Thursday, January 3, 2013

Old tales and a new year: what should we learn from the Namugongo martyrs?

All countries, I am sure, tell tales to the impressionable young which communicate a deeply rooted and shared view of their culture, beliefs and nationhood. In my post-war British primary school, such tales included King Alfred burning the cakes, Robert the Bruce observing a spider build its web and Queen Elizabeth addressing her troops as the Armada approached. No doubt it was believed that these stories nurtured in us qualities such as resilience, perseverance and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds.

In western cultures, many such tales are religious in origin: legends about country girls seeing visions, like Joan of Arc; ancient and complex myths like that of Adam and Eve, which attempt to explain aspects of the world we live in; and historiography - historical fact mingled with narrative embroidery, such as St Luke's account of the Birth of Christ. Stories such as these tap something deep within us, whether we actually 'believe' them in a literal sense or simply acknowledge their role in helping us to recognise our shared experience and understand a bit more of what it is to be human. The story of Christmas is probably one of the most appealing of these tales.

Returning to Britain from Uganda just before Christmas was, as you might expect, a real 'culture shock'. All the cliches come to mind: the glitter and streamers, the confectionery piled high, the meretricious high-tech children's toys. Stuart and I didn't even have to wait until we reached Princes Street. The shock came as we walked through Heathrow's Terminal 5 to catch our connecting flight. No need to hammer home the contrast with what we had left behind in Uganda. For most ordinary Ugandans, the Christmas festival would be much the same as any other day, unless rich relatives from Kampala visited with cars packed with food. Food, note, not presents. Remote-controlled robots and boxes of perfumed soap have little value compared with a festive meal of stewed meat and matoke (steamed green bananas).

However, despite the much despised 'commercialism' of the season in Britain, I genuinely love Christmas. Spending it with family in the Lake District meant the pleasure of a traditional carol service in a village church, a turkey dinner (some crucial element of which is almost always forgotten) and games which I never fail to lose, ignominiously. And, at the heart of it all, there is still the Christ Child lying in a manger and whatever interpretation of the traditional story each of us brings to, or takes from, the Day.

Our perception - which may be quite wrong - is that the Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, with their origins in Biblical tales from far-off countries, do not feature particularly prominently in the Ugandan church year or, indeed, in family or village life. After all, what is special about a child born in a manger in a country where birth routinely takes place on mud floors, with goats and chickens in attendance? Over the years since Independence, Herod's Massacre of the Innocents has been regularly re-enacted in Uganda, and just as bloodily.

So what stories set out to capture the imagination of, and arouse a sense of national identity in young Ugandans? These days, unsurprisingly but sadly, they are unlikely to be tales from oral tradition, particularly in urban centres. Christianity, social mobility and increasing deracination have put paid to that.

One story, founded on historical fact and rooted in Ugandan Christian tradition, does resonate, however, and well beyond the borders of Buganda where it took place. The (hi)story of the Uganda Martyrs, an atrocity which took place in 1886, is commemorated every year and draws thousands of devout pilgrims to the shrine on the outskirts of Kampala.  Interestingly, it is a tale which encompasses both religion and politics. It records how the kingdom of Buganda was transformed into a colonial and 'Christian' state. And, of course, as in all good national tales, the key players are either idealised or demonised. In reality, as you might expect, the story is much more complex than the devout would have us believe.

Namugongo, where it all happened is the traditional Kiganda place of execution. It lies just beyond Kampala's northern bypass and about three or four miles from where we used to live. The site is a place of pilgrimage for people across the country and even beyond its national borders. The date on which the martyrdom is commemorated - June 3rd - is a national holiday.

The history of Christianity in Uganda is both long and complex. The first 'missionaries' to arrive were Muslims, Arab traders, who succeeded in converting many people across the area now called 'Uganda', including the Royal Family of Buganda. The first Christian missionaries were sent in 1877 by the Church Missionary Society (CMS - Church of Uganda, part of the Anglican Communion). They were followed shortly afterwards, in 1878, by the Roman Catholic White Fathers. Thus were planted the seeds of the religious competition and conflict which, exacerbated by tribal divisions, were to haunt Uganda and influence political events right up to the present day.

