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date: 21 September 2017

The Uganda Martyrs Guild

Summary and Keywords

The Uganda Martyrs Guild (UMG) was founded in 1897, after the killing of a number of young Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims, who had worked as pages at the court of the king of Buganda. The Catholic Church made the Catholic victims the center of a cult of martyrs. They were beatified in 1920 and canonized in 1964. Since its founding, the UMG has served as a point of mediation between Uganda and the transnational network of the Catholic Church. In the early 1990s, the UMG emerged as a witch-finding movement in western Uganda, which continued until the organization changed its procedures and began to refrain from naming witches in 2005. Since that time, members have increasingly shifted their focus instead to the healing and security of UMG members and those willing to join the UMG.

Keywords: Uganda Martyrs Guild, Catholic Church, western Uganda, martyrdom, crusade, witch-finding movement

In 1885 and 1886 in the kingdom of Buganda under King Mwanga, a number of young Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims working as pages at the king’s court were brutally killed—beheaded, speared, hacked into pieces, and burned. The reasons for these persecutions are still heavily debated.1 Since that time, the Catholic Church has attempted to make the Catholic victims the center of a cult of martyrs, interpreting them as the followers of older African martyrs, such as Perpetua, Felicity, and Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage.

In 1897, a decade after the murder of the pages, the Uganda Martyrs Guild (UMG) was founded by Archbishop Henry Streicher, who trained people to take part in the evangelization process. A local organization was set up, aided by foreign powers, and slowly became a new center of influence that defined its distinctiveness not only in terms of local outreach but also in relation to influence exercised over a transnational sphere of operations. The UMG became a local movement and center but also a point of mediation between Uganda and the external network of the global Catholic Church.

In Uganda as well as in many other African countries, for instance, in Senegal, the Uganda martyrs became the center of Catholic piety. Relics of the Uganda martyrs are said to rest in Poponguine, in the south of Dakar, in the main altar of Notre Dame de la Délivrande, constructed in 1890. The Catholic youth center there is named Kisito after the youngest of the Uganda martyrs. In other parts of Senegal, churches named Kisito can be found. In this way, the Catholic Church made use of the Uganda martyrs outside Uganda to ground and “Africanize” Catholicism. While on one hand the UMG was used to localize Catholicism in Uganda, on the other hand, it was partially informed from its beginnings by relations that were oriented far beyond its immediate environment as part of a global Catholic network.

In 1920, the Uganda martyrs were beatified. As the canonization process also involved the collection of evidence of miracles caused by the intercession of the martyrs, the healing of two White Sisters (Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa) who had contracted bubonic plague in 1941 was recognized as a miracle by the Vatican.2 In October 1964, the Uganda martyrs were finally canonized.

During this time, the UMG evolved into an organization for Catholic Action that continued to have chapters in most districts and dioceses of Uganda. Some of these chapters became strongly politicized and had varying degrees of influence on the formation of local branches of the Democratic Party—as the party of the Catholics in contrast to the Uganda People’s Congress, the party of the Protestants—in the 1950s.3

Although an impressive shrine was built in Namugongo to memorialize the martyrs and to establish a cult center, the Catholic Church was not very successful in this endeavor. Not until the emergence of a new form of popular Catholicism in the late 1980s did this shrine as well as the one in Nakivubu and Katoosa start to gain importance. Then pilgrimages to these places regularly took place on a mass scale.

While the Catholic Church tried to actualize a discourse that highlighted suffering in its most extreme form—suffering death in the service of religious identity—up to the end of the 1980s Christian martyrdom did not strongly catch the local popular religious imagination. This changed with the empowerment of the UMG as an anti-witchcraft movement in the kingdom of Tooro in western Uganda. Here the martyrs’ discourse produced versions of Catholic identity that continue to be formative up to the present day. As Tertullian, the early Christian church father, already suggested, the blood of martyrs constitutes the seeds of the church, the martyrs’ death generating more martyrs.

