Kampala, Uganda | URN | There was a stampede at the Uganda Martyrs’ Catholic Shrine in Namugongo during the Martyrs’ Day celebrations on Friday 3, June 2022 afternoon as thousands of pilgrims fought to have at least a drop of ‘holy water’ from the famous Martyrs’ lake. All hell broke loose when the day’s mass ended at around 1:00 pm.
Armed with jerricans and bottles, hundreds of pilgrims started jostling to draw water from the taps installed by the church. Some of the pilgrims collapsed and were rushed out of the shrines by standby ambulances.
“We are going to die from here,” a youth speaking in Luganda commented as he withdrew from the crowd.
Although this young man was fighting to come out, hundreds of others were moving forward. Security officers from the elite Special Forces Command (SFC) tried in vain to control the crowds by cutting off all routes leading to the man-made lake. Christians at the Uganda Martyrs’ Catholic Shrine in Namugongo kept pushing forward toward the lake in search of the ‘holy water.’
“You want to kill us because of water. If so, then we are ready to die as martyrs did. We want water,” an old woman shouted in the face of a military police officer who had raised his whip to disperse them. The officer maintained his cool and politely asked the lady to wait. “Mama you want to die from here? People will step on you,” the officer said politely.
At some point, while Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja was delivering the president’s speech, a section of pilgrims booed her and started drumming their jerricans in protest. It was a challenging moment for security. Later, one of the commanding officers came up with a solution to ensure that people had access to water without a stampede.
They later installed drums connected to the taps that draw water from the lake. Many pilgrims who flock to Namugongo to celebrate Martyrs’ Day by fetching the water from the lake with belief that it possesses holy powers.
Christians often give testimonies that the water heals them of various ailments. As a norm, pilgrims scamper with jerricans to get a share of the water after the day’s service. The water is drawn from both the Catholic and Anglican shrines.
This year, the Anglican church fenced off the spring where the water originates from given the fact that the site is under major construction. However, this didn’t stop the pilgrims from drawing water downstream from the nearby swamp. Some years ago, the pilgrims could dive into the lake as they rushed to draw water.
To reduce this risk, the church fenced off the lake and left points where pilgrims could get it from. A recent study conducted by the department of biochemistry Makerere University indicated that the so-called ‘holy water’ contains pathogenic micro-organisms such as e.coli, and coliforms, a type of bacteria known to cause diarrhoea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia, abdominal pain, and fever.
In 2019, the Namugongo Catholic secretariat with help of the National Water and Sewerage Corporation (NWSC) treated the water to ensure that it is clean and safe for consumption.
The church previously tried to treat, brand, and bottle the water from the lake but the faithful have failed to adapt the innovation as they prefer drawing the water themselves.