Namugongo Basilica: Monument to the ultimate sacrifice by Uganda martyrs

Namugongo Shrine Basilica
Namugongo Shrine Basilica

It stands majestic, held up by 22 pillars and designed to look like the African hut, but to Ugandan Catholics, the Namugongo Shrine Basilica represents more than just an impressive big church, the shrine is a reminder of the dedication to faith and price paid by 22 men for their religious beliefs.

The 22 Catholic men are the Uganda saints. The king also killed 23 Anglican faithful when they refused to denounce their faith.

Artist representation of Kabaka Mutesa II courts
Artist representation of Kabaka Mutesa II courts

The story is told of a boy king, drunk with power, ego, alcohol and high on bhang, who killed his subjects for their faith, saying ‘there can be no King of Kings served in my house.’

Kabaka Mutesa II, who took over the crown from his father Kabaka Mutesa I at the age of 18, invited Christian missionaries to the Baganda Kingdom in the late 1800s to teach the people how to read and write.

The King, however, became jealous after it emerged that the missionaries, who were staying at the palace courts, had converted some of his subjects into Christianity and that the new converts wanted nothing to do with traditional ways and beliefs.

List of Uganda martyrs
List of Uganda martyrs

Further vexing the young king was the fact that young boys, who liked to have sex with, refused to give in to his demands, saying that the Christian teachings were against homosexuality.

This kind of disobedience was unheard of in the kingdom, in fact, if the king saw your wife and wanted her, he would just make his intention known and you would be expected to thank him for the honour.

Feeling his power slip away, the king ordered the killing of the new Christians with a sadistic flare. At Namugongo, an area where only the vilest offenders were killed, the martyrs were burnt alive. In other areas, they were tied to trees to be eaten by dogs, hacked to death, speared, beheaded and dismembered.

Sculpture depicting Charles Lwanga baptising Kizito
Sculpture depicting Charles Lwanga baptising Kizito

However, what the king hoped would spell the end of the Christianity in Uganda became its catalyst for its growth.

In 1969, Pope Paul VI visited Namugongo and on 2ng August consecrated the altar that was built on top of the spot where Charles Lwanga, a martyr, was burnt to death.

The altar now stands at the centre of the basilica where a light that is almost never switched off marks the spot.

Emmanuel Cardinal Nsubuka asked that the basilica be constructed to imitate the design of the African grass-thatched hut in 1967, and it has become the place of worship for hundreds.

The door of the basilica
The door of the basilica

The martyrs were canonised on October 18, 1964.

When I visited the basilica, the structure was under renovation to prepare for Pope Francis’ visit.

On the walls of the basilica, the pictures depicting the 22 saints have been painted on every wall; with the door has even more images of the saints.

The majestic structure serves to remind Ugandans of the sacrifice the saints made and the far that the Catholic Church has come in the country.

It receives millions of pilgrims every year especially around June.

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Story By Lisa Kamau
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