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Explainer: Inside the Uganda Martyr Day pilgrimage

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Pilgrims leave Namugongo Shrine in Wakiso District with jerrycans of 'holy' water after attending prayers for Uganda Martyrs Day on June 3, 2023. 

Photo credit: Daily Monitor

Every year, Kenyan pilgrims from various corners of the country sacrifice their time, energy and resources to undertake an arduous spiritual journey to Namugongo Shrine in Uganda.

The shrine is where Charles Lwanga, a Ugandan martyr and his companions, who stood firm for their faith - were burned alive following a decree from King Mwanga II of the Buganda Kingdom.

Every year, thousands of Kenyans trek several kilometres to the shrine in Namugongo to mark Uganda Martyrs Day, held on June 3.

Some 500,000 Catholics from Uganda and the rest of Africa troop to the shrine to offer prayers and thanksgiving yearly.

Some pilgrims commence their journey to Namugongo as early as May 1, especially those coming from far-flung regions of the coast of Kenya.

This year, faithful from Malindi, led by Reverend Father Patrick Mudunga, kicked off their journey nearly a month ago.

They will be joined by Catholics from Nyahururu, Kakamega, Bungoma, Kisumu and Busia dioceses as they plan to make it to Namugongo by June 1.

Fr Mudunga says that the pilgrimage is a significant moment for Catholics since it opens doors for blessings.

“This is the time that Christians set aside their time to focus on prayers. It is a spiritual exercise, where they put aside luxury in memory of the Uganda Martyrs,” he said.

Former Assistant Director at the Vincentian Retreat Centre of Entebbe, Fr Michael Louis, notes that the pilgrimage offers the faithful a chance to commemorate the Uganda Martyrs journey in faith.

A pilgrim kneels and prays before effigies depicting the killing of the martyrs in Namugongo on June 2, 2023. 

Photo credit: Daily Monitor

The walk is relevant in Uganda, given that the first missionaries, Fr Simeon Marpel, alias Maperra, and Brother Amansi, walked preaching the gospel to the locals in Uganda.

Refused to denounce their faith

Charles Lwanga and his companions were among the first converts to the Christian faith in Uganda. They were killed because they refused to denounce their faith.

The first 45 martyrs hailed from a place known as Munyonyo. They were frogmarched to the execution ground in Namugongo.

A total of 22 Roman Catholics and 23 Anglicans died in different places along the way between 1885 and 1887.

“They were first baptised in a shrine in Munyonyo. Next to the shrine is where St Dennis Ssebuggwawo was killed,” said Fr Louis.

Namugongo is the National Shrine of Uganda.

The faithful make prayers nine days before the feast day, marked on June 3.

Before they set off, pilgrims usually notify officials of the churches where they would make stopovers of their camping plans.

While some prefer walking during the day and resting at night, others opt to trek at night and rest during the day.

The faithful usually walk in a formation where a leader carrying a crucifix opens the way, followed by members, and those with the church’s and the country’s flags bring the rear.

Josephine Apondi, a faithful residing in Kisumu, has been undertaking the pilgrimage since 2014.

She says that faithful starting their journey from Kisumu make nine stopovers in parishes before reaching Namugongo.

They would spend a night in Yala and Ugunja in Siaya County before proceeding to Busia for their third night.

While in Uganda, they will make another six stopovers before they arrive at Namugongo.

Arrive at the shrine

“We usually start on May 22 and by June 1 we arrive at the shrine,” she explains.

On May 30, there’s usually a Holy Mass celebrated at Mabira Forest to celebrate the lives of five Kenyan pilgrims killed by speeding taxis on May 31, 1998, and May 26, 2019.

Kenyan pilgrims have made it a tradition to pray for the souls of their departed colleagues.

“On that day thousands gather in the forest early in the morning to celebrate the life of John Kibe and his companions who were killed in an accident,” says Ms Apondi.

The pilgrims arrive at Namugongo on June 1 and rest for a day as they wait for the celebration of the feast on June 3.

Mr Alex Mwanje sells rosaries and jerrycans opposite the Catholic Martyrs' Shrine in Namugongo, Wakiso District, on May 28, 2024.

Photo credit: Daily Monitor

Martyrs Day is considered a public event in Uganda.

From Fr Louis’s experience, while taking a walk from Entebbe to Namugongo in 2023, he said he felt the power of martyrdom.

“We were six individuals. We started our journey at 3pm, walked throughout the night till 3am when we finally arrived at Namugongo,” he recalls.

“In the walk, there are many healings taking place because of the prayers that are offered during the journey. There was a particular lady who had health issues and walked from Kasese to Namugongo and got healed.”

Fr Louis says that many faithful have attested to experience a sense of peace and holiness whenever they tour the shrine to offer prayers.

Forgiveness and salvation

“Often we use our legs to go to a place to commit sin. So when we walk for a good course once in a year it will definitely bring grace, forgiveness and salvation to our lives,” said Fr Louis.

Henry Onyango, a Kisumu resident, says he experienced a breakthrough after going to the Namugongo Shrine to pray for his brother, who had a crisis at work.

“I had quite an interesting experience last year in June. I went to the shrine with a prayer request for my brother who had issues at his workplace with his bosses. When I got back to Kisumu, he told me the issue had been sorted out and he got a promotion at his workplace,” says Mr Onyango.

Vincent Owuor Otieno, another faithful from Kisumu, says he has visited the shrine six times. Four times before Covid-19 and twice after the pandemic.

He first went in 2011 with a group of friends while in college. Otieno draws inspiration from the youngest martyr, St Kizito, who was courageous enough to die for his faith.

“How thousands come to the place tells a lot about the powerful intercession of the Uganda Martyrs. Every year I have made it a tradition to go to the shrine and it has cemented my faith and spirituality,” said Mr Otieno. 

After the three days of prayer and supplication, the faithful are free to leave the shrine for their home countries, only that this time around, they can ride on vehicles.