Fresh from school I spent half a year teaching English at St Kizito Minor Seminary in Malawi. It would have been longer, but the work permit proved hard to obtain. Looking back, I suspect I was supposed to bribe somebody, but was too wet behind the ears to pick up whatever hint was given. The school was run for the diocese of Dedza by the Missionaries of Africa, or White Fathers (named for their Arab-style white robes), an order founded in Algiers in 1868. For those few months I lived in a clerical compound along with four aging Missionaries of Africa (the headmaster, the bursar, a Latin teacher, and a vigorous French Canadian who did a lot of work in the nearby parishes), two diocesan priests, a seminarian, and a lay missionary from the United States. A number of lay teachers, professional educators with families of their own, came in on a daily basis. The school itself was a large quadrangle, with a chapel at one end, teachers' offices at the other, and ground-floor classrooms along either side with dormitories above. Off the quadrangle were workshops and the boys' refectory. The bursar ran a pig farm nearby, and employed a number of men in the workshops. On Wednesday afternoons the boys hoed the fields belonging to the school. The establishment was relatively self-sufficient – certainly compared to any other school I have ever been to.
Despite all the usual precautions I did come down with malaria; which was unpleasant but short-lived, and has not recurred. From the comfort of a full recovery I think I would rather be able to say I have had malaria than never have had it at all, but it is a vicious disease that can be devastating to the under-nourished or those with weakened immunity. I was far from under-nourished; in fact the constant diet of maize paste (nsima), yams, groundnuts and pork, regularly supplemented with Malawi Carlsberg, cost me my youthful slenderness. I returned to Europe in July, for my sister's wedding, and that autumn matriculated at St Peter's College, Oxford, where the dining hall was named Hannington Hall. It took a while to register with me, but there is an important connection between the St Kizito to whom the Malawian school was dedicated, and the James Hannington for whom the Oxford dining hall was named.
Kizito was Catholic and Hannington was Anglican, but both were among the victims of a short-lived but intense persecution unleashed against Christians by the teenaged Mwanga II, King of Buganda, in 1885–86. Hannington, the first Anglican Bishop of East Africa, was assassinated en route to his see in October 1885. Joseph Mukasa, a Catholic chamberlain at Mwanga's court, was killed in November for openly criticizing the murder. The main persecution came in the spring of 1886, sparked by Christian pages at court resisting the sexual advances of their king and some of his friends. The king, himself only 18 or 19, was convinced that it was his prerogative to use or lend his servants as he saw fit, but Christian morality had convinced these boys otherwise. Kizito was the youngest of them, aged 13 or 14 when he was burnt alive for his attachment to his sexual integrity.
Over the following years King Mwanga was deposed, reconquered the throne, was deposed again, and died in exile as an Anglican, with the baptismal name Daniel.
The Catholics among the Ugandan Martyrs were canonized in 1964 by Paul VI, as "Charles Lwanga and companions" (after the 25-year-old catechist among the pages). In 1969 Paul VI became the first pope to visit Africa, specifically to bless the altars at their shrine (from which the picture above is taken; a recent video of the shrine can be found on YouTube). Here is a short excerpt from his brief homily on the latter occasion:
But, you will ask me, why should the Martyrs be honoured?
And I answer you: It is because they have performed the most heroic, and therefore the greatest and most beautiful of all actions; they have, as I said, laid down their lives for their Faith, that is, for their religion and for the freedom of their conscience. Therefore they are our champions, our heroes, our teachers. They teach us how real Christians should be. Listen to me now: Should a Christian be a coward? Should he be afraid? Should he betray his own Faith? No! Of course not! Your Martyrs teach us just how true Christians should be, especially young Christians, African Christians. For Christians must be courageous, they must be strong, they must, as Saint Peter wrote, “be firm in the faith” (1 Pet. 5, 9). Your Martyrs teach us how much the Faith is worth!
Pope Paul clearly had a great veneration for these young martyrs who were, for the most part, killed for resisting the sexual violence of the politically powerful. Pope Francis celebrated mass at their shrine in November last year, and also visited the shrine to the Anglican martyrs. Perhaps it is just me not noticing, but I would have thought rather more could be made of the ecumenical aspect of these witnesses to a shared Christian teaching.
Their feast day is 3 June. It is a national holiday in Uganda.
If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.