Uganda: Namugongo Remains Deserted Ahead of Martyrs Day Festivities

A s Uganda marks Martyrs Day celebrations on June 3, traders have suffered losses for the second year running since pilgrims have been barred from selling their merchandise around the shrine.

Many people make pilgrimage to Namugongo, and for decades, traders around the area and other parts of the country tap into business opportunities to make huge profits.

The businesses included soft drinks, rosaries, jewellery, clothes, and eats. Bars, restaurants and meat roasting.

But the economy has slowed down due to the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government last year cancelled all public celebrations, including those for Martyrs Day as a measure to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Pilgrims come to pay homage to a group of 45 Anglican and Catholic Martyrs, who were executed during the persecution of Christians under Kabaka Mwanga II between 1885 and 1887.

Many of these pilgrims hail from neighbouring countries, including the DR Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and South Sudan.

This year, the numbers have been restricted to 200 pilgrims in both shrines.

At the Catholic shrine on Sunday evening, the place looked forlorn.

Low sales

At the entrance to the shrine, a lone Christian stood watching pensively. He kept calling passersby to buy the holy rosary and other relics on display.

The man, who only identified himself as Charles, said previously, he would make a lot of money during the celebrations.

"This year is terrible. This place is empty like last year. By this time, this place would already be full with pilgrims, but now we are counting losses," he says.

"I used to meet different people who became my friends, but now we are losing contacts because many stay very far away from here. They would only come around on Martyrs Day," he says.

"I used to make about Shs500,000 in profits per day selling these things, but the situation has now changed," he adds.

Opposite the Catholic shrine, the place that usually beams with people is dull.

There are no makeshift eating places, no mobile studios that dominated the area in previous years and no mass movement of people.

Mr Cirilo Walukamba, a passerby, said the pandemic has had a heavy impact on the economy as well as people's businesses.

Mr Walukamba said prior to the lockdown, they would make a killing during the Martyrs Day celebrations.

"For the last six years, I used to set up my stall and sell different things from that place (points to an empty space), including beer, soda, water and food. I would make good money within two weeks, but last year, we were not allowed to come here. I thought this year we would be allowed to set up business, but now we are told only 200 people will be allowed," Mr Walukamba said.


These are not isolated cases. Namugongo's surrounding areas of Kyaliwajjala, Kira, Sonde and Naalya, among others have been affected.

Crane Garden that serves pork and drinks used to attract hundreds of pilgrims, but it has resorted to attending to only regular customers and closes at 9pm due to curfew .

Previously, the place used to operate for 24 hours during the celebrations.

"In 2019, when I came here in the week of June 3, there were no chairs because the place was always full but where did the customers go?" a customer asked.

"Coronavirus and the government chased away our customers. This time I would be getting tips from my new customers, but this year it is not there," the waitress replied.

A supervisor at the joint said they would increase the number of staff and number of pigs slaughtered.

"You can assess the situation. This time you would not get a place to sit if the celebrations were on," he said.

On Sunday morning, a lady at a supermarket near the Catholic shrine sat at the counter, waiting for customers. By 10am, she had only received 10 customers and wasn't expecting many.

"We used to have everything for everybody depending on what they could afford. During this period, my bosses would even employ more people, but we are only three and people are not coming. Our boss used to give us bonus for good work done, but we missed that last year and we are missing it this year," she said.

Small businesses that used to make a killing for close to a month during the celebrations have all disappeared.

Accommodation facilities around Namugongo have not been spared either.

In previous years, Uganda Tourism Board partnered with a number of hotels to provide cheaper accommodation. However, this year, no such promotions are on offer and many rooms have remained empty.

At Unik Hotel on Kireka-Namugongo road, majority of the rooms have been empty.

An employee at the hotel, who preferred anonymity, said they used to receive bookings four months in advance, but for the past two years, the bookings have been low because of the lockdown.

"The number of staff has been reduced. We are struggling and I hope next year, there will be no restriction," she said.

Tourism trail silent

In 2014, Uganda Tourism Board in conjunction with the Catholic and Anglican Churches developed the Martyrs' trails, which over the years have become a hit for religious tourists.

The Uganda Martyrs Trail takes a tourist through different places where the first Christian missionaries passed and preached from, and where some of the Uganda Martyrs were killed before their bodies were burnt at Namugongo.

However, because of the lockdown and restrictions on numbers, the trails have largely remained inactive.

Ms Lilly Ajarova, the chief executive officer of Uganda Tourism Board, was not available to comment on the impact.

Ms Claire Mugabi, the board's marketing manager, said she had personal engagements and was not in position to offer an account of the impact of restrictions on tourism.

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