Namugongo Martyrs’ Shrine. Wikimedia Commons

Blood Witness

The beatification of Daudi and Jildo, two young Ugandan catechists martyred in 1918, killed because they were faithful to the mandate to communicate the faith by word and by one’s life. A hope for war-torn northern Uganda.
Andrea Costanzi and Fr Fidel Gonzalez

Tertullian said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.” The Acts of the Martyrs adds, “That seed is effective leaven, fertile pollen, wheat seed, ground grain.”

These ancient Christian words become today a call to “look at the faces of the saints,” in the words of the Didache. It is also a call to turn one’s gaze to Uganda, a guiding light in the Great Lakes region, which, on October 20th, World Day of Missions, just celebrated the beatification of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, proto-martyrs of the beatified catechists of Black Africa. They speak above all in a Uganda torn apart by years of civil war.

In just one hundred years of history, Uganda has saluted, in Namugongo, near the capital Kampala, twenty-two martyrs to the Christian faith. In St Peter’s Square, the Holy Father beatified two catechists martyred by their fellow tribesmen at a place called Paimol, while they were announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the dawn of the evangelization of that region.

Daudi and Jildo are a sign of the Catholicity of the Christian faith. In the early years of the twentieth century, Daudi and Jildo continued in Africa a tradition of martyrdom that began with Perpetua, Felicity, and Cyprian, and renewed during the period of the second evangelization by the twenty-two nineteenth century martyrs who were practically the same age as Daudi and Jildo.

All of them are united in their sequela of Christ as disciples or apostles. As disciples, they encountered Christ by encountering the first missionaries, were struck by their presence, and decided to follow them. By following them, they followed Jesus and learned to live in accordance with His life. As apostles, they felt deeply the meaning of their baptism and obeyed the call, going among the pagans as missionaries. “You Africans,” said Pope Paul VI in Kampala in 1969, “be missionaries to yourselves.” The word of Jesus, announced by the missionaries, became believable because it took on flesh in their own lives.

The pre-Christian names of Daudi and Jildo were Okelo and Irwa, respectively. These are not important names nor do they have any traditional meaning. The boys seemed to share the fate of most people: to live a life so anonymous as not to leave a trace in history. Even when they were martyred, their murderers did everything possible to destroy their bodies, which were left at the mercy of the elements and the voraciousness of wild beasts (which is unheard of among the Acholi, among whom everyone, even criminals, has the right to a dignified burial after death).

The pitiless and mysterious sequence of events did not allow them to tell the story of their childhood and adolescence nor to let us know much about their lives before the age of 14 or 15. We do not even know the dates of their births. The two boys, like other Acholi children, each grew up in his own village and among his own people, Ogom-Payira in the case of Daudi and Labongo Bar Kitoba for Jildo. These places are now part of the Kitgum District. Their parents were pagans.

The Encounter
On February 11, 1915, the Feast of the Apparition of Our Lady at Lourdes, two Italian Combonian missionaries arrived in a place called Kitgum, in northern Uganda, where the Gospel was not yet known. They were Fr Antonio Vignato, from Vicenza, and Fr Giuseppe Beduschi, of Milan. A month later, two of their confreres arrived, Fr Gian Battista Pedrana and Fr Cesare Gambaretto. They settled in the midst of the people, “around the fire,” as they say there, to listen, converse, and announce the Gospel. This was something new for the Acholi, who had always lived in fear of the white people (Arabs and Europeans) they had known up to then: the abas, Arab slave traders and ivory merchants; in fear of the ever-looming power of the local wizards and sorcerers (ajwakki); and in fear of the British colonial power that had recently arrived and imposed forced labor and obligatory harvesting in the villages, an imposition that had even produced a rebellion in the mountains.

The missionaries soon began gathering together listeners in the villages, initiating a catechumenate with some of them. Jildo’s father, who later became a Christian, remembers this encounter with one of the missionaries, Fr Cesare Gambaretto: “He would visit my family often. He loved the children, and Jildo was one of the first to get to know the Father.” These were encounters of friendship. The missionary taught them the Christian prayers and spoke to them of Jesus, the Son of God, who was incarnated in the womb of the Virgin Mary and died on the cross to save us. He did this through recitation and explanation of the Rosary, telling them the history, the events. Jildo was struck by these stories and the figure of the missionary, who moved about from village to village. The two boys decided, together with others, to follow the missionary as far as Kitgum.

