The Ugandan Martyrs and pilgrimage tourism in Namugongo

If I recall correctly, from the Santasi roundabout to Opoku Ware School stretch of the Kumasi-Obuasi road in Ghana, there is a school (or is it a church?) called ‘Martyrs of Uganda School’. When I traversed this road regularly during my undergraduate days, I had fleeting moments of wonder about that name but never thought much about it. I did find that the word ‘martyrs’ sounded beautiful to the ears. Fast-forward to this week when on my first day in Kampala, Uganda where I am attending the ATLAS Africa Conference 2019. My good friend – George Kyaboona came to pick me up and show me around town a bit. I first met George almost 10 years ago at King’s College London when were studying for an MSc.


George asked if I know of the Ugandan Martyrs and I told him about my fleeting thoughts of wonder when I’ve seen that name in Kumasi. He gave me the full story of this fascinating piece of Ugandan (and by a large extension Roman Catholic and Anglican) history and heritage. The basic summary is that the Ugandan Martyrs are are a group of 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic converts to Christianity from the kingdom of Buganda (now part of Uganda) who were executed between 31 January 1885 and 27 January 1887. You can read more about this history here


I was taken to visit the sites of both the Catholic and the Anglican memorial shrines that have been developed as pilgrimage sites. Sadly, I just missed the big Martyrs Day celebrations that takes place yearly on 3rd June by arriving a week late. From what I saw and have been told this is a such a massive religious pilgrimage tourism event. The Catholic site for example has been visited by 3 Popes with the most recent one being a 2017 visit from the current Pope Francis. Thousands of believers from all over Uganda, East Africa and further afield are reported to make pilgrimage trips to these sites every year from a few days to months leading up to the 3rd June celebrations.


I found it all very fascinating, especially from a tourism perspective how these sites curate the past for present (spiritual) consumption. There is definitely the  potential of extending this pilgrimage tourism product into a yearlong one for both domestic and international visitors. Of course care must be taken in how this ‘sensitive’ heritage is to be packaged for tourist consumption. Some might see in this heritage an aspect of dark tourism but that will not be a totally accurate depiction. I would think developing this site as a top African religious pilgrimage site, for especially Catholics and Anglicans, would be great. Imagine all the Catholics and Anglicans across Africa and around the world getting to know more about this site and undertaking regular pilgrimages to visit this site. This can be developed and modelled based on learning from other pilgramage routes like El Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage in Spain, the Abraham Path in the Middle East and the Pilgrim’s Way in England among others.


Overall, I was also impressed with the museum (see image above) at the Anglican site which not only covered the martyrs, story but also touched on national history, church history, islamic history and the history of the Buganda kingdom.  There is so much research to be done at these sites to fully understand how managers and visitors perceive these events, and on how best to extend the benefits of this form of tourism/leisure activities reaches those living around these sites. Why do many Ugandan tourism scholars focus their research on the natural parks and neglect heritage like this? Just some random thoughts on a good experience. Anyway, I need to head back to the conference presentations……….

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