In the weeks leading to Uganda Martyrs Day on June 3, the martyrs' shrines, which are located in Namugongo, about 11 kilometres east of Kampala, record the highest number of both local and international tourists.
From the start of May up to June 3, thousands trek to one of Africa’s largest Christian pilgrimage destinations to celebrate the 45 martyrs — 23 of them Catholic and 22 Anglican — who were killed here between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga, the king of Buganda Kingdom, for refusing to renounce Christianity.
Now the relatively new Uganda Martyrs Museum at the Anglican shrine, which swung its doors open to visitors in 2015, is keeping interest in visiting the destination strong throughout the year.
A brainchild of the late archbishop of the Church of Uganda Livingstone Nkoyoyo, the museum stands at the exact place from where it is said that 25 martyrs were burnt to death. The remains of these martyrs were buried here.
Traditionally, Namugongo was the execution place where royals, chiefs and important Buganda Kingdom officials who were regarded by authorities as disobedient were brutally killed.
Kabaka Mwanga’s executioners used to tie and drag prisoners on their backs along the road until they arrived at the execution place – hence the name Namugongo, which loosely translates for “by the back” in Luganda, the local dialect. By the time the prisoners arrived here, the flesh on their backs would be literally in tatters, torn apart by the dragging along the road.
“Archbishop Nkoyoyo conceived the idea of the museum in 2013 and in 2014 construction began. He was particularly interested in preserving the history of the Uganda Martyrs because his grandfather, Eriya Kagiri, was one of the survivors of the killings. Kabaka Mwanga pardoned him because he was the queen’s guard,” said Brackson Bright, who has been a guide at the historic site for the past two years.
According to Bright, when Archbishop Nkoyoyo turned 75 in 2013, he realised that he was getting too old and could pass without documenting the real story of the Uganda Martyrs, which he first heard at the age of seven from his grandfather, an eyewitness.
The museum was inaugurated by Pope Francis when he visited the country in 2015, which not only helped the site get that much-needed publicity, but also made it an important piece of Uganda’s religious history.
The museum features statues of both the executioners and the victims and replicas of the prison where victims were detained for a few days before they were killed, the executioners’ command post, the fireplace from where the prisoners were burnt, as well as the torture tree from where prisoners were tormented.
The command post section also features replicas of some of the tools that were used to torture and kill prisoners, such as spears and knives.
Bright said that while the museum is increasingly attracting local and international tourists, the majority of their visitors are students interested in learning about the dark days of yore when gruesome violence was inflicted on Christians.
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“We receive about 50 foreign and 150 local visitors every month. But between May and August, we receive at least 10,000 local and foreign students every month because the second term is usually the busiest for schools in terms of tours,” said Bright.
The story of the Uganda Martyrs Museum is an eye-opening tale of how the church and politics were intertwined in 19th Century Buganda Kingdom, how the fears faced by the kings in the unexpected emergence of a new power that was the church inspired the most brutal killings of young men.
The museum is open Monday to Friday and entrance fee is Ush10,000 ($2.66) for adults and Ush5,000 ($1.33) for children.