The Making of the Uganda Martyrs in Tooro

There are various reasons for the powerful emergence of the UMG in the early 1990s in Tooro, a kingship in western Uganda—and not so much in other parts of Uganda. The erosion and corruption of the local government and the kingship, the intense crisis of health through AIDS, the situation of war and internal terror, the epidemic of witches to which the UMG responded and likewise contributed, rivalry and competition between independent Christian movements and the Catholic Church, and local actors, all these factors contributed to the transformation of the UMG into a religious-political movement that entered the public space to create a new moral order. In addition, the Charismatic Renewal in the Catholic Church empowered lay people in particular and gave them the chance to popularize Catholicism in a new way. Furthermore, in Tooro an unusually distinctive American influence evolved after 1958, owing to the presence of Holy Cross priests and sisters from the United States.4 Moreover, the emergence of the UMG as a Catholic anti-witchcraft movement cannot be understood without taking into consideration its connections with the global Charismatic and Pentecostal culture within and without the Catholic Church.

Although most of the Uganda martyrs came from Buganda, there was one martyr named Adolfo who was from Katoosa in Tooro. His mother and sister had been caught by Buganda slave raiders and taken to Kampala. There Adolfo was given to the palace to work as a page of the king. A White Father, Father Lourdel, converted him to Catholicism, and on June 3, 1886, he was killed in Namugongo.

After the successful canonization of the Ugandan martyrs, Katoosa, Adolfo’s place of birth in Tooro, was turned into a Catholic place of worship. At that time, Katoosa, a place covered with enormous rocks, still served as a shrine for Embandwa spirit mediums, who would sacrifice animals there. They were chased away, and the rocks were consecrated to different martyrs, including a rock for Anglican Bishop James Hannington, who had been murdered in Busoga in 1886. In 1969 the first pilgrimages took place to Katoosa, but they were not very successful. Not before the 1990s, with the powerful emergence of the UMG, did Katoosa become an important popular pilgrimage site, as did Namugongo and Nakivubu.


In the process of the Uganda martyrs’ canonization, detailed research into the biographies of the martyrs began. At the same time, there emerged the wish to visualize them. When a saint is canonized, the Vatican commissions a painter to portray the new saint on a new standard (banner), which is brought to St. Peter’s in Rome for the great ceremony and hung above the main altar. For the Uganda martyrs’ canonization, the German painter Sigfried Herborth of Munich was commissioned to paint the twenty-two martyrs with the emblems of the fourteen clans they belonged to. This painting was copied, reproduced, and brought back to Uganda, where it now decorates the shrines of many of UMG’s members. Local photographers produced various photo collages and posters showing the martyrs in different contexts and situations. The new visibility of the martyrs contributed to the creation of new forms of visual piety and popularity, though they were never uncontested. In particular, the local clergy was aware of the danger of falling back into the adoration of images and tried to prevent “idol worship.”

Since their canonization, a complex hagiography has evolved in the literature. The biographies of the martyrs have been written and published in local African languages. In the texts they are celebrated as ancestors, as grandfathers in the faith, or as heroes. Special prayers and songs are dedicated to them.

Like older saints, all the martyrs have become associated with certain professions and aspects of modern life, which they protect: for example, Pontian Ngondwe is patron of soldiers, policemen, and militias; Denis SSebuggwawo is patron of singers, musicians, and choirs; Andrew Kaggwa (Kahwa) is the patron of teachers, catechists, and families; Athanasious Bazzekuketta is the patron of those in charge of finance, treasury, and banks; Mathias Kalemba Mulumba is the patron of chiefs and families; Noa Mawaggali is patron of the poor or of technicians and artists; Charles Lwanga is patron of African Youth and Catholic Action; and Luke Banabakintu is the patron of fishermen, sailors, mechanics, students, and blacksmiths. As the list of martyrs shows, martyrdom in Uganda was an exclusively male domain. Still, there is one woman, Clara Narumans, who potentially qualifies for sainthood yet has not been canonized and become associated officially with a profession.

The martyrs in Tooro have evolved as complex persons with specific biographies as well as iconographies. Considered important intercessors as the result of the need to compensate for the abstractness of an existing but distant God, in the popular form of Catholicism that emerged in Tooro, they functioned as ancestors, heroes, guardian angels, saints, and sometimes benevolent spirits who would take possession of and embody themselves in their Catholic host. In the UMG, each member received one of the martyrs as a guardian angel and as a figure of identification, which allowed these martyrs to realize their potential as saints, their sanctity, and their holiness and sometimes also included personal empowerment through embodiment.

