There are some places in the world that have the most astonishing power to lift heart and mind to God. One such, in Europe, is Lourdes, and one particular spot in Lourdes too: I mean the cachot, the now sanitised slum in which St Bernadette lived at the time of the apparitions. That tiny semi-basement, where the whole family lived in one room, speaks volumes to me.
There are other places too, in Africa. For a start, Namugongo, outside Kampala, the place of execution used by the Kabaka of Buganda, where the Martyrs of Uganda suffered the extreme penalty for their faith. Their feast was this week past, and one feels, several years after visiting the place of their martyrdom, and after hearing their story, that these saints should be better known. For the account of their martyrdom is truly inspirational. The feast of the Martyrs is observed as a public holiday in Uganda, as is right and proper, and one can see accounts of the most recent celebrations, with a lot of photographs, here.
What about Uganda in more recent times? After visiting Namugongo, I travelled to the north of the country, to Gulu, a town in the middle of the countryside ravaged by Joseph Kony and his terrorist gang called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Gulu is an important provincial centre, with an imposing cathedral and several seminaries and schools dedicated to the Ugandan Martyrs; and there is also a hospital. Some years previously, there had been an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Gulu. This terrible virus kills people very quickly, and when it breaks out the usual response of those who can do so is to flee. And so many must have done. But in the hospital grounds, under a peaceful tree, is a memorial to the doctors and nurses who stayed to look after the afflicted and paid the price. They were all Catholics, and they could have left, they could have tried to save themselves. But they stayed, and died, and there they are buried. Greater love than this…. I think there are few more powerful spots on the planet than under that quiet tree.
I have rummaged through the archives and found what I wrote about that trip to Gulu, back in March 2007.
“As if the rebels of the LRA were not enough to cope with, in the final months of 2000 the Ebola virus swept through the town and its refugee population, with devastating effect. Many fled, but in the hospital some stayed to tend the sick and died of the virus themselves. Their memorial is under a tree in the hospital grounds, next to a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. In the shade of that tree I took down their names: being well known in heaven, they ought to be better known on earth. They were: Grace Akullo, Simon Victor Ojok, Hellen Ongebo, Santina Areyemo, Immaculate Auma, Sister Pierina Asienzo, Christine Ajok, Daniel Anyetla, Monica Nyeko Aol, Margaret Odota, Florence Kiya, Christine Lanyero and Dr Matthew Christopher Lukwiya. These 13 names to my mind show that Christianity has taken root in Uganda; and you are conscious as you read them that you have come to a place, as T S Eliot says, where prayer has been valid. To stand in this spot is reason enough to come to Gulu.”
And reason enough, I think, one day to return.