Uganda Martyrs Day: Muslim Nation Readies for Africa’s Biggest Christian Pilgrimage

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The Ugandan Martyrs Day is held on the 3rd of June of every year and has been held since the canonization of Catholic proclaimed Saints Charles Lwanga and twenty-two of his companions. The pilgrimage attracts thousands of believers across the world in pursuit of the intercession powers of the Ugandan Martyrs.

The history of the shrine dates back to the late 1800s when white missionaries arrived in what was was to become Uganda. Drawn by the dominance of the ethnic group of the Buganda led then by King Mutesa, missionaries were in awe of their wealth and ways of life. The King was unabashed by the influx of religions that was spilling into his kingdom which included Catholics, Anglicans, Muslims. If anything, he encouraged his people to choose; this was regardless of the fact that he died a practitioner of traditional ways.

His son, on the other hand, was far less forgiving. The growth of Christianity saw many of the Bugandans rebels and discard traditional lifestyles. This enraged the new King Mwanga who ordered many murders including that of the Anglican Archbishop Hannington. When the newly converted Catholic, Joseph Mukasa rebuked his king for the merciless action; King Mwanga responded swiftly by executing him making him the first black Catholic Martyr in the history of the faith.


Uganda Martyrs Day: Muslim Nation Readies for Africa's Biggest Christian Pilgrimage
Wooden depictions of Saint Charles Lwanga & his companions | Source: Gorilla Tours

Mukasa’s successor Charles Lwanga assumed the role as a guide to new converts who were mostly young boys – infuriating King Mwanga all the more as this denied him his sexual perversions. Challenged to drop their new faith, the young men forty-five in total including twenty-two Catholics and ten Anglicans were sentenced to a deathly fate by the king. They were marched to Namugongo where they were martyred by fire.


In 1964, Pope Paul VI canonized all twenty-two of the Catholic martyrs. Five years later, as the first pope to visit sub-Saharan Africa, he laid the foundation stone of the shrine to be built in Namugongo in honour of St. Charles Lwanga and his companions. The shrine was completed in 1975, on June 3, now the feast day of the Ugandan martyrs.

To date, three reigning Pope have made their way to the Ugandan Martyr’s Shrine in honour of the fallen Saints. Christians in the world over have named their children, places of worship and educational institutions in honour of these history makers in faith.

Speaking to the Deputy Chief Executive of the Uganda Tourism Board, Mr John Ssepembwa at the just ended Tourism Indaba in Durban South Africa; he shared on how the pilgrimage had come to be Uganda’s biggest yet well-kept secret

“The Catholic Church is not keen on us advertising the place especially because of its capacity….three million people in a very confined space is explosive, we place screens on 1 kilometer roads…if God want you to know of this place he make it known to you”

Adding that the Shrine and celebration was full of miraculous signs and testimonies for its pilgrims

Mr Ssempebwa said;

“the people who flock hear are not foolish, the line of the offertory is the longest in the world with offer 10,000 people some bring shoes, cocoa, goats, grain and money as token of thanks. Many of the people even make t-shirts with testimonies.”

Discussing the state of religion in the Muslim country, John highlighted

“The shrines make it very difficult for one to not be religious, we are a Muslim country and have mosques everywhere but the fastest growing communities are born again Christians who fill up 60,000 capacity stadiums monthly for prayers….about 60% of the community are traditionalist Christian churches like Catholics and Anglican” he concluded. 

As is usual in the over-a-century-old tradition of the Uganda Martyrs Day celebration, major roads to Namugongo will be closed off. Many people come a week earlier, while most camp at the site hoping to maintain their place in time for the vigil the night before what is known to many of the pilgrims as the single most important mass of the year! Using both the Police and Military to maintain order and safety, this pilgrimage to Namungongo is clearly not for the fainthearted but for the strong in faith.

Tell us in the comments, would you go on a Christian Pilgrimage such as this? Have you ever been to a pilgrimage before?

Stephanie Kapfunde

Stephanie Kapfunde


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