The Organization of the Uganda Martyrs Guild

The UMG’s organization follows the Catholic Church’s bureaucratic organization at various levels starting in the small Christian community and moving through the village, chapel, and subparish to the parish level. At the highest level of the diocese a main council, or okurato, exists, which includes an executive committee with five members, a chaplain, a diocesan pastoral coordinator, a parish Guild president’s secretary and a parish Guild chaplain.

The executive committee comprises the Guild president, the vice president, the secretary, the vice secretary, and the treasurer. All leaders serve for three years and can be reelected for only one more term. They are elected at the lower levels by a show of hands or by cueing; at the parish and diocese levels a secret ballot takes place. This structure is repeated at all levels.

There is a complicated hierarchy of “vows” that organizes the membership or better initiation. When members take avow or make a promise, they are dressed in a toga and carry palm leaves in remembrance of Jesus. There are five steps or vows: After initiates have stayed for six months in the UMG and have been watched by elders, the first “vow of chapel” takes place. After one year, a second vow is made at the level of the subparish, and again after one year the third vow, to the parish, is made. The fourth vow is taken for the diocese. After three years, the final vow is given, and the person remains in the Guild until the end of his or her life.

Everybody is welcomed to join the Guild. Members “who are fully devoted” are free to pay an annual subscription fee of 1,500 USH, but it seems that only very few actually pay the fee. A person is free to leave the Guild but is asked to give notice three months in advance.

The Constitution of the Uganda Martyrs Guild

In 1967, after the canonization of the martyrs, a constitution was worked out for the whole of Uganda in Luganda. In 1992, when the Catholic Renewal had already started in Tooro, the Guild’s president translated this constitution into Lutooro. In 1997, some members began to revise the constitution and adapt it to the new conditions in the Fort Portal Diocese. Through the new constitution, a developmental, a financial, and an education committee were added, along with the obligation to participate in communal work.

Most important was the radicalization of the martyrs’ discourse and the experience of Christ’s passion in bodily practice, which had been largely ignored by Catholics. Since the 1990s, for the Uganda Martyrs Guild (UMG) in Tooro, the Uganda martyrs provided the examples for a heroic discourse of suffering, self-sacrifice, and redemption that deeply transformed the Guild. A total commitment to follow the path of martyrdom was demanded. “We prefer to be crucified and die, thus follow Jesus, than to commit a sin,” the president said. Far from shunning physical suffering, the members of the UMG actively sought it. Like Christ’s Passion on the Cross, the endurance of pain was famously reinterpreted as an act of triumph. This openness to pain and suffering, as Talal Asad suggested about Christians in general, formed part of the UMG’s new strategy to gain agency and empowerment as Catholics.5

In contrast to the old constitution, the new constitution stressed not only the apostolic aspect of spreading the word of God but also the fight against Satan “to prevent Satan taking away the kingdom of God.” Appropriating the strict dualism that the early missionaries in the 19th century had introduced into Tooro, and even radicalizing it by terming even “traditional” or “pagan” healers and diviners and their practices and paraphernalia as “satanic,” UMG members—like charismatic Catholics and Pentecostals—strongly reinstated the figure of Satan and the witches who assisted him as the opponents of the Catholic god.

While in the old constitution membership was granted only to persons who had reached the age of eighteen years, the new constitution allowed the entry of children from age ten years onward. This change was legitimized by referring to the martyr Kizito, who was murdered as a child. Furthermore, whereas the old constitution did not even mention pilgrimages, the new constitution did. Mobility through pilgrimages and crusades became a new factor in the re-creation of the UMG.

Creating a New Moral Order

Against the background of a corrupt local government and also some corrupt priests, the UMG strongly attempted to live up to the standards of an economic regime of transparency. Money and gifts in the form of chicken, goats, millet, maize, cassava, bananas, and so forth were collected in public during Mass. Sometimes, the church turned into a market place, because the items given were then resold at auctions to members who offered the most, as a way to increase profit for the church. Yet in comparison to independent churches, the UMG’s input and involvement in the market for salvation commodities was relatively modest. Healing was free, but some Catholic healers also attempted to generate an income by providing extra spiritual, divinatory, and curative services.

In addition, the Guild strongly emphasized the establishment of a new moral order. In contrast to the old constitution, the new one included specific interdictions. Members were not allowed to drink, smoke, go to discos, “eat bribes,” and visit “witch doctors” or to practice “satanic traditions.” and Men were forbidden to womanize. They were asked to live a life of purity and to become holy—“ikihire,” a concept in Lutooro that opens up a wide semantic field, including purity, whiteness, being without fault, and cleanliness.

