In lieu of Memorial Day, we have two holidays back-to-back—namely Martyrs’ Day and Heroes’ Day. I am unclear on the meaning of Heroes’ Day (which we celebrate on Monday), but it has been suggested that, lacking any other special vestment, I might get away with simply wearing my underwear outside of my trousers. Stay tuned for the photos to be posted.
Martyrs’ Day, on the other hand, we celebrated on Tuesday past with all due ceremony and finery. The details of this day are still murky to me, though the basic outline was given to me by a friend. He said that it remembered a handful of Christian men who refused to bow to the king of Buganda (one of the tribes that make up the country of Uganda), saying that they rightly owed worship to no one but the true king, Jesus. For this they were killed, the king of Buganda supposing that Jesus was some earthly king who might be his rival for the throne. Anyone who has regular access to Wikipedia may feel free to set the story straight in the comments below, but that seems at least to be the popular understanding around here.
Thus, every year many people from our area journey to Namalu, our local trading center, where there is a Catholic church, and participate in the service there. Several choirs from various places in Karamoja lead in song, traditional Karimojong dancers participate in leopard skins and ostrich-feather hats, politicians come to make speeches, and the rank-and-file Karimojong get dressed up in their finest clothes and come out for the spectacle.
As I rode my bicycle to Namalu, I passed hundreds of people walking along the road in their skirts and beads. Men wearing suits (the insanity of it, in this weather) rode bicycles to town as well. When I arrived in Namalu, I stowed my ride at the shop of a church member, Lomilo, and sat to talk with him for awhile. As he related to story of the Martyrs to me, his store was doing brisk business as every young woman come to town had to have a new pair of earrings before going to prayers.
Usually, some members of the mission come to the service in a vehicle, and the scene that this causes brings us to the attention of the powers that be, and we are gently compelled to sit as dignitaries in the front row of the service. Going alone this year, I managed to avoid this and was able to fit in as one of the common people (just happening to be the only white person there).
The Mass lasted about three hours with several speeches from the visiting dignitaries tacked on at the end. And after that, everyone (those who weren’t staying in town for various revelries) started making their way home. On the ride back, I found myself wondering how many of those in attendance are Catholic faithful, how many even understand the significance of the story of the martyrs, and how many (like myself) are simply there for the spectacle. In the end, I was thankful to have been a participant in one of our local cultural events. We often find ourselves so separated from our neighbors, that it’s good to share what common experiences we can. I passed many friends on the road and saw many more in the crowd, sharing the day with them in the simple costume of a neighbor.