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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Do the Uganda Martyrs deserve the hype?

I have been thinking about the Uganda Christian Martyrs who were prosecuted on June 3,1886 at Namugongo, and their significance to Uganda. Now that Martyrs Day is behind us and "martyr fever" is dying down, I dare say that I'm convinced that the Uganda Martyrs did not really deserve to be called martyrs, otherwise, all the people killed in the line of defending their faiths may qualify to be called martyrs.

Instead, we should explore why Kabaka Mwanga, the Kabaka of Buganda at that time, took the decision to prosecute the martyrs.

I understand that within the Buganda culture, the execution of the martyrs was both political and religious. It is the Buganda Kingdom that invited the first missionaries in 1877 and it benefited tremendously from them in terms of developmental projects like schools. So we commend Kabaka Mutesa for his foresight.

However, I am still puzzled that we continue calling these people ‘martyrs’ because, for their faith, they challenged the power structures of the Buganda Kingdom.

If we are to go by the Muslims who keep challenging the power and social structure of the Western countries because of their faith, then the word ‘martyr’ is not truly applicable to the Uganda Martyrs.

Muslims or Christians who attempt to do today what these ‘martyrs’ did during Kabaka Mwanga’s reign will face the wrath of the law and some would even be branded terrorists.

We should not forget that those who die this way in places like the Middle East are branded as ‘martyrs’ by some Islamic factions, but their countries do not give them public holidays to celebrate their death as we do in Uganda.

In Buganda, the Kabaka ruled with great authority, and to refuse anything he asked, was not only offending him but the entire kingdom. Mwanga perceived that Christianity was a challenge to his political power since the Christian pages had started dishonouring him.

If we are to continue calling those Christians killed at Namugongo martyrs, then we have many martyrs now in Uganda.

Secondly, it is important to realise that the persecution of Christians in Uganda was not the norm. There were relatively few people actually killed for religious reasons compared to the large number of Christian Baganda had.

Thirdly, all the martyrs were Buganda natives converted through the missionary efforts of the British Anglicans and French Catholics, thus their lives and deaths were embedded in a culture they were familiar with. They were not killed due to a lack of cultural knowledge or a “foreigner’s mistake.” A man like Joseph Mukasa was the personal servant of the Kabaka who oversaw all the his pages. He knew what he was getting himself into when he confronted Kabaka Mwanga over the murder of Anglican Bishop Hannington. Mukasa told Mwanga that ordering the killing of Hannington was wrong. This angered Mwanga, who took Mukasa’s outbursts as a form of treason.

Lastly, Mwanga chose Namugongo as a spot to execute these people because to die at Namugongo made one an enemy of the Buganda kingdom. Namugongo was an equivalent of the England’s “Tower Hill.”

I do not think we should continue calling the 1886 Namugongo religious people ‘martyrs’ due to the events happening in the world today. However, I am happy that Buganda Kingdom has changed greatly since that time. There is a lot of religious freedom. Catholics, Protestants and Muslims can all interact without any problem.

What Kabaka Mwanga did at that time is inexcusable, but at least, we all learnt from it. More importantly, we understand why he acted the way he did

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