In Kitgum, they received a medal of Our Lady as a sign of their journey toward Baptism. They learned the catechism of Pius X, translated two years earlier into the Acholi language by the missionary Fr Pasquale Crazzolara, who would become one of the greatest African linguists. One of the witnesses in the Process of Martyrdom and a companion of Daudi testified as early as the 1920s that Daudi had brought with him a girl he intended to marry. But after some time, the girl, struck by a devastating attack of chiggers on her feet, had to return home. Daudi put her out of his mind and continued to attend catechism classes with great determination. Jildo also showed himself to be a determined boy. His father declared that he himself would take food to the catechumenate in Kitgum, because his son was so wrapped up in his new commitment as not to be concerned in the slightest with eating.

Daudi and Jildo received Baptism and Holy Communion on June 6, 1916, and on that day were given the crucifix from which they would never be parted again. These future martyrs received the faith as adolescents, but they showed the maturity of adults. The missionaries chose some of the newly baptized to train as catechists and sent them among the people in far-away villages, just as Jesus had done with His disciples. Daudi and Jildo were chosen and sent. Both of them had shown during the catechumenate their willingness to make any sacrifice in order to proclaim the salvation of Jesus Christ. They no longer wanted to return to their villages. Their parents wanted to know why. Subsequently, even though they did not understand the reasons, they respected the boys’ decision to go to the area of Paimol, a place full of peril for the life of the two young Christians.

In 1917, a year after the celebration of the sacrament of Confirmation, the two young converts were sent to Paimol, a locale situated in hilly country about fifty miles from Kitgum, with various villages, one of which, called Palamuku, would become the place of martyrdom for the two catechists. Right here, the still unknown Church, vivified by the blood of her two martyrs, would put down roots and grow until she yielded much fruit. Palamuku, after the sacrifice of Daudi and Jildo, would be called Wi-polo (“In Heaven”) by the local Christians. Their superior, Fr Gambaretto, spoke to them: “So you are willing to go to Paimol. What if they kill you?” Daudi replied, “We will go to heaven. Antonio [another catechist] is already there, isn’t he?” Jildo reiterated, “Father, you surely are not afraid like the others? Jesus and Mary are with us.” Surprised by the faith of the two youths, Fr Gambaretto went in silence into his room and came back with a catechism and a rosary for each of them. Kneeling, Daudi and Jildo received the tools of their apostolate. Together they recited a Hail Mary, and the Father blessed them and sent them to Paimol.

In Paimol, they were welcomed by the vice-chief of the clan. He offered them food, but Daudi and Jildo would not accept food without earning it by their labor. In the morning, before sunrise, they would beat the drum to call the children to recitation of prayers and a short period of catechism. The children would then go to their activities in the fields and pastures, while the two catechists, before going to their own work farming the land, would recite the Rosary since they could not attend Mass. Their daily program continued in the afternoon: after working in the fields, they would wash their feet and hands and eat, then would call the children together once again by the sound of the drum, resume their teaching of prayers and catechism, and conclude in the evening, before going to bed, with the recitation of the Rosary. We have the people’s witness for this: “When they [the two martyred catechists] lived in Paimol, the kids were happy to go see them and they too were glad to receive the kids. All the people in the village, with no exceptions, loved them for the good they did. They were totally devoted to doing their duty, until they were killed even though they had not done any evil. They died in the precise fulfillment of their duty.”

From 1916 onwards, the situation had become very difficult in that region. For in 1916, a drought had brought famine also to Paimol. The tribal chieftain of Paimol, Lakidi, had been arrested, tried, and imprisoned in Kitgum by the English colonial authorities on the false accusation of illegal possession of weapons. The adui (local rebels) and the abas (Arab slave traders and ivory merchants) were intolerant of the commitment of the catechists, who with their teaching were introducing a disturbing element into their sinister, flourishing business and immoral conduct that was contributing to the spread of venereal disease. The ajwakki (sorcerers) and the abas grabbed their chance to accuse the Christian religion of Daudi and Jildo of the evils that had occurred: famine, pestilence, and oppression by foreigners. From hatred to the elimination of the catechists was a brief step. It would be a lesson to all and a diktat to abandon the Christian faith they had brought!

