By Sam Nwaoko
If martyrdom was the only option, would you embrace it? This question seemed confusing to many when it was thrown to them recently in the course of compiling responses for this work. Some of the respondents had even found it offensive while some wished it away by saying “God forbid.” However, some others, after carefully weighing the question against the sustained terrorist attacks in North East Nigeria, which had earlier been seen by some as persecution of Christians, chose to see the victims as martyrs. For Oluwole Falana, who said he was “strong in faith and strives to be Christ-like”, it went “beyond the question of what would you do in the cases you have described.” Falana and some other prospective respondents had been asked what they would do if they found themselves in the kind of situation the 22 martyrs of Uganda found themselves as they served their country, as it were, in the 17th century.
The 22 Ugandan martyrs were young Catholic and Anglican converts who were serving in the palace of the king of their kingdom. The martyrs were mostly in their 20s, the oldest among them being Mathias Kalemba, the Mulumba, who was about 50 at the time of his suffering and death. Charles and Mulumba are about the most popular among the 22 Ugandan martyrs and their lives have inspired millions in and outside of Africa. For instance, there are numerous Catholic parishes, prayer groups and societies as well as schools in Nigeria and beyond that go by the name of Charles Lwanga. For Mulumba, about the most profound remembrance of him is in the Knights of St. Mulumba (KSM). The Order of the Knights of St. Mulumba (KSM) was established in Nigeria on June 14, 1953 by the late Reverend Father Abraham Anselm IsidahomeOjefua, a priest and monk from Illah Monastery in present day Delta State. The order is modelled after the Sacred Order of Catholic Knighthood and has a current membership of over 20,000 (both male and female). The women wing known as the Ladies of Saint Mulumba (LSM) was inaugurated on June 24, 1978 in Calabar (present day Cross River State).
The EncyclopaediaBrittanica stated this about Kalemba: “Kalemba was a member of the Soga tribe, born in Bunya County in eastern Uganda. Together with his mother, he was captured by Ganda raiders belonging to the Otter clan. His captors sold him as a slave to Magatto, uncle of the Chancellor Mukasa, and a member of the Edible-Rat Clan. Kalemba grew up in this family, treated as a member of the clan and as a free man.” After the death of his adoptive father, he remained for a time with Magatto’s brother, Buzibwa. On attaining manhood, he took service with Ddumba, the chief of Ssingo County, becoming effectively the head of his household and supervisor of all the other servants. On Ddumba’s death, his brother gave official recognition to Kalemba’s position, by creating an office for him in memory of Ddumba. Henceforth, Kalemba was known as The Mulumba. “Kalemba was a man of fairly large stature and light colouring. He sported a small beard, unusual for a Ganda. He was immensely strong, of a joyful disposition and a passionate searcher after truth. This passion led him first to Islam, and then – after the arrival of the Anglican missionaries – to their Christian instructions. It was the duty of the chief of Ssingo to carry out construction at the royal palace. When King Mutesa I decided to build houses for the Catholic missionaries, Kalemba was assigned to the task. Coming into contact with Catholics for the first time, he discovered that Protestant prejudices about them were not true. On May 31, 1880 he enrolled as a Catholic catechumen, but continued occasionally to attend Anglican Bible classes.
“Kalemba took his Christian allegiance seriously. Although he was the owner of a large number of women, he made other provisions for all except one, called Kikuvwa, whom he kept as wife. He was baptized by Father Ludovic Girault on May 28, 1882. Kalemba schooled himself in humility by undertaking menial tasks, working in his garden, carrying loads and even accepting unmerited blows from the king’s soldiers. He declared proudly that he was a slave – “the slave of Jesus Christ.” He is said to have driven off a wild buffalo with the aid of a stick. He took part in the war-raids organised by his chief, but refused to take share in the looting which was their main object. He also refused to take bribes when administering justice on behalf of his master. “At his home in Mityana, forty-seven miles from the capital, Kalemba lived a humble life, taking up the trades of pottery and tanning. During the absence from Uganda of the Catholic missionaries from 1882 to 1885, Kalemba organized a Christian community at Mityana where, together with the future martyrs Noe Mawaggali and Luke Banabakintu, he gave Christian instruction. When persecution broke out in 1886 this community of Christians and catechumens numbered about 200. “When the storm broke, Kalemba was at the capital rebuilding the king’s palace that had burned down in February 1886. Although in imminent danger, he did not leave his post. Kalemba’s master, the chief of Ssingo, deemed it best to arrest him and his companion, Luke Banabakintu.
