By Denis Jjuuko

This past Sunday, hundreds of thousands of mainly Christians turned up at the Uganda Martyrs Shrine in Namugongo to commemorate the killing of the early converts for disobeying the instructions of their king. It is one of the biggest events in Uganda attracting people from many walks of life. The majority of people who attend this event are actually from Uganda. For about a month or so, Ugandans have been walking many kilometres to be at Namugongo for the event.

The event, which is mass punctuated with speeches takes a few hours and the pilgrims then return to their homes. I must confess, I last attended the Uganda Martyrs day event I think in 1998. Since then, I only watch it on TV and follow on social media. I don’t live very far from the Catholic Shrine and on the days I attend Church, I go there sometimes. I was actually wedded there.

I keenly follow the Namugongo event. The Catholic Shrine now looks decent even though it is surrounded with all sorts of houses and structures — a harsh reminder of our poor town planning.

Like any events of such a magnitude, billions are spent to ensure that nobody rocks the boat. However, it is hard to know how much the country makes back. The people who walk to Namugongo from as far as Rukungiri or Lira spend the nights mainly within the vast compound of Namugongo. Apart from buying some cheap food and drinks, I doubt that there is much that the economy makes from them. These are people who walk to Namugongo and some even claim they have no transport to take them back from wherever they came from. Many are herded on trucks like goats.

I will be honest. The majority of people who walk to Namugongo are poor. Poor and uneducated people will believe that walking 400km to Namugongo while reciting the rosary will do magic in their lives. So it is high time Namugongo attracted other people as well. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying poor people shouldn’t go on pilgrimages but the country should get a decent return on its investment.

There aren’t very many decent hotels in the Namugongo area. We could start by giving tax deductions to anybody building a big hotel or tourism centre in Namugongo area as a way of attracting investment. I am aware that when you are building a hotel, you are already given such incentives but something can be added for those building specifically in Namugongo. And when people stay in this hotel, their buses could be given special stickers to ensure that tourists don’t struggle to get into Namugongo. This could actually make people come as families and spend the time together.

Airlines flying into Uganda from countries where most pilgrims come from could be given incentives for each passenger they bring in. This will require systematic marketing in those countries by partnering tour agents. I hope that we have some statistics on where most non-Ugandans come from.

And Namugongo should not be just a one-day event on June 3 like it is now. Because honestly, you can’t fly in from far away and come to attend mass for three hours, listen to some speeches and then it is done. The marketing teams should create a week-long event that culminates into the massive celebration on June 3. For example, when tourists arrive in Entebbe, they are taken to Kigungu where the first white fathers docked, then taken to some of the locations where the martyrs came from, to the Kabaka’s palace, Lubaga Cathedral, Lubya Nabulagala where Fr Simeon Loudel (Mapeera) lived, to the Shrine in Munyonyo, and many other such places. A building like Mapeera could have telescopes on its top most floor from which one can see some parts of the routes the martyrs where taken through. Then on June 3, buses drive from the hotels to the easiest place to disembark at Namugongo. Special zones for such tourists could be designed and their experience enhanced. You don’t want to fly in from wherever for many hours and then attend the event from Kyaliwajjala because of poor access.

After that, we could recreate some local menu for the tourists to enjoy. If we looked back into history, it would be easy to find out what kind of meals prisoners of the day were fed on. That meal could be served to these tourists in the same away it was served albeit with adjustments to match today’s reality.

These places must have well trained guides who can tell the particular martyr’s story. Tourism is about story telling and we cannot fail to have such people. They must also be well paid so that they don’t turn into beggars like most guards in Kampala. If we strategically rethink the Uganda martyrs, the country could earn lots of revenue and create many jobs.

The writer is a communication and visibility consultant. djjuuko@gmail.com

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