The plan to kill the catechists was prepared and carried out during the weekend of October 18-20, 1918. The murderers were divided in groups: the first two continued toward the village of the chief and under-chief imposed by the English, while the third group went to the catechists’ hut. Ocok Mukomi, the under-chief’s brother, interceded for them, but to no avail. One of the attackers, Okidi Ibrahim, dragged Daudi out of the hut and beyond the fence, and having ordered him in vain to abandon the Christian faith, mortally wounded him with a spear. Jildo, who had been left in the hut because he was too young, came out and started yelling, “If you killed Daudi because he taught the new religion, then kill me too. I also taught the religion with him.” Opio Akadamoi grabbed him and ran him through with a lance, then finished him off with a dagger. Their bodies were abandoned in the grass, until a merciful hand pulled their remains to a spot near an abandoned termite hill. It was Sunday, October 20, 1918. The two boys were 18 and 16 years old respectively. Pope John Paul II beatified them on Sunday, October 20, 2002, the anniversary of their martyrdom. Their relics were transported to the Mission Church of Kitgum, where they had been baptized.

The two martyrs, as the Archbishop of Gulu John Baptist Odama, emphasized in the vigil of preparation for their beatification held in Rome, “had an encounter with the first missionaries that filled them with wonder. They asked to stay with them in their house, they learned the Christian path from them, becoming their sons and disciples; they were sent as missionaries in the name of Christ, and they died to bear witness to what they had encountered and had made their life free and full.” “A life,” the Archbishop of Gulu went on, “that rose up on two pillars: passion for Christ and love for Our Lady. These two young lay persons were not afraid to love their faith to the point of shedding blood.” “The lives of the two young catechists, and those of many others with them, today bear witness to this truth: the encounter with Christ has made their lives more human, thus they have borne witness to how precious this treasure they had encountered was to them, to the point of giving their lives for It. Everything began with a simple question asked of Fr Gambaretto: ‘Father, who will go to Paimol to replace Antonio [the catechist who had died]?’ Daudi and Jildo felt they had to fill the place left vacant and to give an answer to the people’s hunger and thirst for God. In this way, they obeyed a heartfelt appeal addressed a long time earlier by the Apostle Paul to the early Christian community: ‘How are they to call on One in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in One of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim Him? And how are they to proclaim Him unless they are sent?’ [Rom 10:14-15]. The blessed martyrs Daudi and Jildo were signs of Christian freedom. They were free not to go to Paimol, and they went out of love for Jesus Christ; they were free to leave Paimol in the face of danger, and they stayed. They chose first to go and then to stay for the sole purpose of making Jesus Christ known. Even when they realized that the rebels had come to kill them, they did not run away from the responsibility that had been entrusted to them; they preferred to stay at their post. They thus answered the need and deep questions that welled up in the heart of that people at the mercy of the merchants of violence.”

Their Blood, the Seed of Christians
John Paul II, in the decree on the martyrdom of Daudi and Jildo, recalls that because of their actions, they were recognized as true disciples of the Lord and transmitted with their lives what they had received. From their blood, the Church in northern Uganda has bloomed forth. “Like Jesus, and following the steps of the deacon St Stephen, Daudi and Jildo forgave their killers, warning them of the uselessness of their violence. Their adherence to Christ emphasizes the fact that the Christian suffers violence rather than doing it. It also calls Uganda, suffering Africa devastated by divisions and wars of every sort, back to the only way that can be traveled in order to reach solid unity and real peace: the path of forgiveness… Creating the illusion of omnipotence and invincibility always leads to devastation… They reminded those who wanted to kill them that they could indeed get rid of them, but other catechists would come to Paimol to continue their tangible witness. No one would ever be able to bar the door to Jesus Christ. Today, thanks to them, Uganda definitely belongs to Christ.” The fruit of their martyrdom has been a host of catechists in northern Uganda. Many of them have sealed the announcement of the Gospel with their blood. In just the Diocese of Gulu alone–to which Kitgum belongs–at least 80 catechists have been killed in the past twenty years, and a dozen Combonian missionaries in the whole country. Many suffered horrendous deaths. Their testimonies take their place in the tradition of the martyrs of the early Church.

*(former parish priest in Kitgum, Uganda, and witness at the Process of Beatification)