Mr Edward Sebalimba has for the better part of his life been walking from Kabale District in Western Uganda to Namugongo in Wakiso District, a distance of about 520kms to celebrate Martyrs Day.
“I used to take about 11 days walking from Kabale to Namugongo and I was much prepared to walk for this year’s celebrations,” he says.
Mr Sebalimba is sad that he has not been to Namugongo for the second year running. “Besides spiritual healing, the annual walk has always been a spiritual and healthy walk,” he says.
Mr Mike Ssajjabbi, a catechist at Kitovu Catholic Parish in Masaka Diocese, has also for the last 16 years been trekking to Namugongo for the celebrations.
“In 2016, when I moved to Namugongo, I asked the martyrs to intercede on my behalf for God to give me a wife and indeed my prayer was answered. I got my lost rib that same year and also married her in December 2016,” he says.
The concerns are a reflection of thousands of pilgrims from upcountry and other foreign countries who will not be allowed to access Namugongo to participate in this year’s Martyrs Day celebrations.F
or the second year running, the Martyrs Day celebrations are to be held in line with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19. Just like last year, participation in the June 3 celebrations at both the Catholic and Anglican shrines, will only be by invite, and only a small number of the faithful will have access.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the main day celebrations attracted between 800,000 and three million pilgrims, with some trekking from as far as Nairobi, Kenya, and Tanzania to renew their faith.
“I pray that Uganda Martyrs take away the pandemic so that we can resume walking to Namugongo,” Mr Ssajjabbi says.
Mr Sebalimba adds that he will take to his nearby church his offertory the Shs400,000 which he used to spend on the long journey from Kabale to Namugongo for Martyrs Day celebrations.
Mr Joseph Lwevuze, a catechist at St Joseph Parish, Katikamu in Kasana Luweero Diocese, believes that paying homage to the Uganda Martyrs shrine has been an inspiring annual activity in his spiritual life as a Catholic.
“It is unfortunate that the Covid-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country and is deeply impacting on our spiritual obligations and commitments. I have never remained the same whenever l visit the holy shrines for the annual pilgrimage,” he says.
“Mine is not just visiting but my journey has always been purposed on the spiritual journey. I will still honour the martyrs in whichever place designated, including my own home,” Mr Lwevuze adds.
For Ms Josephine Nalwadda, a resident of Luweero Town Council, this is the second time she is missing out on the pilgrimage in 25 years.
“I wish the Church allowed us to congregate at the cathedral in honour of this holy day as Christians. I have always moved to Namugongo together with my children and the results have been positive. We do not only go to Namugongo to celebrate the Martyrs Day but also to pray for all the family needs,” she says.
Jinja City Mayor Peter Okocha Kasolo, a staunch Catholic who always dons a rosary, says the scientific Martyrs Day has left him “heartbroken”, but lauded the government for the decision.
“I am devastated by not going to Namugongo for the Martyrs Day celebrations due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but I agree with the government for halting convergences,” Mr Kasolo says.
Mr Robert Nsubuga, a resident of Kirumba Village, Nyendo Mukungwe Division in Masaka City, says celebrating the day at home will make him miss blessings he would have got if he had trekked to Namugongo.
“It will greatly affect me because I wanted to pray through the Uganda Martyrs for God to give me more blessings so that I can clear my debts. It would also have been good to participate because since it is Masaka Diocese organising, many people from the district would have attended,” he says.
Mr Dan Kyazze in Jinja, who has not missed going to Namugongo to celebrate Martyrs Day for 30 years, says stopping Christians from going to the shrine is double standards on the side of government in the battle against Covid-19.
“Just see what is happening in the markets and shopping malls in Kampala where people are moving without observing the guidelines. They should have allowed at least fewer Christians per region as representatives,” Mr Kyazze says.
One hundred-year-old Bernado Tibyangye of Kigoma Cell, Kigoma Parish in Nyabubare Sub-county, Bushenyi, has walked to Namugongo for 59 years.
“I started trekking to Namugongo in 1969 when Pope Paul came to Uganda and since then, I have never failed to walk to Namugongo and after 50 years, I started a Novena of nine years praying for people who are sick and lazy,” he says.
“After realising that there is no praying this time, we went into a meeting and decided that everybody should walk on foot to his or her parish on Martyrs Day. We also decided that every person in his heart prays for each other for the good of ourselves,” Mr Tibyangye says.
Mr Charles Dickens Elem, the communications officer at Lira Diocese, on Monday said people are being encouraged to pray from their respective parishes. “Even the pilgrims who trekked to Minakulu (Oyam) District
have been told to return to their homes and the bishop has issued a statement stopping people from travelling to Namugongo,” Mr Elem said.
Ms Mary Kevin Athieno, 54, a pilgrim from Tororo, says she is not comfortable celebrating the Martyrs Day at home because she feels her prayers will not be answered like in the past.
Ms Athieno is a staunch Catholic who started making pilgrimage to Namugongo at the age of 35.
‘’I don’t say that celebrating the day at home is bad but it diminishes my faith. Initially when I would walk on foot to Namugongo, God would easily answer my prayers but last year I prayed indoors but my prayers were not answered,’’ she says.
Mr Anthony Rubuya, a resident of Fort Portal City, who has been trekking to Namugongo for the last 10 years, says: “It’s very unfortunate to see that this year and last year we missed going to Namugongo to celebrate the Martyrs Day.”
Mr Tadeo Besigwa from Bwanswa Sub-county in Kakumiro District says celebrating Martyrs Day at home will not enable him to feel the great moments like it would have been while at Namugongo.
“We always feel great while at Namugongo. We get the imagination of what the Uganda Martyrs really passed through before their last moments,” he said.
Mr Brian Mwebesa, a priest at St Jude Church in Masindi, says this year, he will miss holy water from Namugongo.
“Whenever I would go to Namugongo for Martyrs Day celebrations, I would come back with holy water but this time we shall pray from our church together with other Christians,” he says.
A catechist from Gulu, Mr Geoffrey Oloya, says: “It is really frustrating that a situation brought by the pandemic can paralyse the pilgrimage. Walking on foot usually offered me an ideal atmosphere to reflect, pray and rebuild my life as a Christian.”
But Mr Oloya notes that there is no other measure that could keep people safe than praying from home.
Fr Vincent Lubega of Namugongo Catholic Parish says: “Given the coronavirus restrictions, we don’t expect pilgrims at the site. There is no sleeping and eating allowed like in the years before the coronavirus hit us.”
He added: “On the days leading to the June 3 celebrations, we don’t expect pilgrims to come here. But should any pilgrims show up, we shall welcome and pray for them. Afterwards, we take them around the shrine in a controlled manner before requesting them to leave the shrine by 6pm.” Bishop Severus Jjumba of Masaka Diocese will be the main celebrant at the Catholic shrine at Namugongo.
The June 3 occasion is celebrated annually to commemorate the 45 Christians who were killed between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga of Buganda for their strong beliefs and faith in Christianity.
However, for the second year running, the Martyrs Day celebrations are to be held in line with the standard operating procedures (SOPs) put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19.