At first you don't notice them. They move in small bands, rarely more than 6 or 8, on the wrong side of the road. The roads in Africa are lined by pedestrians moving to and fro, but these walkers along Mbarara-Kampala highway are making the annual pilgrimage to Namagongo Church in Kampala, the site of the Uganda Martyrs
Pilgrims come from across Uganda and even beyond the borders. Groups stream along the roads from Gulu, Soroti and Arua in the north; from Kisoro, Mbarara and Masaka in the south; from Kasese, Fort Portal and Masindi in the West and Mbale, Jinja and Tororo in the East. This year groups from Sudan have been dropped inside the borders to begin their pilgrimage while Tanzanian groups move their way up from Bukoba.They come with their requests, prayers, intercessions and hopes, seeking absolution and bringing their gratitude.
Most groups cover about 40 km. a day.They travel lightly over the land--a rag- tag group bearing small plastic bags glimpsed from the vehicle as we pass. Babies still on the breast, youth with their exuberance, a 73 year old woman coming all the way from Kabale, about 400 km. to the south who started off a month early because she knew she would need frequent rest stops.
The pilgrimage looks on the surface haphazard. If you aren't paying attention you might not even notice it. We are speeding by on the road for an hour or more before I notice them. Only when I recall that it is getting close to June 3 does it dawn on me that these are the Uganda Martyr Pilgrims.There are no hiking boots, or fancy, over-stuffed backpacks, no signposts along the way or special way side stops. There are few hats and only one umbrella. Everyone carries some sort of sack or bag with many of them slung over the shoulder as Huckleberry Finn might do. No refreshment stops or sculptures adorn the route. I spot one wooden cross and a small banner carried by the Mbarara group. This pilgrimage bears little resemblance to the popular Spanish pilgrimage of Camino del Santiago! But if anything, it is even more touching in its simplicity.
Behind the scenes each group has a daily route between two churches where they will be fed and provided with somewhere to sleep. Churches are kept informed of the progress of the pilgrims by Radio Maria, the Catholic station. In the noonday heat, here at the equator, groups often pause along the way. Each year when they arrive at Namagongo Church a different diocese is responsible for hosting them. Last year it was the Karamajong Diocese, and I am told the entertainment and dancing were fabulous. It is almost impossible if you don't have a special invite to get even close to the church on June 3rd.In many ways this pilgrimage reminds me of the pilgrimage held each year in northern Alberta at Lac Ste. Anne which draws aboriginal people from many tribes and from as far away as BC, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Yukon, NWT and Ontario. From hundreds and even thousands of miles, many aboriginal groups including the Cree, Blackfoot, Dene, Sioux and Metis peoples have gathered for spiritual renewal and social and cultural rejuvenation at the end of July.
Although I worked up North with aboriginal people for many years, I only stumbled across Lac. St. Anne pilgrimage on a canoe trip on the Clearwater River years ago. Relatively unknown in the rest of Canada, Lac Ste. Anne is an important traditional summer gathering that almost certainly predates contact. It has been recently designated a National Historic site in Canada hosting more than 30,000 each year for the annual pilgrimage.
People don't talk about it a lot and don't seem to spend a lot of time planning, but whole families make their way to the site every year. Lac Ste. Anne for me captures the same sense as the Ugandan Martyrs pilgrimage. It is about a people's focus on what is truly essential, on their spiritual center. As they said on the TV here, it is a matter of faith
Photos: Uganda Martyr Pilgrims on Mbarara Kampala highway