a new day and everyone had woken up as I got to the taxi and left.

What is Uganda martyrs day?

Uganda Martyrs’ Day Celebrations are held every June3, at the Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine, Namugongo, Kampala-Uganda. On this day millions of people from near and far make pilgrimage to this Holy Land. They begin with a Novena in various parts of the country especially in places where different Martyrs were either born or killed. It begins from May 25 to June 2. The Novena at Namugongo is also attended by pilgrims from countries like; Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and from some other continents.

Many of these pilgrims, young and old, walk miles from their home areas up to Namugongo as a sign of honour to the Martyrs who shed their blood for the sake of Jesus Christ. Pilgrims also spend weeks on this long journey trying to invoke the Uganda Martyrs to intercede for them in overcoming their problems.

The climax is the celebration of mass on June 3. The liturgy celebrations are organised by various dioceses, year after the other.


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