Want to take your Christian religious travel outside the usual European box? Head for Africa.
When you think of religious travel for Christians, what destinations come to your mind?
Maybe those portions of the Middle East we’ve come to know collectively as the Holy Land? Perhaps Europe, starting with Rome and Vatican City, and working your way through France, Spain or Armenia, the world’s first officially Christian nation?
Africa may not leap to your mind when it comes to this kind of travel. And that’s too bad, because it should.
IBIT readers already know about Ethiopia, a country whose Christian roots go so deep that the country is mentioned by name in the Bible.
Are you one of the many young Black Americans taking an interest in the Kushites, the Black African pharaohs who came up from what is now Sudan and ruled Egypt for a hundred years?
These days, tourism in Sudan is only for the most intrepid adventurous souls. But one day, you’ll be able to visit the ancient Kushite capital of Meroë, a UN World Heritage Site where you’ll find more than 200 pyramids.
Egypt’s Coptic Christians can claim to be among the earliest Christian churches in the world, and you can find Copts today in more than a half-dozen African countries, but in just as many European nations and as far away as Australia and the United States.
But perhaps nowhere in Africa is Christian commemoration more poignant — or more tightly melded with the bitter history of European colonialism — than in Uganda, where traditional kings felt their kingdoms under threat from three different alien religions — Catholics, Protestants and Islam.
While his predecessors tried to hold their kingdoms together by playing off the three different religions against one another, King Mwanga II apparently felt the Christians posed the greatest threat to his realm. He went at them head-on, expelling missionaries and even arranging the assassination of an archbishop from the Church of England.
To his own people who converted to Christianity, Mwanga offered bitter terms: Renounce the Europeans’ faith and return to the old ways, or die.
Twenty converted Ugandan Catholics chose the church. Mwanga had them taken to a place called Namugongo. There, they were bound, wrapped in bamboo reeds, thrown onto a bonfire and burned alive. That was in 1886.
They were among 45 Catholic and Anglican converts in Uganda between 1885 and 1887 who opted for martyrdom.
Mwanga eventually went to war twice against the British colonizers, losing both times, ultimately to die in exile in what is now Tanzania.
You know the rest of the story. Uganda ultimately became a British colony. But Ugandans would not forget those who had held onto their newfound beliefs to the death.
They built a shrine at Namugongo, a few miles northeast of the Ugandan capital city, Kampala, to the men now known as The Ugandan Martyrs.
Every year, Catholics from Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond the Mother Continent converge on the shrine for an annual pilgrimage that begins May 25 and culminates with Martyrs Day on June 3, a national holiday in Uganda. Millions of people take part, many of them walking for miles — and for weeks — to reach the shrine.
Vatican City didn’t forget its African converts, either. The 20 martyred Ugandans were canonized as saints in 1964.
For more information on the Martyrs’ Day pilgrimage and how you can take part, visit Trips by Greg or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If Ugandans did not forget their Catholic martyrs, neither did they forget their ancient kings, including Mwanga.
In what is now the Kasubi district of central Kampala, they built the Tombs of the Buganda Kings. It’s a UN World Heritage Site, and here’s how they describe it:
“The Tombs of Buganda Kings at Kasubi constitute a site embracing almost 30 (hectares) of hillside within Kampala district. Most of the site is agricultural, farmed by traditional methods.
“The site is the major spiritual centre for the Baganda where traditional and cultural practices have been preserved. The Kasubi Tombs are the most active religious place in the kingdom, where rituals are frequently performed. Its place as the burial ground for the previous four kings (Kabakas) qualifies it as a religious centre for the royal family, a place where the Kabaka and his representatives carry out important rituals related to Buganda culture. The site represents a place where communication links with the spiritual world are maintained.”
The Namugongo shrine and the Kasubi tombs are close enough that a traveler could visit both on the same day.
Whether it’s Africa’s own unique and original strains of Christianity or European worship transplanted to African lands, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to witness both history and your faith on the Mother Continent. Because when it came to Africa and the world’s religions, people’s faith and their freedom were equally at stake.
Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency.