by the Revd Dr Nick Bundock, Team Rector of St James & Emmanuel, Didsbury
The ‘Shrine of the Martyrs’ is located in Namugongo, which is a township about 16 kilometres north-east of Kampala, Uganda’s capital city and one of the largest metropolitan areas in Africa.
There are in fact two shrines at Namugongo, one Anglican and one Catholic, and they commemorate the loss of 45 young men who were burned to death in 1886 by the King of Buganda for refusing to renounce Christianity. It’s a moving and uniquely African site of devotion. Such is its importance that in 2015 a crowd of two million gathered to pray there with Pope Francis. But this incredible site of Christian pilgrimage hides a deeper story because many of the men who were burned in the fires of martyrdom were courtiers who had refused the king’s sexual advances. The Shrines at Namugongo reflect not only the power of Christian devotion but also the complex and difficult relationship of Ugandan same-sex sexuality.
It was on Thursday 20th February this year that I found myself in a taxi, without a working seatbelt, racing down a Ugandan highway with two dear friends, Rob Eloff, an ordinand at St Mellitus and Kevin Lowe , the father of Lizzie Lowe, a gay teenager who took her own life in September 2014. An unlikely band of travellers on an equally unlikely mission.
The sun is so strong in this part of equatorial Africa that the pale-skinned burn even through glass. I could feel my legs singeing as we came to halt in the Kampala traffic. The cars were thick on the roads and they were coughing out fumes into the Ugandan streets. Our destination was Namugongo, but not ostensibly to visit the shrines. We had another destination that day. Off the beaten track, down roads that defied Google Maps, was a residential compound surrounded by a high wall and a sliding metal gate. This was our destination. We really didn’t know what we were coming to and in our nervousness we’d given the others in our party (safely back in the luxury of a western-style hotel in Entebbe) a constant mobile phone lock on our location – just in case.
As the taxi pulled up and came to halt, I reflected on how we’d come to be in this unlikely place. Two months previously, in the safety of my study in Didsbury, Manchester, the Facebook invitation to visit Tom Twongeirwe in Kampala had seemed like a good one. I’ve had a lot of communication from LGBT+ advocacy groups in the years since Lizzie took her life but not, I confess, from Africa and so Tom’s communication piqued my interest. We chatted across the internet for some weeks before I eventually revealed to him that I would be with eleven others from my church on a trip to Uganda in February, visiting a long-supported children’s crisis centre in the beautiful Virunga Mountains. Perhaps we could meet, however briefly, on our way back to the airport just before our flight home?
And so here we were, the three of us in a taxi in the middle of this Kampala suburb and within walking distance of the Namugongo shrines. What Tom revealed to us in the hours we spent with him and his colleagues will remain vivid in my memory and has prompted me to write this short reflection. Disturbingly, in the exquisitely beautiful country of Uganda, the Pearl of Africa, there are still martyrs being made in the twenty-first century and the issue is still about sex and faith.
For many in Uganda there is a commonly held theory that homosexuality is a Western ‘disease’ that is not indigenous to their country, that it’s an import totally alien to their culture and values. The Namugongo shrines tell a different story, of course. The ironic fact that Ugandan Christianity incorporated the nineteenth century European Church’s teaching on homosexuality is written into the blood of the martyrs and is just as strong today.
The Ugandan Pentecostal pastor, Martin Ssempa, an outspoken supporter of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill (2009), in recalling the blood of the Ugandan martyrs, has demanded the blood of the ‘gays’ and invoked true Ugandans to die rather than surrender their moral convictions to Western imperialism. Not many indulge in such outspoken invective, but St James and Emmanuel has its own painful experience of being rejected by the Anglican bishops of the Ugandan church. The punitive legislation that was eventually passed in 2014 was supported by the vast majority of Pentecostal, Anglican, Catholic and Muslim leaders in Uganda before it was struck down by the Supreme Court of Uganda on a technicality. Even today, however, you can receive life imprisonment for ‘carnal knowledge against the order of nature’ or seven years for ‘gross indecency’.
In a softly spoken presentation in the converted garage of that compound in the shadow of the Namugongo shrines Tom told us about the realities of life for LGBT+ Ugandans. Many, of course spend their lives in the shadows of shame, many married, never daring to confess their true feelings. Those who do ‘come out’ are almost immediately rejected from the family home and their existing poverty is compounded by a desperate lack of training and employment opportunities.
As Tom himself eloquently told us: ‘LGBTI persons in Uganda are dismissed and disowned by their biological families no matter at what age they are because they are regarded as a shame and a curse to the family and the community. These people who are especially between 15-25 find nowhere to go other than the streets, no shelter, no food and no hope for the future. The end result is them engaging in crimes like robbery and having unprotected sex work for survival. During the course (sic), some contract HIV and others commit suicide.’
Tom is now the National Coordinator for the Universal Coalition for Affirming Africans Uganda (UCAA-UG). He is a very brave young man surrounded by a small team of very brave colleagues. They told us about their new project ‘Thrive’ which has four main aims. Firstly, they want to rent out safe houses where the queer and rejected can be safe and receive mental health support, re-learn the art of self-care and begin to recover their self-esteem. Secondly, they want to offer peer support to gay-affirming religious leaders in Uganda, many of whom are afraid to challenge the status quo. Thirdly, they want to engage in spiritual direction for LGBT+ persons. At the core of the UCAA-UG mission is a message of Christian love for the queer person. Fourthly, they want to offer basic skills such as hairdressing so that LGBT+ Ugandans can make their own way in the world. This is a huge task and they asked if we would put our shoulders to the wheel to help them start. We will.
As we left the compound and got back into the dusty taxi for the journey home we asked the driver to stop at the Catholic Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs – it would be ridiculous to get so close and to simply pass it by. At the heart of this sacred site there is a basilica and at the very centre of the building there is an altar. It marks the exact spot where the first martyr was slow-burned in 1886. The death of the Ugandan martyrs ‘the seed of the Church’ led to one of the most Christian countries on earth, if one of the poorest.
As we sped back along the highway to Entebbe and the air-conditioned rooms and luxury pool of our hotel, I had one final reflection. Ugandan societal norms about homosexuality are controlled by an almost unbreakable triangle. On one corner is a legislature determined to punish homosexual Ugandans in the severest terms. On another corner there are long established societal prejudices whereby gay children are expelled from the community in shame and dishonour. But the final corner is occupied by the Church and it’s unflinching teaching on the moral evil of same-sex love. This trinity of Ugandan culture is crushing and destroying lives, including the lives of young Ugandans with nowhere to turn.
When conservatives in the West blithely support the latest pronouncements from GAFCON do they have any idea what that means for actual people in Uganda? Do they appreciate that a whole new generation of martyrs are being created in Namugongo?
What I witnessed in Kampala and in the beautiful lives of Tom and his colleagues goes way beyond ‘inclusion’. They are fighting for justice and conservatives would do well to think on that before pouring ignorant fuel on the fires of Ugandan culture that have been alight since 1886.
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