Members were requested to practice self-denial, in the sense of kwefubira, meaning “you do not do what you would love to do,” and kwehwamu n’okwehayo, meaning “you get rid of selfishness.” In this way, the Guild stressed anticonsumerism and a certain asceticism and humility. Strategies of self-denial were introduced to reinforce a new moral order and members’ spiritual power. There were five moral imperatives that had to be followed: obedience, humility, chastity, piety, and love as well as forgiveness.

To ensure their morality, members were asked to watch one another. A system of mutual surveillance was established. Members who were not living a life that met the established standards were counseled, preached to, prayed over and helped so that they would become “holy.” In addition, the Guild tried to regulate marriage and reduce bride-prices. Parents were told to give their daughters back to God by marrying them in church to members of the Guild without financial or material compensation. Furthermore, members also formed self-help groups and would collect money so that couples who lived together without being married were finally wed in church. If a person had to go to hospital or to prison, members would collect cash, visit him or her, and bring food. They assisted one another also in building houses and keeping gardens. In this way, the UMG tried to build up some sort of solidarity not so much on the basis of neighborhood and kinship but more on a religious basis.

In order to cope with the many deaths due to AIDS and the war, the Guild also radically transformed funeral rites. After a simple burial, Guild members waited for three months and then returned to the grave at night to light a candle and pray. During funerals, members were allowed to shed tears but not to cry. Instead, “they should rejoice because they know that their friend has gone to heaven.”

UMG members, in contrast to other Christian movements, did not wear uniforms. The rosary they wore around their necks identified them as members of the UMG and likewise protected them from evil.


Around the beginning of the 1990s, members of the UMG started witch hunts, calling them “crusades” or “holy wars.” The UMG thus appropriated a discourse that connected Christianity and violence and turned war into holy war. Like everywhere else in the world where these concepts are used, in Tooro, too, they idealized violence, declared war a “just war,” and legitimized the stigmatization and exclusion of certain persons. Crusades gave moral justification for violence and allowed members of the UMG to gain a sense of empowerment. The potential self-sacrifice and the political and even military aspects of the crusades mutually implied each other. Religion in this context appeared as a cause as well as a cure of violence.6

The first crusades were extremely violent.7 Because people complained, the Catholic Church forbade further crusades. For two years, members of the UMG were taught in workshops not only the Bible but above all how to conduct nonviolent witch hunts. From then on, Catholic victory over witches had to rely upon faith, prayers, and healing. After these instructions were put forward, Guild members were allowed to continue crusades, which followed a rather fixed pattern.

Preparing a Crusade

Before the UMG went on an “operation,” members announced their plans in monthly papers and on the radio. They asked for mass media participation to ensure publicity and coverage of the crusade. They sent letters to the local council and to the police; sometimes, when they feared meeting fierce resistance, they asked for police protection.

The crusades were attempts “to go and free people from evil in abandoned places,” to move and conquer the outside of areas. The UMG’s mobility during these crusades was, from the movement’s perspective, a liberating force. In fact, the UMG as an outreach community in the making and as an enduring performance was never complete; although they were part of the Catholic Church, the Guild continued to transform itself and was difficult to fix and control within set boundaries.

The day before an “operation,” the crusaders fasted. Among UMG members, fasting formed part of an alimentary regime of self-control through which the purification of the body was ensured. Food abstention was an expression of repentance, an ascetic practice that cleansed and emptied the body, thereby preparing it for God’s inspiration and enabling, in particular, the Holy Spirit to fill it entirely. While the crusaders refused to eat food, they spent the whole night in the church singing and praying rosaries, practices that allowed the Holy Spirit “to load them with His power.” In this they followed Saint Paul’s idea of inhabitance and made their body the potential container or temple of the Holy Spirit. Yet “to be filled with the Holy Spirit” was not a question of inward, contemplative spirituality, but of embodying divine power and thereby empowering oneself in the fight against evil.

“Weapons” of the Uganda Martyrs Guild

In the UMG, pious songs and prayers not only created a new acoustic quality of unity enveloping individuals and absorbing them to different degrees but also served as “weapons” in the fight against evil. Guild members created a whole repertoire of specific prayers and songs that are seen as having agency, force, and power, determining the outcome of struggles against evil. Songs and prayers became acoustic “weapons” whose power undermined evil forces. To assist the exorcism of an evil spirit, for example, the song “Satan Crucified” was sung, to strengthen the crusaders and weaken Satan and his agents.

