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UGANDA: Martyrs Day 2004 - by Stephen Noll

UGANDA: Martyrs Day 2004

By Stephen Noll

June 3 was my fourth Martyrs' Day in Uganda, a national holiday, a Christian Memorial Day. So in one sense, while it does not seem to be "news" to give another report on this glorious celebration, repetition does not cheapen the remembrance of this moment in national memory (and even international memory - it's in the Lesser Feasts and Fasts).

This particular Martyrs' Day was special in that it was sponsored by the
universities and chaplaincies of Uganda. In reality, that boiled down to UCU and Ndejje University, which is Anglican, and the chaplaincies of Makerere and Kyambogo Universities, which are state owned. The Catholics have a separate shrine and celebration nearby, and the Muslims, well, they have their own national holidays at other times.

The site of the Martyrs' celebration is Namugongo, the traditional royal
killing ground. The Anglicans possess the actual site and have erected two little structures there: one a replica of the Executioner's hut, the other a replica of the pyre on which the martyrs were roasted. Before the service, people queue up for hours waiting to visit these shrines.

This year, I am proud to say, UCU refurbished the martyrs' memorial in a noticeable way. Our ceramics lecturer and his class fired up and painted 22 new heads for the martyrs, as many of the former heads were cracked or broken. The heads were attached to the reed casing which surrounded the bodies, making them human logs. We even made some feet to go at the opposite end of some of these logs. They looked really fine and will be available for any of you when you visit Uganda (just 20 minutes from the University).

The worship service is held in a natural amphitheatre down the hill from the huts. The congregation, about 5-7,000, I would guess, sit in grassy ranks on the hillside in the shade of the eucalyptus or under umbrellas. At the bottom of the hill is the spring where the Executioner washed his tools; people still go there with their jerry cans. The dignitaries sit in a new church structure facing out, and the visiting choirs flank the amphitheatre.

The Prime Minister and Chief Justice were present for the service. The PM, the Hon. Apollo Nsibambi, is notorious for being ON TIME, which sets him apart from all his peers in Government. So he seemed quite pleased when we actually processed onto the stage at 10AM, as announced. He was not so pleased when the preacher went on for an hour. The preacher was Bishop Ben Kwashi from Jos, Nigeria, whom I have known for some years and is on the Trinity Board of Trustees. For Ben, an hour's sermon is just warming up.

When the sermon climaxed in an altar call to which 200 people responded, it seemed self-evidently worth the wait. UCU students had been prepared to meet the new converts as counsellors.

The traditional lesson was also long, an entire reading of Daniel, chapter
3, the three young men in the fiery furnace. I pointed out in my welcome comments that the Uganda Martyrs were not really "page-boys," but rather royal courtiers, the king's elite officers. When many of these courtiers embraced Christianity, Kabaka (King) Mwanga came to feel his absolute authority was being threatened. He had learned the practice of homosexuality from the Arab traders and used it as a way of lording it over his inferiors. When the Christians refused, he saw it as one more sign of their treason.

So, like the young men of Nebuchadnezzar's court, he decided to put them to the test: renounce the Christian God or die. And their response was the same: "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up." (Dan 3:17-18)

In a nice consummation to the day, the Holy Communion was celebrated and the bishops carried it out from the platform and up the hillside to serve the people.

All in all, another glorious day of remembrance. It is a mistake to idealize the church here in Africa. But on a day like this, one does get a glimpse into the heart of the faith which took root here well over a century ago and still burns bright.

Stephen Noll is vice-chancellor of Uganda Christian University

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