• Monday, May 27, 2024
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Martyrs’ Day: Uganda leverages pilgrimage to lure more Nigerians, global visitors


Since the second week in May, many Christian faithfuls from many countries, especially in East Africa, have been on the road, trekking across difficult terrains and major highways to exercise their faith.

Though, they can afford vehicles and other means of transportation to the Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine in the outskirt of Kampala, the Ugandan capital city, the faithfuls see the trekking as a more fulfilling way to journey to the holy shrine on pilgrimage.

Read also: We are ready to host Africa, global tourists, says Lilly Ajarova, UTB boss

Others who fly in from across the world will join the rest to celebrate the annual Martyrs’ Day on June 3rd.

It is an eight days of celebrations dotted with lots of religious activities that culminate on June 3rd of every year.

In recent years, the celebration, which started over 120 years ago, has grown by leaps and bounds and now an essential fixture on the African pilgrim’s calendar, a development that made the Ugandan government to declare June 3rd a public holiday.

On that day, over 1 million pilgrims, the highest in an African soil, will flock the expansive Namugongo Martyrs Shrine to commemorate the killing of 45 converts to Christianity; 23 Catholics and 22 Anglicans, who were killed on the orders of Kabaka Mwanga II, then King of Buganda between 1885 and 1887.

This year, the celebration is taking more exciting turn as the country expects more numbers and is ready to host them as usual.

“We have had 1.3 million pilgrims here just in one day. Last year was about 1.2 million pilgrims and you cannot see the grass lawn because of the huge crowd. We expect more this year,” said Vincent Mwanga, a Catholic reverend father and priest in charge of the Namugongo Martyrs Shrine.

Speaking on the preparedness of Uganda to host the pilgrims this June, the Catholic priest explained that three popes have visited the shrine and its basilica and that since the visits, particularly Pope Francis, there have been sustained renovations and redevelopment to accommodate more visitors and make the shrine more comfortable for the pilgrims because that is where they sleep while on pilgrimage. “Since then, the number of visitors have been very high, and each year surpasses the previous,” the priest said.

“Moreover, we have put in place a solid team for crowd control, security and sanitation to make the pilgrims comfortable here”.

Detailing activities that will be happening in the shrine for the eight days, the Catholic priest said that every evening each day, the pilgrims will pray with one Ugandan Martyr, who are now regarded as saints.

“For instance, if there is a martyr for the military, you will see all the military people come around here by 1pm, we will have programmes with them and they will give witnesses and we end at 5pm with a mass and they make procession to the grottos for that saint.The military will cary that day as their day of prayer.

“The martyr for the youth is Saint Kizito. On the day of the youth, they will come in great numbers and we will have seminars about their lives, we mentor them and close in the evening”.

These activities, according to him, are build-up to June 3 Martyrs Day, which is a day for everybody.

“It is very organised because people know why they are here; to pray and so there is nothing like fighting or shouting. It is open to everybody, all faiths as long as you don’t have anything offensive in coming, remember people spend a week here sleeping on the grass.

“During the day, the shrine environment is a seating room and at night it is bed for pilgrims.

It doesn’t matter if it rains during the Martyrs Day because the pilgrims don’t bother, they will cover their hair with plastics and remove it when rain stops, they give priority to their spiritual exercise,” he concluded.

Meanwhile, the Uganda Tourism Board (UTB), is not relenting in its efforts at wooing more Africans to visit the ‘Pearl of Africa’ on business and tourism purposes, including pilgrimage.

While addressing trade partners from five key source markets in Africa on familiarisation trip recently at Onomo Hotel in Kampala, Lilly Ajarova, CEO, UTB, noted that in addition to many exciting offerings, religious tourism is now big in Uganda with the Namugongo Martyrs Shrine now a rally point for pilgrimage.

Narrowing her campaign to the Nigerian source market, the UTB CEO said that apart from the shopping experience, city tours, nightlife, cultural shows and youthful adventure activities, pilgrimage will enthrall Nigerians and that the Uganda Martyrs Shrine and Martyrs Day are wonderful products to sell to the Nigerian market.

She is taking the campaign a notch higher with the invitation of a Nigerian clergy to lead the Anglican part of the Martyrs Day celebration.

“For Team Nigeria, we can do more on the pilgrimage, planning ahead for the Martyrs Day in June. The Anglican Bishop of Nigeria is the one leading the Anglicans in this year’s Martyrs Day.

“I am making inquiry on how to get the Catholic Bishop in Nigeria to the event to handle the Catholic side of the martyrs day celebration. I look forward to both bishops co-hosting the ceremony that day”.

She is harping on pilgrimage because everyone year Uganda gets at least 100 Nigerians visiting for the Martyrs’ Day celebrations in June.

“They are unique because of their uniform and their flags make loud statements about them at Namugongo Martyrs’ Day at the shrine,” she said in excitement.

However, with a direct flight from Entebe to Lagos, she noted that connection challenge has been solved, hence intending Nigerian pilgrims and general visitors can take advantage of Uganda Airlines cheap, convenient and direct flights to visit to explore the Pearl of Africa’s offerings from leisure, adventure, pilgrimage and to business.