The Uganda Martyrs are dead; it is up to all of us to keep their memory alive

Saturday June 9 2018

Uganda Martyrs Day. NMG

Uganda Martyrs Day has not only created a national, historical, cultural and religious heritage, but is also a considerable celebrated documentary heritage for the Memory of the World. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG 

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Therefore, if it is seen good to the king, let a search be made in the royal archives of Babylon to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the King for rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem …Then Darius the King made a Decree, and a search was made… in the house of the archives where the documents were stored. And in … a scroll was found on which this was written” (Ezra, 5:17-6:1).

On Sunday, June 3, millions of believers gathered at Namugongo to celebrate the annual Uganda Martyrs Day, a public holiday in the country.

Namugongo is the historical site of the martyrdoms that took place from 1885-1887.

The largest contingent of pilgrims comes from the East African Community member countries besides hosts Uganda. The majority of these international pilgrims walk on foot to Namugongo (both Catholic and Protestant shrines) as a demonstration of their faith.

Uganda Martyrs Day has not only created a national, historical, cultural and religious heritage, but is also a considerable celebrated documentary heritage for the Memory of the World.

The Memory of the World programme is a Unesco international initiative launched in 1992 to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity against collective amnesia, neglect, the ravages of time and climatic conditions, and wilful and deliberate destruction.

Further, on November 17, 2015, Unesco adopted a recommendation concerning the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage including in digital form as a significant milestone for universal access to information.

Communication and information is one of Unesco’s core areas, concerned with increased access to information, media pluralism and press freedom and preservation of documentary heritage. Unesco manages its work through national commissions.

Since 2012, Uganda National Commission for Unesco (under the Memory of the Word programme) has researched, organised awareness workshops, and conducted study visits to a number of institutions, among them government departments, religious institutions and the general public for promotion and preservation of documentary heritage.

Such heritage includes books, records, archives, photographs, music, audio-visual and other images, text, digital or audio-visual. These are preserved in archives and records centres, libraries, museums and educational, religious, cultural and research organisations, offices, communities and families.

There has been significant documentation on the Uganda martyrs by the Church Missionaries Society and White Fathers Archives at Makerere University Library, at the Rubaga Cathedral Archives and St. Paul Cathedral Namirembe and Uganda Christian University, by J. F. Faupel in his book, The African Holocaust and by Gertrude Idah K. Ssekabira in her The Blood and Ashes of the Martyrs: The Seed of the Gospel.

However, most of these are secondary sources that do not provide the direct experience of the martyrs. But there is one unique but little talked record entitled Monographies des bienheureux martyrs de L’Uganda that gives an eyewitness account of their martyrdom.

It is not until you visit the Rubaga Cathedral Archives that you will have access to this witness of the killings of the 45 martyrs who were burnt to death or beheaded. The document is owned by the Archdiocese of Kampala and stored in their private archive at Rubaga Cathedral.

It depicts the evolution of religion in Uganda and how the believers stood their ground against the powers of the day. It contains cuttings of newspaper articles from the first local newspaper in Uganda — The Munno — and correspondence including photographs as well as records of daily transactions in the form of diaries and notices.

The site of the main event was then dedicated to the execution of the most notorious criminals or royal threats to the Buganda Kingdom.

In many cases, this heritage is not accessed or used and much of it is now at risk of a ranging from accidental or deliberate displacement of holdings and collections, to the depredations of war, weather and climate.

Making this heritage accessible to as many people as possible and using the most appropriate technology, both inside and outside the countries, is thus crucial. This is in line with the International Advisory Committee of the National Memory of the World Committees.

Countries, institutions and communities have a duty to identify and register their documentary heritage. The criteria for registration range from outstanding aesthetic, stylistic or linguistic value to the irreplaceability of the document, evidence of its influence on the course of history.

Other considerations are rarity, authenticity, originality and significant aspects of human behaviour, or of social, industrial, artistic or political development.

Consequently, national governments must provide leadership through appropriate policies and/or legislation to mandate institutions, departments and communities to preserve, conserve and safeguard the documentary heritage in their possession. 

Prof Elisan Magara is the chairperson of the Memory of the World Committee of the Uganda National Commission for Unesco.