The missionaries came at the invitation of the Kabaka Muteesa 1, king of Buganda. Quite sensibly, he thought that his countrymen, particularly his courtiers and political advisers, would benefit from a western education. Acquisition of literacy, he thought, was priceless.  Unfortunately, there was a price, a high one. The foresight of Kabaka Muteesa opened the door to European political influence and colonial exploitation.

The Royal House of Buganda, once animist and then converted to Islam, now turned to Christianity - or most members did, though one branch remained Muslim. The stage was set for the religious violence which was to consume Uganda for many years. The first victims were 72 Muslims executed at Namugongo for refusing to eat meat which had not been slaughtered according to Muslim practice. When Kabaka Muteesa I died in 1884 he was succeeded by Kabaka Mwanga, aged 17 and by all accounts mentally unbalanced. Having rejected traditional religion, thus offending his elders, he then tried to play the two Christian groups off against each other. First the Protestants got into trouble and Alexander Mackay was killed (hands cut off, suspended over fire). Mwanga then called back the White Fathers who, apparently, made 8,000 converts. Bishop Hannington was then killed for entering the kingdom through the 'back door' - the neighbouring kingdom of Busoga. An astonishing number of Ugandans are named 'Mackay' or 'Hannington' to this day.

In the middle of this power struggle were the pages at the Kabaka's court, young men aged between 13 and 30 with a very close (and, whisper it) almost certainly homosexual, relationship with the Kabaka. Official accounts appear to ignore the 'gay' storyline. However, you can read plenty about it on the internet, most of it vicious in its homophobia but some also posted by gay support groups.

Given the complex nature of the relationships and allegiances within the court, it does appear somewhat provocative, disingenuous or at least foolhardy, therefore, for the Christian missionaries to target the pages, of all people, for their proselytising activities. The result was that the pages gave attendance at Christian lessons as their reason for not attending properly to the Kabaka who was, understandably, furious. Their neglect may have included a reluctance to engage any more in homosexual activities. One day, finding no one to minister to him after a hard day's hunting, Mwanga decided to put them to the test. Each page had to admit whether he was Christian or not. According to the accepted story, they all stood their ground and affirmed their faith in Christ and willingness to bear witness whatever the cost. Accusing them of treason, with some justification, Mwanga went on the rampage, killing and disabling people. The White Fathers, with a pragmatic sense of self-preservation, kept out of the way during this time - no martyrdom for them. However, they did manage to look out of their windows and see their teenage proteges being led to their deaths. They were not tempted, however, to try to save or join them.

After a few days, 31 Ugandan martyrs had been burnt to death at Namugongo and others killed in other equally unpleasant ways and in other places: 23 Protestants and 22 Roman Catholics in all. According to Catholic Online, they died calling on the name of Jesus and proclaiming, "You can burn our bodies, but you cannot harm our souls". I find this difficult to believe. 

Each martyr had been given a Christian name on being baptised, a tradition which, sadly, survives today. It is the reason why almost all Ugandans use western names in preference to their African name, even names such as Charles which have no Christian connotations, as far as I know, but are just associated with European culture.

Those are the bare bones of the story. As you would expect, hagiography pretty soon started adding its accretions. The Roman Catholic martyrs were canonized, the requisite 'miracles' having been performed, hence the proliferation of exotic saints' names in Uganda, for example, Saint Kizito (the 13 year old). Every year, on June 3rd, thousands of pilgrims arrive at Namugongo from all over Uganda and neighbouring countries to pray at the shrine and fill bottles with holy water from the adjacent pond.

The story of the Uganda Martyrs is not one which I warm to, although it plays an important role in summarising some of the key elements of the national story: the interplay and rivalry among the the three main faith groups which was soon reflected in the establishment of faith-based political parties, the tension between the proud thousand-year-old royal house and the manipulative colonisers and the brutal denouement which presages so much of the violence of the next century or so.

