Log in
Updated today

Martyrs’ ultimate sacrifice remembered in special way

Today Saturday, like it is every June 3, thousands of Ugandans shall converge at Namugongo, to commemorate the Uganda martyrs in the country’s and possibly Africa’s biggest religious pilgrimage.

Ugandans have been walking for hundreds of kilometres from different parts of the country, in a devout display of faith, all the way to Namugongo Catholic and Anglican Martyrs shrines.

The group from Bushenyi in western Uganda was among the very first to arrive, not even deterred by the collapsed Katonga bridge, which meant an added 100km or so to their journey, as they took the lengthy detour through Sembabule district.

The state of religion – Christianity in particular – today is interesting, given the fact that the church and state have enjoyed a bitter-sweet relationship.

L-R: Fr Dr John Vianney Kitoolo, Dr Maggie Kigozi, Dr Nabulime and Maurice Mugisha the moderator

Even the martyrs’ story itself epitomizes the struggle between religion and state (Buganda kingdom), when Kabaka Mwanga detested his subjects for choosing their newfound faith over him and his gods. They paid with their lives.


Between 1877 and 1879, Uganda received two sets of European missionaries. In June 1877 Shergold Smith and C. T. Wilson of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) arrived in Uganda.

In 1879, two French missionaries Father Simeon Lourdel (Mapeera) and Brother Amans Antoine Delmas landed on the Kigungu peninsular. They became the first European Catholic missionaries to set foot on Ugandan soil.

Hardly 10 years after their arrival, the missionaries were already at crossroads with the state (king of Buganda). The new converts no longer obeyed their king, Kabaka Mwanga, spending more time studying the new religions with Mapeera (the localized version of Mon Pere – ‘my father’), Amans and the Anglican missionaries.

Archbishop Emmanuel Nsubuga (L) and President Idi Amin

Between 1885 -1887, 45 Anglican and Roman Catholic martyrs were executed in different places of Buganda, including Namugongo and Munyonyo, and both sites today hold shrines in their memory.

One would think that the martyrs determination to defend their religions to the death would smoothen the relationship between church and state, but the two have continued in a bitter-sweet relationship.


The Observer attended a panel discussion and an exhibition of photographs taken between the 1950s and 1970. The panel discussion ran under the theme “Church and State: Photographs in the Footsteps of the Uganda Martyrs”.

Both events were held at Uganda Martyrs University, Lubaga campus in Kampala. Prominently present were Robert Waggwa Nsibirwa, the second deputy Katikiro of Buganda kingdom; Father Pius Male, chancellor of Kampala Archdiocese; and Norbert Mao, the Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister in the central government.

To discuss the bitter-sweet relationship between church and state, the panelists were Father Dr John Vianney Kitoolo, a Catholic church historian; Dr Maggie Kigozi, an entrepreneur and Dr Lilian Nabulime, a fine arts scholar and sculptor.

Reflecting on the 1969 visit of Pope Paul VI to Uganda, Kigozi said: “I was still at Gayaza High School. There was excitement all over the place among the Catholic community and beyond. This was also reflected at home. My mother, a Catholic, was very excited for the pope’s visit. My father is an Anglican. I think we have moved away from my parents’ generation. It was uncomfortable in the house”.

Kigozi added that the pope’s visit to Uganda strengthened the faith of Catholics in Uganda and also empowered Catholic-founded schools.

“The connection of Christians with the martyrs has spread across Africa since then. Ugandans should acknowledge that the martyrs are special. Several business opportunities surrounding the martyrs remain untapped,” Kigozi added.

Dr Kitoolo noted that the visit of the pope to Uganda partly diffused the religious differences in Uganda. A head of state himself, Pope Paul’s meeting with Obote an Anglican, showed that people of different faiths could meet and dialogue over common interests.

He added, “Political parties used to be influenced by religion. Apart from the political activism motivated by the church members, the church comes out to give out its opinions on issues in the country. The famous archbishop’s pastoral letter on Mengo’s relationship with politics especially UPC is still referred to, to this day. The church has played a role in the administration of the state.”

The state cannot afford to overlook the great influence the church holds when it comes to its followers. This is evident whenever President Museveni asks the clergy to stay out of politics and concentrate on their pastoral duties, a call that usually falls on deaf ears, especially during electioneering months.

Dr Lilian Nabulime said the existence of artistic establishments was a way that the church had chosen to communicate to Christians and others.

“The arts are powerful in communication. You can pass on a subtle message through a painting, a sculpture or any other art piece.” She noted that the establishment of prominent art features like Namugongo was a reminder of the journey taken by the church in Uganda to develop.


At the entrance, a 1942 photo of a youthful Benedicto Kiwanuka, then a clerk in the King’s African Rifles, welcomed patrons. On display also, were photos of Kiwanuka – later Uganda’s first prime minister – with fellow Catholic leaders, Tom Mboya of Kenya, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and John F Kennedy, former US president.

L-R: Tom Mboya, Julius Nyerere and Benedicto Kiwanuka

As one walked through the room, the gigantic photos of Idi Amin could not be ignored. Photos were taken after a service to celebrate Amin’s seventh anniversary of his coup. January 25 was celebrated with parades, church services and other festivities.

Other photos on display were those of Obote addressing parliament, and a meeting of Idi Amin and religious leaders from the Anglican, Catholic and Muslim denominations. A specific area was curated to display the motion pictures retelling the tricky journey of Christianity in Uganda.

Dr David Tshimba, the lead curator of the exhibition and the chairperson of the Centre of African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University said the photos and relics on display were drawn from recently digitized archives of Uganda Broadcasting Corporation, which holds more than 70,000 photographs, and the museum of Kampala Archdiocese.

He said, “We got some material from Kampala Archdiocese earmarked for the canonization of Fr Mapeera. This special [collection] chronicles the history of Catholics in public life in the first two decades after Uganda’s independence. Although we concentrated on the events in the Catholic church, we created an Anglican corner since history is incomplete without their role. Despite their importance, Catholics have very often been at the margins of political power.”

“We see this small-scale exhibition as a launching pad to a larger multimedia exhibition to be held in October 2024, the 60th anniversary of the canonization of the Uganda Martyrs,” Tshimba added.

Comments are now closed for this entry