Whenever I hear the word “martyr,” I automatically think of the stories I learned – in religion classes at the Catholic school I attended – of the holy men and women who gave up their lives for Christ. They were ordered to renounce their faith, but refused to do so, and were killed because of it – often painfully and publicly. Stoned, beheaded, or fed to the lions.

The mental images I have of martyrs are of people in togas and sandals or monks’ robes and nuns’ habits. I don’t know if this comes from illustrations and drawings that accompanied the stories when I learned them as a child, or if it’s simply the way I know or imagine that people looked in Biblical and medieval times and in the religious vocations from which many of the martyrs came.

Either way, I’m often startled when something that’s firmly and securely anchored in the back of my mind is suddenly jarred loose by a different point of view.
That happened to me not long ago, in the town of Namugongo in Uganda. Namugongo, near Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, is the location of the Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs.

I had never heard of the Ugandan martyrs before, or of the shrine, even though most of the time I’ve been in Uganda has been spent in or near Kampala. But this year, we visited the shrine and I learned the story behind it. I came away both humbled and inspired.

Catholic and Anglican missionaries first arrived in Uganda in the 1870s at the invitation of the king, and many of the new converts to Christianity were pages who worked at the king’s palace. A decade later, the king’s son – and successor – clashed with Christian leaders, and demanded that all of the young men renounce their new faith. When they refused, he sentenced them to death and had them dragged to Namugongo, which was where prisoners were executed. Most of these men were tied to wooden logs and burned to death.

The chief executioner singled out Charles Lwanga, an especially inspirational leader of the Christians, intending to make an example of him and scare some of the young men into backing down from their fierce loyalty to Christianity. He separated Lwanga from the others and built his fire in such a way that death would be slow and agonizing, hoping and expecting to hear nothing but screams of pain. Instead he – and everyone else – heard Charles Lwanga tell the executioner that instead of his feeding the fire, it felt like the executioner was pouring cool water on him.

A beautiful church now stands at the site, as well as a pavilion in the middle of a small lake on the property, and a sculpture depicting the death of Charles Lwanga. June 3 is the date on which the anniversary of the holocaust is honored, and people come from all over Africa – not just Uganda – to take part in the ceremony.

Hearing the story of Charles Lwanga and the other Ugandan martyrs inspired and strengthened me in a way that’s hard to explain. Part of it had to do with my Catholic faith, and with stories that were part of my education as I was growing up but that I was seeing now in a different way and from a different perspective. And part of it had to do with the fact that – other than Egypt, and its role in Biblical history – I never really thought of Africa in terms of saints and martyrs and people who shared my faith and upbringing.

In a way, visiting the Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs brought me closer to a group of people that I’ve known about all my life, but who always seemed more like characters from fictional literature than like people who really existed. Not that I ever doubted whether any of the martyrs I learned about in school really lived.

It’s ironic that I had to go all the way to Africa to learn this, but it’s just one more example of the inspiring and enlightening experiences that can be found there. It’s one more of the many reasons that Uganda has become so dear to my heart. And it’s one more way of seeing how much we can learn –about ourselves – from others.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on September 5, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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