Martyrs: The forgotten story of female converts

A pilgrim kneels and prays before effigies depicting the killing of the martyrs at Namugongo on June 2, 2023. PHOTO/MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

What you need to know:

  • Some of these converts were relatives of the male martyrs.

As faithful mark June 3, in recognition of the 45 young male Christians, 23 Anglicans, and 22 Catholics, who were executed on the orders of King Mwanga II, there is little literature about the role of women.

According to Father Joseph Muwonge, the promoter of the Uganda Martyrs devotion at Kampala Archdiocese, less is written about the role of women in the struggle that led to the birth of Christianity in Uganda.

He observes that several women, including Mwanga’s sister, had converted to Christianity and were ready to die for the sake of preserving and promoting Christianity, just like their male counterparts.

“There were women who were ready to shed blood. One of them was Kalala (Clare) Catherine Nalumansi, Kabaka Mwanga’s elder sister, who was shot dead by the executioners on August 2,1888 at her home in Kazo Bwaise, a Kampala suburb,” Fr Muwonge narrated on Monday.

He said although several women were willing to follow the path of the male martyrs, it was only Princess Kalala who was killed by the executioners, whom her brother (Mwanga) sent to her compound in Kazo, Bwaise, a Kampala suburb.

Fr Muwonge said the princess was shot dead a year after the killing of the last male martyr in 1887.
“The last martyr had been martyred on January 27, 1887), and Kalala died on August 2, 1888.  So, later Rome intervened and is still investigating,” he said.

Fr Muwonge explained that during the first attempt to capture her, Kalala, who was armed, shot in the air several times, prompting the ill-equipped executioners to retreat.
They later reorganised and went back to Kazo and killed her.

What sparked Mwanga’s anger was that Kalala publicly burnt the lubaale (ancestral spirits) that had been entrusted to her when she became the guardian of their common ancestors’ tomb. She also destroyed the sacred umbilical cords of the twins who were under her care as a custodian. This was after she was baptised on March 18, 1882, with Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, Jacob Buuzabalyawo, Matia Mulumba and Noah Mawaggali.

Kalala loved reciting the Lord’s Prayer, whose content was considered a threat to the king.
It is said that Mwanga was particularly threatened by the line, ‘Your Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’.  To him, his sister was inviting the king of the missionaries to come and take over Buganda.

Mwanga was also worried that Christians would place his sister on the throne as a queen.
Besides Kalala, the other first female converts were Malyamu Mukasa, Sara Nakima, Fanny Mubulire, Rebecca Magali, Ketula, and Rachel Sebuliba.

They were equally devoted to Christianity and often recited the Lord’s Prayer loudly.

Fr Joseph Muwonge. PHOTO/FILE

According to Fr Muwonge, many women were ready to die, but they were not given the opportunity because Mwanga wanted them to witness the gruesome executions that their husbands, relatives, or tribesmen were subjected to so that they could denounce Christianity. 

It is said during the execution of the first three martyrs, Joseph Lugalama, Mako(Mark) Kakumba, and Noah Serwanga on January 31, 1885, Sarah Nakaima, who had been arrested with the trio, was spared. But she was forced to watch as they were being burnt.

Other women who were devoted to Christianity included Maria Kikuvembuga, wife to Matthias Mulumba, Clara Nakazibwe, wife to Mpanzo Kaggwa, Maria Matilda Munaku, and Maria Meeme, sister and mother to Noah Mawagali, respectively.  

“Meeme suffered a lot. She was once taken captive by the executioners along with her daughter. They ended up in the Mukono area. But when the missionaries heard that they were suffering, they rescued her in exchange for guns,” Fr Muwonge said.

He added that some women were also killed but at the time, they were not recognised.
Some sources estimate that 70,000 people were martyred by Mwanga for their beliefs.

Notable females 
•Princess Catherine Nalumansi, Kabaka Mwanga’s elder sister
•Malyamu Mukasa
• Sara Nakima
•Fanny Mubulire
•Rebecca Magali
•Rachel Sebuliba