On the third of June each year, the people of Uganda celebrate the Feast of St. Charles Lwanga and Companions which is also known as Martyrs’ Day. The African Martyrs celebrated on this day are important to the people of Uganda.
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Catholic and Anglican missionaries began arriving in Africa in the late 19th century. The first of the Catholic missionaries to arrive were known as the White Martyrs, a name given to them for the colour of their robes. The missionaries began to take caravan journeys into central Africa in an attempt to spread the Christian gospel. In 1879, a mission was founded in what eventually became Uganda.
At the time, Baganda were one of the largest ethnic groups in Uganda. The group had a rich culture, with superior statesmanship, an artistic community and unique architecture. However, there was also a darker, cruel side to their culture which their ruler, Mutesa, exemplified. When he ascended to the throne, he buried all 60 of his brothers alive in order to ensure his own political survival. He was open to various religions, however, and allowed his people to choose any of the faiths that were being introduced to the kingdom. Mutesa died in 1884.
Many in the kingdom felt that Christianity was turning away from the religious standards established by the kingdom. Mutesa kept the dislike of Christians in check, but after his death, his son, Mwanga, felt that missionaries were diminishing his power. In 1885, Mwanga had three missionaries dismembered and their bodies burned.
That same year, an Anglican bishop and his caravan were murdered. When one of his advisors, Joseph Makasa, confronted him about the murders, Mwanga had him beheaded, making Makasa the first black martyr.
Mwanga, whose pedophilia was well-known, began making advances toward pages who were working with the missionaries. Charles Lwanga, one of the missionaries, protected several pages, including one named Kizito, from Mwanga’s advances. This infuriated the leader and he ordered Lwanga and 16 others executed for failing to declare loyalty to the Baganda. They were marched to Namugongo, yokes around their necks, wrapped in reed maps, they were burned on a pyre.
In 1964, Pope Paul VI canonised the Catholic martyrs and a shrine dedicated to them on 3 June 1975. The day was then declared Martyr’s Day.
Celebrations and Traditions
Martyr’s Day begins with a Novena at various locations throughout Uganda, but are the largest in areas where the martyrs were born or killed. Novena’s last from 25 May through 2 June. Pilgrims also travel to the Novena’s from as far as Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi. The pilgrims may walk miles in order to honour those that died for Christianity. Many pray to the martyrs to help them with a particular trial or tribulation.
Festivals are popular as well with many vendors selling traditional foods and other merchandise. The celebration ends with a Pontifical High Mass organised by different dioceses. Mass includes liturgical dances and speeches from dignitaries.