Likewise, consecrated objects, such as rosaries and bottles filled with holy water, were conceived as “weapons” to fight evil. A complex methodology evolved to concentrate and intensify the powers of the Holy Spirit by separating or combining the different “weapons,” by loading and unloading bodies, objects, and words (spoken as well as sung) like electric batteries. The Holy Spirit’s power was associated not only with pneuma, air, and wind but also with electrical power. In various ritual contexts, the analogy between electricity and spirituality was invoked.

The next morning, women and men rode on trucks or on bicycles or went on foot to the region they wanted to cleanse. When they arrived, they first prayed and sang with the villagers, to reload their bodies and strengthen them for the fight. Afterward they formed various “teams.” To each team, people with different “gifts” were assigned: one person with the gift of discernment (leader), another with the gift of deliverance, some with physical strength (when people became violent) and with the gift of knowledge and revealing, and finally those with the gift of singing. In addition, each team had a secretary, who took notes of what was happening. Each team was then assigned to a different region, where they walked from house to house, an “operation” they called “carpet bombing.”

Discovering Witches and Cannibals

The UMG invented a new hybrid technique of revelation of evil that blended Christian techniques of ecstasy with local practices of spirit possession. Some Guild members, also called “hunters,” gifted with the powers of discernment, identified the presence of evil through their bodies filled and “loaded” with the Holy Spirit. When approaching a witch or a “satanic” object, they started trembling, fell on the ground, scratched the earth, or ran on their knees until whatever was hidden in the roof or in the bush had been found. Loaded with the power of the Holy Spirit, their bodies functioned as indicators of satanic presence. If the presence of evil was strong, their reaction was dramatic and violent; if the presence of evil was weak, their reaction was soft, just a little trembling of hands and arms. Like the pointer of a voltmeter, an instrument for measuring electrical potential, the degree of trembling in their limbs indicated the amount of evil presence, as if their limbs were dispossessed, foreign objects endowed with a life of their own. Like an oracle, not an interested, passionate individual but instead a power from the outside—the Holy Spirit—was acting and identifying evil.


After the first violent excesses, in later crusades identified witches were not killed or chased away. Instead, the UMG started to “counsel” the identified witches and not to punish but to heal them. Members preached and prayed until the suspected witch repented and started to confess.

Confessions formed the precondition for healing. Without a confession, a witch could not be healed and, after healing, be reintegrated into his or her village. As Levi-Strauss suggested in his famous article “The Sorcerer and His Magic” (1969), people who confess give their accusers the satisfaction of truth, which they prefer to justice. With their confessions, witches cease to exist as a diffuse complex of poorly formulated sentiments and representations and become embodied in real experience. The “truth” of the confessions lies in the transformation of inchoate feelings and their delimitation, so that they can be expressed and told in confession narratives.8 The confessing witch speaks what the community cannot say.9

Through confessions, the members of the UMG succeeded in turning the witch into a healer of the fragmented community. If the power of curing, as Levi-Strauss suggested, is the capacity to form a composite voice, the Catholic witch hunts resulted in the formation of a composite voice as the confessing witches spoke for the community, turning vague ideas into explicit and manageable notions.

This interpretation neglects the actual violence that is inherent in the process of producing a confessing witch. Through confessions, the victim affirms the victimizer’s right to violence.10 The interpretation also does not take into account the situation of internal terror when not a single witch is named but when instead witches have been multiplying through witch hunts and confess not so much what is inchoate and unknown but what the witch hunters or inquisitors put into their mouths.

Most men and women who had been accused of being witches by the UMG preferred to confess (what they had not done) because this gave them the chance to save their lives and to return to their homes. The techniques of power that were used by the members of the UMG forbade the finding of innocence, forbade confirmation that there was no witch at work.

Not only confessions but also testimonies were given that celebrated the victories and the superior power of the UMG. In fact, confessions and testimonies were seen by many local people as a sort of enlightenment, as revelations that allowed them to gain deeper insights into a normally secret, hidden world, into the workings and machinations of occult powers. Likewise, the material evidence of witchcraft—pieces of cloth from people who had died, bundles of “medicine,” and the like—that the Guild’s members produced through their techniques of disclosure confirmed the reality of witches, though these findings were never uncontested.

