Standing at the site of the tree on which Noe Mawaggali was tied, bleeding and ravaged by dogs for his faith, I wonder what he thought about as he unflinchingly endured his torture. Was that Monday morning on the 31stof May 1886 as overcast and somber as this one 132 years later? Were the fellow Christians that watched this gruesome scene inspired or intimidated from their new-found beliefs? What made Noe and all the young men and women persecuted for their faith in Buganda so courageous at a time when all they had was the hope of meeting a God they had only recently learnt about?
Growing up in Uganda, I knew about the martyrs but had never spent any time learning about the details of who they were. Like every good Catholic, we celebrated Martyrs day with mass at Namugongo when the shrine was still surrounded by dirt roads and bushes. As the years went by, the trips to the shrine became less frequent and eventually stopped. Fast forward thirty years later, raising two young children in the diaspora, I have been wondering about how much of our Ugandan heritage to pass on to the children. The questions of things that contribute to positive identity formation are foremost on my mind. Surely a knowledge of one’s ancestors and their history can provide some useful reference points for the girls as they grow up in a world of varying and often contradictory value systems.
It was with these thoughts that I picked up a copy of J. F. Faupel’s African Holocaust, a detailed account of this dramatic and fascinating part of Ugandan history. In his account, Noe Mawaggali, Matthias Kalemba Mulumba and Luke Banabakintu were the leaders of the Mityana believers. This community was the largest group of believers outside Mengo at the time. Why Mityana? It was the capital of the Ssingo County with both Matthias and Luke in the service of the County Chief. Noe was a friend, fellow potter and tenant of Matthias. Matthias and Luke were arrested in Mengo and sentenced to a brutal death by the cruel Kattikiro / Chancellor, Mukasa. Eye witnesses describe how the brave Matthias refused to walk all the way to Namugongo and was killed at Old Kampala at his insistence. Luke died with the majority of the martyrs at Namugongo. The messenger whom Matthias sent to Mityana to warn the Christians there of the persecution did not get to them in time. The raiders got there first. Noe’s bravery allowed some of his fellow Christians to escape. The savagery of his murder aimed to dissuade other Baganda from becoming Christians. However, even the executioners were impressed by the men’s courage and joy in the face of persecution.
The Swiss Architect, Justus Dahinden, designed the Mityana Martyrs shrine using the three coconut shapes to pay tribute to the three leaders of that community. The simple face brick and concrete materials reflect the humility of these men. The peaceful setting of the buildings surrounded by tall palm trees and overlooking green hills in the distance are the appropriate stage on which the modern Mityana parish passionately practices its faith in church and community.
On this Sunday morning, my travel companions and I find preparations for the Mass of the Elderly underway. School busses are used to collect all the elderly of the parish and the students support them to their seats. The vultures atop the shrine await an opportunity to scavenge on the carcasses of the slaughtered cows being prepared for the elders’ lunch. Food and clothing packages are set on a long table one end of the community hall. The choir is ready and this very special mass begins. One can feel the strong sense of unity and genuine care that these parishioners have for each other. Also evident is the religious conviction of these elders in varying states of health to make it out to their mass. My travel companions and I are convinced that Matthias, Noe and Luke would be proud of the fruits of their sacrifice. I am certainly proud of these martyrs and will gladly share their story with my children.