It’s the 1880s and life as you know it is changing.
It was only a few years ago when men with strangely pink skin and clothing that covered every part of their being came to the Kabaka’s court. They brought with them the news of a God and His son called Jesu. The men with the strangely coloured skin tell you about Jesu in a strange tongue they call English.
You know about Ggulu and Walumbe. You’re not a heathen. Growing up, you heard the stories of Kintu, Nambi and their trials. But the pink men tell you about Adam and Eve and a fruit that brought sin. It takes a while and you don’t fully understand it but the message resonates with you. It sinks in deep. They dip you in water and declare you are a Christian. You rejoice that you are now believer in Katonda, the God above all gods.
But things aren’t what they seem. At the royal court, tensions are rising. Kabaka Mwanga is getting agitated. He believes his people are not listening to him. According to law, the King holds the power of life and death over his subjects, although, this is not what the pink men taught you. According to the good news, only Jesu has the power of life and death. You know something is coming and it worries you.
It starts in the month when sesame seeds are being harvested or October, as the pink men called it during your English lessons. Refusing to listen to his majordomo, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, the Kabaka orders for the execution of one of the pink men, British Anglican bishop, James Hannington, and his companions, on October 29, 1885.
The Kabaka views Balikuddembe’s advice as disrespect and in his kingdom, disrespect means death. Balikuddembe is killed the next month, the month of the grasshopper. In the new year, 45 Catholics and Anglicans are killed because they refuse to renounce Jesu. Some are burnt and others are hacked to death. Their ages range from 15 to 50. They become the Uganda Martyrs, Saints who are venerated for their faith and sacrifice.
Their deaths are the start of a domino effect that brings Uganda under the British rule. But that is not the story. Today, the story is about courage, faith and the human condition.
I have always found the concept of faith and belief interesting. History is rife with stories of conquerors riding into battle with banners of whichever god they are serving. Allah, God, Jesus, Buddha. Every human has something they believe in. Something that we would kill for. I have come to believe that we are born with a hunger to believe in something higher than ourselves and we would do anything for this belief.
I am a Christian that doesn’t belong to any denomination. But if I were to be labelled, I’d be put under the Pentecostal church. I have been in this faith since my stubby little legs carried me to the front of the church when the pastor of Miracle Centre Church Entebbe, then still in iron sheets, made an alter call. I was seven years old.
Like the character in my story above, I didn’t quite understand it all but something about the message resonated with me. It could have been the promise of heaven and all of it’s glory, or the threat of hell. Either way, that day, I decided to believe in the Christian God. This belief has morphed and evolved since then, navigating church hurt, a crisis of faith and a deconstruction that is still in progress, yet it still remains steadfast. God is God and Jesus is the way.
But sometimes I wonder how steadfast I would be if I were faced with adversity that was quite literally the threat to my life. If I woke up tomorrow and Christianity was suddenly outlawed, how would I react? Would I die for my faith like the Martyrs? Or would I renounce it like a coward?
My Christianity has not been without its struggles but many of these have been internal. Our generation has been lucky. We have been allowed to nurture and question our faith. But what would happen if we were in 1880s Buganda? Caught between two sides that are using religion to wage a war for a fertile country, would we still stand up for what we believe in, or would we cower under the weight of the threat of a painful death?
In examining myself, I found that I wouldn’t. I think I would be the first to renounce Jesu in favour of life. I try to give myself some credit though. I think of Peter and how he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed. Each time a variation of, ‘me as me, I don’t know that man.’ Perhaps, if I were in 1880s Buganda, I would be like Peter. Denying Jesu and then overcoming that guilt and fear to speak out.
I envy the kind of faith of the Uganda Martyrs. I can only hope to get there one day. Where my faith is so absolute that trivial things like a threat to my life would not stop me from standing up and speaking Jesus.
All my ramblings bring me to this… A friend has a short film out. The film is about the first Martyr, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, a man who was just 25 years old when he was killed. The film tells a story of faith and friendship. Find the link to the short film below. Subscribe. Like. Comment. Support an African Filmmaker.