They spent the night of May 26 at the chief’s town residence, with their feet in the stocks and their necks in slave yokes. The following day they were taken to the palace, where the chancellor sentenced them to a savage death for acknowledging that they were Christians. On the way to Namugongo, the traditional place of execution, Kalemba stopped and asked to be put to death there and then in Old Kampala. His executioners butchered him on the spot, cutting off his limbs and tearing strips of flesh from his body, burning them before his eyes. His courage and endurance were extraordinary and the only sound that came from his lips were the words: “My God! My God!” The executioners then tied up his arteries and left him to die a lingering death. “Matthias Kalemba’s passion began at noon on Thursday, May 27. On Saturday it had not ended. Some men coming to cut reeds in the swamp heard a voice calling: “Water! Water!” They were so horrified by the sight that they fled. He died presumably on Sunday, May 30. God alone knows the full extent of his agony. Luke died with Charles Lwanga and his companions at Namugongo on May 27. Matthias Kalemba, the Mulumba, was declared “Blessed” by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, together with 21 other martyrs. They were proclaimed canonized saints in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.
To the knights, their lives remain an inspiration. Although the kind of persecution that the martyrs faced is not common anymore, the people inspired by their lives are still fighting different kinds of battles to not only sustain the faith they nourished with their blood but to also propagate it through the use of their time, talent and treasure. The Order of the Knights of St. Mulumba, since it started in June 1953, has established veritable presence in Kampala, Uganda and Mamfe in Cameroun. Interestingly, the initial objectives of the Order are “to counteract the harm done by many secret societies to the church and to arrest the efflux of the Christian enlightened members into those harmful secret groups; to bring Catholics together in a fraternal association for the good and progress of the church, welfare of its clergy, wellbeing of members of the Order in particular and Nigeria in general. Part of the activities of the KSM includes a popular rally by the order as part of activities to create awareness on the sanctity of human life even in the womb, and stop increasing incidences of abortion.
The Family and Human Life Unit of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos and Knights of Saint Mulumba, Lagos Metropolitan Council held the fourth yearly pro-life vigil under the theme: “The Family: Fountain of Life” at the Archdiocesan Marian Shrine, Maryland, Lagos. It is the belief of some scholars that the martyrdom in 1886 of the boys and men had been a “spark that ignited the flame of Christianity in modern Africa.” Canonized in 1964, the Uganda Martyrs are revered for their faith, their courage, and their countercultural witness to Christ. Even Pope St. John Paul II had noted during his visit to their shrine, that their sacrifice was the seed that “helped to draw Uganda and all of Africa to Christ.” The martyrs had fallen into disfavour of King Mwanga because they shielded the hundreds of young boys and men who worked in the palace of the Mwanga from the king’s sexual advances. King Mwanga threatened to have all his Christian pages killed unless they renounced their faith. This failed to intimidate them. Even the catechumens among them followed Mukasa’s bravery by asking to be baptized before they died.
Among them was Charles Lwanga, who took over both Mukasa’s position as head of the pages and his role of spiritual leader. King Mwanga’s simmering rage boiled over one evening, when he returned from a hunting trip and learned that a page named Denis Ssebuggwawo had been teaching the catechism to a younger boy, Mwanga’s favorite. The king gave Denis a brutal beating and handed him to the executioners, who hacked him to pieces. The following day, Mwanga gathered all the pages in front of his residence. “Let all those who do not pray stay here by my side,” he shouted. “Those who pray” he commanded to stand before a fence on his left. Charles Lwanga led the way, followed by the other Christian pages, Catholic and Anglican. The youngest, Kizito, was only 14. Falana, while praising the faith of the martyrs, said “one can only thank God and pray that these types of things that we only learn about from writings do not happen again.”