Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Martyrs of Uganda

A friend of mine who is preaching at the midweek service at his church this week noted that today, June 3rd, is the feast of the Martyrs of Uganda. He asked if this was an important observance here.

The answer to that is that it's a friggin' HUGE observance in these parts. It's a national holiday, for one thing. Banks, post offices, government offices are all closed. MCDT is closed. Walking around the neighborhood, more of the small shops around here are closed today than were closed on Good Friday.

Here's the deal, very briefly: in the late 1800's, various pages and members of the Bugandan court became Christian converts, both RC and Anglican. In 1886, the Bugandan king, or kabaka, Mwanga II, told them to give it up. When they refused, these converts were tortured and killed in various nasty ways, leading up to a group of some 30 Christians being wrapped in straw mats and then burned at Namugongo, about 10 miles from the city center.

The observance is bigger than just Uganda, too. This event is credited as the beginning of indigenous Christianity in Africa. I read in the paper last week about a group of pilgrims from Kenya who were walking 600 km to the shrine in Namugongo. People come here from all over the continent.

Various miracles were attributed to the RC martyrs, leading to their canonization in the 1960's. I'm not sure when the Anglican martyrs were canonized; the whole process is different. But the general sense I get is that these martyrs are important, not only for their great faith and sacrifice, but because they're "some of our own." I'm not sure how many other great holy sites and pilgrimages are in sub-Saharan Africa, but this certainly is one of them.

I decided to pay my respects and make a short pilgrimage as well. Below is a picture of the shrine that I lifted from the web.

Only imagine it so thronged with people there were parts where you couldn't move. One man walking near me told me that 3 MILLION people come to the shrine. I don't know about that, but I have no doubt tens of thousands of people were there.

I took a boda boda (see below) to the base of the hill leading to Namugongo and walked over a couple of hills, following a trickle of people headed that way. Once I reached the area of Namugongo, the people filled the streets, walking on the left side, like traffic, with no cars allowed through. On either side of the street were vendors of all descriptions. Lots of them were selling paper visors with a depiction of the martyrs surrounded by flames on it. There were also some pretty graphic T-shirts with the slogan, "Martyrs of Uganda, pray for us." There was also lots of other stuff: clothing, umbrellas, cooked grasshoppers--you name it.

But as far as the religious part of it went, this seemed to be a Roman Catholic celebration. Even though the martyrs were both RC and Anglican, I didn't see any Anglican presence there at all.

I went to the shrine and walked all around the grounds. The shrine itself wasn't open, apparently, but there was a service going on from an open-sided grass thatched hut by a large rectangular pool. I couldn't quite tell because I could never see it, but my guess is that's where the service was coming from. Again, thousands upon thousands of people sitting on the grass or the muddy ground to listen to it from loudspeakers all over the grounds. I heard some of the prayers of the people, offered in all different languages: Swahili, Luganda, Luo, etc. The grounds of the shrine, too, were packed with vendors. Many were selling religious tracts, rosaries, and things of that nature. But I also saw some Manchester and Arsenal underwear for sale. Behind the toilets, there were people cooking matooke, beans, and other food.

I also saw one child with a badly burned face, sucking his thumb as a vendor tried to sell him and his mother something.

There was something about it all that was incredibly moving. I was of course reminded of Jesus' cleansing of the temple, but I also got at least an inkling of what that might have looked like, of how important it was for people to come to that one location, of what a huge windfall it was for the vendors as well as profitable for the temple.

One boy tried to sell me a certificate, signed by the bishop (I think), that certified that I had made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Martyrs of Uganda. I was very tempted, too. But I don't actually need a certificate. I've still been there. And it was mighty powerful, too.

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