After Idi Amin and AIDS, here was another horror story out of Uganda. European, American, and even Australian news crews descended on the hapless village of Kanungu to report on the unfathomable depths of the tragedy.
But was it really unfathomable? Apart from its similarity to the paths chosen by other doomsday cults across the world--including the 1978 Jonestown murder-suicide of 914 people--the current situation in Uganda might be looked upon as a further act in the African nation's turbulent relationship with imported religions, particularly the various branches of Christianity.
Deep in the psychological recesses of the country's religious personality, there lurks a disturbing memory from the earliest days of Christian proselytising in the area.
Uganda is the only African country that boasts a roster of 22 saints, canonized by the late Pope Paul VI in 1964. The 22 men in question were among several hundred Ugandans martyred for their nascent religious faith in the 1880s. They met their deaths by hacking, bludgeoning--or in fiery pits, to which they were consigned by the ruling monarch of the dominant kingdom, the kabaka of Buganda, as the region was then known.
When the first Christian missionaries arrived in Buganda in 1877, they found the Islamic faith already established at the court of Kabaka Mutesa I. Islam had been imported by Arab and Swahili traders from the coastal region, and was a first introduction to literacy for Buganda.By the time the first Christian missionaries arrived, however, Mutesa had begun to resent the strict letter of Islamic law that was now being imposed by a group of Muslim fundamentalists who had recently arrived from Egypt. This new brand of Islam would not allow any compromise with the existing religious beliefs of the Buganda.
According to Bugandan law, the kabaka's blood could not be shed. The king, therefore, could not be circumcised, as demanded by Islamic law. This meant that religious observances that had been led by the king under a more easygoing Muslim regime, including the slaughter of livestock for human consumption, could no longer be accepted as being carried out by a true Muslim. The meat of beasts slain by the kabaka could no longer be considered halal.
The kabaka's more devout Muslim subjects, including some of his own courtiers, began to refuse to eat meat slaughtered by the king. This constituted treason, and the kabaka had no alternative but to order the killing of more than 70 of his rebellious subjects at the execution hill of Namugongo.
The arrival of Anglican missionaries in 1877 promised the king some respite from his troubles, since this new religion did not appear to impose such strict and personally insulting conditions. However, the appearance at court of a rival group of Catholic missionaries a few months later introduced further complexities.
The two Christian groups fell into bitter conflict over potential converts, their different interpretations of the same Bible too subtle for the king to comprehend. He allowed both groups to continue to function, but refrained from being personally baptised into either faction.
Mutesa's son, Mwanga, inherited this kingdom of conflicting religions in 1884. By this time, it had begun to seem as if all these seemingly benign foreign influences, Islamic and Christian alike, were advance guards for forces attempting to colonize the lands of the Buganda.
Mwanga's reign began in an atmosphere of justifiable paranoia. And yet he, like his father, had encouraged the young men of the court, and the chiefs of the outlying districts, to adopt the new religions in the interests of education and worldly enlightenment. Now the beast whose creation he had encouraged began to turn on him.
Publicly, today in Uganda the martyrdom of the young men of the kabaka's court is presented in terms of a religious/political conflict: In accepting the higher authority of God, they denigrated the ultimate authority of the monarch and had to be put to death.
However, in private a darker story emerges. Kabaka Mwanga, it is said, took it as his right to have sexual relations with his courtiers.
When these young men, inspired by the teachings of the new Christian religions, refused to comply, the kabaka's rage was as much due to personal slight as to a perceived contempt for the head of state.
Whatever the case, the young men in question were arrested and called upon to renounce the religion that had led them into this defiance. When they refused, they were marched to the execution grounds of Namugongo, where they were given a further seven days' grace while the execution fire was being prepared in a specially dug pit. The young converts stuck to their faith.
At dawn on June 3, 1886, the furnace was lit. The unrepentant believers were bound up in reed mats and thrown onto the flames. It is said that they clasped their hands and sang the hymns of their newfound faith until the flames consumed them. (Of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Buganda who suffered this fate, only the 22 Catholic converts who died on that day were canonized. The rest remain rank-and-file martyrs.)
Today's Christian texts in Uganda describe the ordeal of those early martyrs as a "true baptism of fire and spirit."
The motives of whoever ordered the latest Ugandan holocaust remain obscure. And yet, in some awful way at Kanungu, that motif of the early Buganda martyrs was brought to terrible life once more.