21 Feb Visit Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine, Namugongo
Located in Namugongo, the Uganda Martyrs shrine marks the spot where several young Christians – including the church leader Charles Lwanga – were executed by King (Kabaka) Mwanga II, when they refused to denounce their religion. It is thought that they were martyred on or around the 3rd of June 1886, which is now celebrated as Martyr’s day. Since it was opened in 1968, Namugongo Martyrs shrine has become an important site for Christians from not only across Uganda, but across the African continent and the rest of the world making it one of the largest and most significant Christian events in the world. It has been visited by three different popes: Pope Paul VI in 1969, Pope John Paul II in 1993, and most recently by Pope Francis in 2015.
Leading up to Martyrs day (03/06) every year, thousands of Christians including clergy, heads of state, and students of religious based schools in Uganda make the pilgrimage to this site in commemoration of the day they were killed. On Martyrs day 2018 the venue was at full capacity, hosting over three million pilgrims in its grounds, with many more left unable to enter. Although they are the most famous to be killed for refusing to denounce their faith, many more believers met their persecution and ultimately execution at the command of the King between 1885 and 1887.
The main feature of the site is the Basilica Church of the Uganda Martyrs (Catholic) which was built on the spot that the majority of Catholics were thought to have been martyred. The structure reflects a traditional African hut, although to some extent it resembles something from a space program. On entering the grounds you are asked to sign in, and from there you can hire a guide for 10,000 shillings plus a tip for your guide.
The tour of the shrine and the grounds lasts about thirty minutes. The guide will first talk to you about the history of the martyrs and the shrine, for example the stories of the king’s chief executioner Mukajanga, church leader – and now Saint – Charles Lwanga who was brutally tortured and killed, and Saint Kizito – a page for the king – who was killed at the age of fourteen. As you move about in the area just outside the shrine you begin to realise and appreciate the scale of the venue, before you are led inside where you are immediately struck by the amount mahogany which makes up everything from the floors, walls, ceiling and the hundreds of chairs that are inside. At the centre of the church is the altar, which is said to be the martyrdom site of St. Charles Lwanga. After your guide has recited the Martyrs prayer, you are allowed to have a closer look around and take some photos. Finally, your guide takes you outside once more, and enter the stadium-like grounds which host the millions of visitors on the 3rd of June.
Following an explanation of the grounds such as where public officials are situated on Martyr’s day and the man-made lake surrounding the altar from where mass is celebrated for the proclamation of sainthood of the first group of Ugandan Martyrs, your guide leaves you to walk the grounds for as long as you like, and due to the sheer size of the venue, the grass areas, as well as the large trees dotted all around it is makes a very peaceful place to stroll around or just to sit and ponder. Some claim the water of the man-made lake is holy, and some devotees have reported it has powers of healing and protection from evil, and there are taps at its edge that draw on its water – although it’s advisable not to bathe or drink from unless purified first.
Near the entrance/exit there is a small gift shop selling various merchandise, and on leaving you must sign out. Whether you are religious or not Namugongo, and learning of its tragic history, makes a very interesting visit and you can surely appreciate the site’s spirituality, and peacefulness as well as its scale.