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How a Unesco pro­gramme is en­sur­ing the legacy of Uganda’s Mar­tyrs lives on

There­fore, if it is seen good to the king, let a search be made in the royal ar­chives of Baby­lon to see whether a de­cree was is­sued by Cyrus the King for re­build­ing of this house of God in Jerusalem …Then Dar­ius the King made a De­cree, and a search was made… in the house of the ar­chives where the doc­u­ments were stored. And in … a scroll was found on which this was writ­ten” (Ezra, 5:17-6:1).

On Sun­day, June 3, mil­lions of be­liev­ers gath­ered at Na­mu­gongo to cel­e­brate the an­nual Uganda Mar­tyrs Day, a pub­lic hol­i­day in the coun­try. Na­mu­gongo is the his­tor­i­cal site of the mar­tyr­doms that took place from 1885-1887. The largest con­tin­gent of pil­grims comes from the East African Com­mu­nity mem­ber coun­tries be­sides hosts Uganda. The ma­jor­ity of these in­ter­na­tional pil­grims walk on foot to Na­mu­gongo (both Catholic and Protes­tant shrines) as a demon­stra­tion of their faith. Uganda Mar­tyrs Day has not only cre­ated a na­tional, his­tor­i­cal, cul­tural and re­li­gious her­itage, but is also a con­sid­er­able cel­e­brated doc­u­men­tary her­itage for the Me­mory of the World.

The Me­mory of the World pro­gramme is a Unesco in­ter­na­tional ini­tia­tive launched in 1992 to safe­guard the doc­u­men­tary her­itage of hu­man­ity against col­lec­tive am­ne­sia, ne­glect, the rav­ages of time and cli­matic con­di­tions, and wil­ful and de­lib­er­ate de­struc­tion. Fur­ther, on Novem­ber 17, 2015, Unesco adopted a rec­om­men­da­tion con­cern­ing the preser­va­tion of, and ac­cess to, doc­u­men­tary her­itage in­clud­ing in dig­i­tal form as a sig­nif­i­cant milestone for uni­ver­sal ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion. Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion is one of Unesco’s core ar­eas, con­cerned with in­creased ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion, me­dia plu­ral­ism and press free­dom and preser­va­tion of doc­u­men­tary her­itage. Unesco man­ages its work through na­tional com­mis­sions.

Since 2012, Uganda Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Unesco (un­der the Me­mory of the Word pro­gramme has re­searched, or­gan­ised aware­ness workshops, and con­ducted study vis­its to a num­ber of in­sti­tu­tions, among them gov­ern­ment de­part­ments, re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions and the gen­eral pub­lic for pro­mo­tion and preser­va­tion of doc­u­men­tary her­itage. Such her­itage in­cludes books, records, ar­chives, pho­to­graphs, mu­sic, au­dio­vi­sual and other images, text, dig­i­tal or au­dio­vi­sual. These are pre­served in ar­chives and records cen­tres, li­braries, mu­se­ums and ed­u­ca­tional, re­li­gious, cul­tural and re­search or­gan­i­sa­tions, of­fices, com­mu­ni­ties and fam­i­lies. There has been sig­nif­i­cant doc­u­men­ta­tion on the Uganda mar­tyrs by the Church Mis­sion­ar­ies So­ci­ety and White Fa­thers Ar­chives at Mak­erere Univer­sity Li­brary, at the Rubaga Cathe­dral Ar­chives and St. Paul Cathe­dral Namirembe and Uganda Chris­tian Univer­sity, by J. F. Fau­pel in his book, The African Holo­caust and by Gertrude Idah K. Ssek­abira in her The Blood and Ashes of the Mar­tyrs: The Seed of the Gospel.

How­ever, most of these are sec­ondary sources that do not pro­vide the di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence of the mar­tyrs. But there is one unique but lit­tle talked record en­ti­tled Mono­gra­phies des bi­en­heureux mar­tyrs de L’uganda that gives an eye­wit­ness ac­count of their mar­tyr­dom. It is not un­til you visit the Rubaga Cathe­dral Ar­chives that you will have ac­cess to this wit­ness of the killings of the 45 mar­tyrs who were burnt to death or be­headed. The doc­u­ment is owned by the Arch­dio­cese of Kam­pala and stored in their pri­vate ar­chive at Rubaga Cathe­dral.

It de­picts the evo­lu­tion of re­li­gion in Uganda and how the be­liev­ers stood their ground against the pow­ers of the day. It con­tains cut­tings of news­pa­per ar­ti­cles from the first lo­cal news­pa­per in Uganda — The Munno — and cor­re­spon­dence in­clud­ing pho­to­graphs as well as records of daily trans­ac­tions in the form of diaries and no­tices. The site of the main event was then ded­i­cated to the ex­e­cu­tion of the most no­to­ri­ous crim­i­nals or royal threats to the Bu­ganda King­dom.

In many cases, this her­itage is not ac­cessed or used and much of it is now at risk of a rang­ing from ac­ci­den­tal or de­lib­er­ate dis­place­ment of hold­ings and col­lec­tions, to the depre­da­tions of war, weather and cli­mate. Mak­ing this her­itage ac­ces­si­ble to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble and us­ing the most ap­pro­pri­ate tech­nol­ogy, both in­side and out­side the coun­tries, is thus cru­cial. This is in line with the In­ter­na­tional Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee of the Na­tional Me­mory of the World Com­mit­tees.

Coun­tries, in­sti­tu­tions and com­mu­ni­ties have a duty to iden­tify and regis­ter their doc­u­men­tary her­itage. The cri­te­ria for reg­is­tra­tion range from out­stand­ing aes­thetic, stylis­tic or lin­guis­tic value to the ir­re­place­abil­ity of the doc­u­ment, ev­i­dence of its in­flu­ence on the course of his­tory. Other con­sid­er­a­tions are rar­ity, au­then­tic­ity, orig­i­nal­ity and sig­nif­i­cant as­pects of hu­man be­hav­iour, or of so­cial, in­dus­trial, artis­tic or po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ment. Con­se­quently, na­tional gov­ern­ments must pro­vide lead­er­ship through ap­pro­pri­ate poli­cies and/or leg­is­la­tion to man­date in­sti­tu­tions, de­part­ments and com­mu­ni­ties to pre­serve, con­serve and safe­guard the doc­u­men­tary her­itage in their pos­ses­sion. Prof Elisan Ma­gara is the chair­per­son of the Me­mory of the World Com­mit­tee of the Uganda Na­tional Com­mis­sion for Unesco

Il­lus­tra­tion :John Nyaga

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