Kenya adds to number of Uganda Martyrs as road carnage toll rises

Wednesday March 18 2020
By Austin Bukenya

Today we will talk matters of faith, sorrowful, joyful and provocative. “Pwagu pwaguzi (senior thief meets master thief),” the Waswahili say. In Kenya we never tire of expressing our disgust at the horrid, reckless and undisciplined habits of many of our drivers, which unfortunately lead to the loss of many lives on our roads.


But the last two decades that I have been plying the roads of Kenya’s western neighbour leave me wondering if Ugandan drivers are really not the mapwaguzi (master-killers) of East African roads. Recently, four Kenyans were added to the number of Ugandan Christian Martyrs.

The Kenyans were killed by a Ugandan rogue matatu driver who hit them head-on as they walked in a large group to Namugongo, near Kampala, to celebrate the memory of the Martyrs. Many of their colleagues were badly injured.

This matter was so serious that even Ugandan President Museveni mentioned it in his message to the Congregation at Namugongo on June 3. He even noted it later in his State of the Nation Address, where he requested from the Ugandan Parliament and other dignitaries a minute of silence in honour of the fallen Kenyan Pilgrims.

I told you, a few years ago, about this Ugandan Martyrs Pilgrimage, celebrated in early June each year. It in honour the scores of early Muslim and Christian converts who were burnt, speared, clobbered or hacked to death at Namugongo and a few surrounding areas on the orders of Kings Muteesa I and, especially, Mwanga II in the late 1800s. The victims’ crime was their conversion to the new religions in defiance of the absolute and supreme power of the Kings.

The Pilgrimage has grown bigger and bigger with time, and this year an estimated three million people congregated at the Martyrs’ Basilica and other places of worship in Namugongo on June 3. Many believers from distant areas of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and other neighbouring countries choose to walk all the way to Namugongo, some covering hundreds of kilometres. This is not only in honour of the Martyrs but also an expression of their faith, bequeathed to them from their heroic predecessors.


Kenyan foot pilgrims are a conspicuous feature of the Namugongo celebrations. Setting off from their churches, especially in the Counties of Kisumu, Kisii, Kakamega, Bungoma and Busia, they assemble at the border and enter Uganda in a banner-waving, cross-carrying, prayer-chanting and hymn-singing mammoth crowd. They are truly a spectacle to behold as they embark on their three or four-day final trek to Namugongo.

It was on this stretch, as they headed for the Nile-bank city of Jinja, that the murderous matatu maniacal driver struck. You cannot call it an accident, because it is unimaginable that any driver worth the name could plough into a thick crowd of people walking towards him, on the opposite side of the road, and kill and injure several of them before he could control his vehicle. To me, it looks like an act of terrorism.

Unfortunately, such “accidents” are very common and frequent out there, because of a blatant lack of discipline, self-respect, care and responsibility among our drivers and in the populace at large. Driving in Kampala and on the country’s highways in general seems to be an act of “survival of the bloodiest”. Nobody seems to heed the traffic laws, rules and regulations. Most drivers and boda boda riders do not seem to even know that they exist.

Then there are the saboteurs. These specialise in stealing and vandalising road signs, traffic lights and security fences and fenders. There is, for example, a newly built four-lane expressway from Kampala to Entebbe, which has greatly eased the traffic flow between the cities. The Chinese builders of the road erected a lovely security fence of concrete poles and chain-link wire on both sides of it all along the way, to prevent people and animals from straying onto the road.


Today, there is hardly a patch of chain-link wire along the thirty-or-so kilometre road. It has all been stolen, stripped off the poles, to be sold as scrap metal to the grateful dealers. What kind of people are we? If people can steal public property in the open, even from directly in front of people’s houses, how much is being stolen behind the scenes, where we cannot look?

If people do not mind endangering travellers by removing and ruining warning, direction and security fixtures on the roads, how and why should they care about the safety or lives of other road-users who “get in their way” when they are powering their killer machines on the road? Incidentally, the natives there often warn you never to try to cross a street at a zebra crossing, because that is where you are most likely to be hit by a speeding object!

Back to the Kenyan pilgrims, the ones killed this year were not the first to perish on the pilgrimage. Another Kenyan was similarly hit and killed some years ago in the middle of the Mabira Forest, about 50 kilometres east of Namugongo. Kenyan pilgrims stop at the spot every year and offer special prayers in honour and memory of their departed compatriot.

Those responsible for declaring exemplary believers as saints of God should consider elevating these Kenyan pilgrims to the rank of martyrs and saints, as soon as possible. “Santi subito (saints at once)”, as they say at the Vatican. Maybe they would then pray for our people and the land of the martyrs to come to their social senses and true care for one another.

Incidentally, Mama Maria Nyerere was in Namugongo again this year, to pray for her late husband, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s recognition as a true servant of God. But Mama was taken ill during the pilgrimage and had to be urgently flown back to a hospital in Dar es Salaam.

Incidentally, I live, literally, in the backyard of the Uganda Martyrs’ Shrine, and I am in constant touch with them.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]