There is too much in the traditional telling of the story which skirts round the blatant self-interest of the Europeans and glosses over the sexual and political elements. The behaviour of the missionaries seems reprehensible to us today: their competition for converts, their avoidance of the retribution wreaked on these converts and their political meddling. The Kabaka's accusations of treason seem at least partially justified, given the political manoeuvring within his court. The punishment meted out is eerily reminiscent of sectarian burnings during the reigns of the English King Henry VIII and his daughter 'Bloody' Mary, and during the Spanish Inquisition. Difficult for westerners to claim the moral high ground. Human sacrifice is not a peculiarly African practice.

Because of our discomfort with the story, we avoided visiting Namugongo until a few days before we left. Then we really had to go, for otherwise we would have failed to see one of the key monuments to events in Uganda's history.

The Muslim shrine, it seems, is neglected. We certainly couldn't find it and further reading suggests that it was desecrated following the fall of Idi Amin (himself a Muslim) by the dead body of a pig being left in the shrine. Whether it has been rebuilt, I don't know.

The first shrine you come to turns out to be the Roman Catholic site, for, unbelievably, the Catholics and Protestants (Church of Uganda) have two separate sites: religious sectarianism rules, even after death. The flashiest shrine is certainly the Catholic one. The main church building is an imposing conical structure, resembling the traditional shape of Kiganda buildings. Inside, stained glass and monumental representations of the martyrs and other religious figures abound, some wearing the day-glo outfits clearly de rigeur in first century Palestine.

St. Charles Lwanga and Companions<br>Martyrs of Uganda

Outside, sculptures represent the key elements in the story.

The Protestant 'shrine' (an oxymoron if ever there was one - Martin Luther would turn in his grave), is an altogether more modest affair. A simple squat little building, in the style of an Anglican parish church, it stands on the actual site where the martyrdom took place, the Katikiro (the Prime Minister of Buganda) at the time of construction (1935), having donated the land. The martyrs are buried below the altar.

Outside there is a rather good sculpture of the burning alive of the victims, each one clearly rolled up in reeds.

There is also a reconstruction of the Chief Executioner Makajjanga's command post - built using a similar kind of construction to thatched houses today.

The Executioner died having been baptised, and having taken the name Daniel.

One wonders what messages today's youngsters should take out of the story of the Uganda Martyrs and how relevant they are to the challenges ahead of them. While we were at the Roman Catholic shrine, we observed a captive audience of school children being lectured about chastity by a celibate priest. It seemed bizarre in the context: whatever the martyrs were, they were not chaste.

There is also a real whiff of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in the story. In modern society, middle-aged priests sending teenage children off to their deaths would be seen as committing murder by proxy.

The story gives rise to several tricky questions.
  • At what age can young people be considered to have a sufficiently mature understanding to plan and bring about their own deaths? Can such actions ever be considered acceptable?
  • How should we respond to adults who aid and abet such young people in suicidal activities? 
  • Is confrontation and intransigence leading to indirect suicide an appropriate response to religious and political challenges?
  • Could there have been a better way to react to, and work with a despotic ruler with serious mental health issues?
  • How should current Ugandan politicians and church leaders respond to the evidence that gay relationships existed in pre-colonial Uganda, giving lie to the oft-expressed view that westerners have exported homosexuality to Africa? 
  • Is the modern concept of paedophilia relevant to a society where young people had sexual relations immediately they reached puberty? 
  • Given that in contemporary Uganda, paedophile activities with underage girls are usually ignored, why should people feel differently about paedophile activities with underage boys?
My view is that stories of martyrdom, particularly those told to the immature, do not contain appropriate messages for today's young people. Uganda needs a positive message take forward into the future. The story of the Uganda Martyrs is a story about a dead end. Although it is true that Christianity 'took off' in Buganda after the atrocity, this was as much out of political self-interest as pious intentions.  Many of us can remember when the words of 'John Brown's body...' were changed from 'let us die to make men free' to 'let us live to make men free'. Far too many Ugandan wars have been fought by children, whether in rebel groups such as Kony's Lord's Resistance Army, or in the government forces, for example the National Resistance Army of the 1980s, then led by Museveni. No country can or should depend on its young people laying down their lives for a cause rather than living to build a better nation.

Perhaps Uganda needs to find an alternative and more positive national story to take into the New Year.

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