NAMUGONGO, Uganda — A sixty-two year old woman was among thousand of others walking more than 250 miles to reach an important shrine honoring local martyrs.
Anna Aciro has walked the entire distance from Aru, a village in Congo, to the Uganda Martyrs Basilica and Shrine in Namugongo to honor the memory of 22 Catholic saints who lost their lives because of their faith from 1885 to 1887.
For Aciro, it’s her second trek to the shrine, which is located near the capital of Kampala.
“I last walked in 2015,” she told Catholic News Service. “I walk because I want to identify myself with the martyrs who were killed at Namugongo. I also want to pray to God to help me in some of my problems. Last time I got what I prayed for at Namugongo.”
Aciro is among thousands of pilgrims — some older, most younger — who have made the trek from within Uganda and beyond for the annual Uganda Martyrs Day observance, set for June 3. The Uganda bishops’ conference said that apart from Ugandans, pilgrims are expected from the United States, Nigeria, Mexico, Malawi, Italy, Zambia, Australia, Singapore, South Africa, Ireland, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada.
By May 30 more than 60,000 pilgrims had arrived at Namugongo. Several Masses are celebrated daily with thousands of people attending.
Kenyan Charles Oundo said that he has walked to the shrine each year since 2014 for the observance.
”We have walked from Kenya in different groups. Several parishes and dioceses organized their people to walk to Namugongo. This time we are over 200 pilgrims from Nyanza province,” he said.
Father John Kato, a member of the organizing committee of this year’s festival said that people have deep faith and love for the martyrs because they showed courage in the face of violence at the hands of the local ruler at the time.
”Already thousands of pilgrims have arrived at Namugongo and many more are coming,” Kato said. “Some have walked all the way from Tanzania, DRC (Congo), South Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi. Others from overseas have also started flying in.”
The Uganda martyrs are a group of 22 Catholics and 23 Anglican converts to Christianity in the historical kingdom of Buganda, now part of Uganda, who were executed between Jan. 31, 1885, and Jan. 27, 1887.
Witnesses recorded the deaths, detailing how they were chopped by axes and later burned by fire in Namugongo, a village at the time. Some of them reportedly died while singing songs praising God.
They were killed on orders of a local king, Kabaka Mwanga, also known as Mwanga II of Buganda. The deaths took place during a time of religious struggle for political influence at the Buganda royal court. The incidents also occurred against the backdrop of the Scramble for Africa.
A few years after, the English Church Missionary Society cited the deaths to enlist wider public support for the British acquisition of Uganda.
The Catholic Church beatified the Catholic martyrs in 1920. They were canonized in 1964. June 3 was set as the day to celebrate the martyrs. A basilica was constructed at Namugongo, the place where the martyrs were killed, and later several other structures were put in place to accommodate people who arrive to celebrate the day.
Uganda, and particularly the shrine, is the only place in Africa, and probably among the few in the world, visited by three popes.
The only other African countries to have been visited by at least two popes are Cameroon, Angola and Benin, all visited by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
In 1969, Blessed Paul VI was the first pope to visit Uganda. He had canonized the martyrs five years earlier. St. John Paul II visited Uganda and the shrine in February 1993. He celebrated Mass, which authorities said was attended by more than 500,000 people. Pope Francis visited Uganda and Namugongo in November 2015.
Police maintained tight security at the shrine and the surrounding area. Police official Frank Mwesigwa told reporters May 30 that more than 11,000 police officers had been deployed to protect the pilgrims.