The UMG in its struggle against satanic agents necessarily reinstated the very occult powers they fought against. The logic of mutual outbidding that characterized the Guild’s fight against evil, made it inevitable that their members, and particularly their leaders, constantly gave proof of dangerous evil forces to show their own superior power. When the satanic forces intensified and proliferated, then so did the powers of the Catholic God and vice versa. Basically, in this dualist cosmology, the good could overcome evil only if it renounced being good.11 The UMG was trapped in this dynamic of the mutual constitution of good and evil, of a boundary and its transgression. Because of this dynamic, evil spread and obtained even a cosmic dimension. It was to be exposed not only in human beings but also in trees, flowers, and other plants, as well as in black cats, dogs, monkeys, snakes, lizards, frogs, and cockroaches.


After the crusade and after the confession, healing was held in the public space of the village church.12 At the beginning, those with the gift of healing powers would form a circle, holding each other’s hands, and pray and sing, thereby concentrating and intensifying the powers given to them by the Holy Spirit. Again they “reloaded” their bodies like electric batteries and through forming a circle, channeled and concentrated the power comparable to an electric circuit. The ones to be healed meanwhile formed lines. Then, one after the other, they were treated by the healers, who touched their heads, limbs, backs, and stomachs, thereby transmitting holy power into their bodies. Those whose bodies did not react to the touch of the healers were seen as being in good condition, while those who fell on the ground and trembled violently had to be “doctored” further with the UMG’s “weapons”—touched with rosaries, crucifixes, or sprinkled with holy water.

In the healing session, satanic spirit possession was brought on the stage in order to display to the public the edifying spectacle of the war between God and Satan. Then, in particular, women received their share of public attention, thrown down and molested by evil spirits, giving free reign to anxiety, revenge, and hatred. From the start, the performances posited a normative code that reduced the choices to being either in Satan’s camp or in God’s.13

The theater of satanic possession followed a dramaturgy that authorized saying everything. Evil spirits were allowed to say what otherwise could not be said. They made their mediums suffer their language. In addition, in the state of possession, accusations could be made that otherwise could not be made because the person speaking and acting could not be made responsible for what he or she said or did: it was the satanic spirit acting.

Satanic spirits were allowed to perform for a while and tell their stories so that the Guild members could understand the hidden conflicts and the etiology of the patient’s affliction. Their presence was always ended by an exorcism that gave proof of the Holy Spirit’s superior power. Successful healing meant the final expulsion of evil spirits. Satan and his agents, violent at first, were slowly domesticated, and the horror was transformed into a spectacle. From the Guild members’ perspective, the presence of a satanic spirit in the patient’s body was seen as a temporal crisis that was suspended, to reestablish the lost unity and continuity of the Christian person. In fact, the public practice of exorcism entailed an important assertion of authority on the part of the Church.

When the spirits refused to leave a body, the healers of the UMG turned to their complex repertoire of “weapons,” asking the public to sing certain songs that strengthened their fight, to sprinkle holy water, to say special prayers, or to put the crucifix to the orifices of the victim’s body. They touched, massaged, and pressed those body parts that, in particular, were trembling, that seemed to lead a life of their own. These trembling parts were inhabited by evil spirits that blocked the flow; by pressing and touching, they were forced to leave the body of the afflicted person. In a way, the body itself confessed: sins that allowed the spirits’ entry could be recognized in the trembling, the tingling in limbs, as well as in the blockings and knots that prevented the flow. All this was revealed as the body turned into an active screen, on the surface of which the database of human sins appeared as part of a global project of regeneration.14

At the end of the crusade, when they were allowed by the priest, the formerly possessed women participated in a Holy Meal and received the body of Christ, filling the interior space that before had been inhabited by the evil spirit and thereby finally returning to the body of the Catholic Church.

While the UMG’s witch hunts strongly reinstated the evil powers they were fighting against and thereby contributed to the crisis they attempted to end, the UMG nevertheless, by healing presumed witches, contained violence and allowed the stigmatized women and men to return to their villages. Local people would accept their being healed, yet a certain suspicion remained. Whenever misfortune befell a person or somebody became sick or died, it was first of all the former witch who was accused. In this ambiguous position, many people decided to join the other side, the UMG. To enter the UMG gave protection against accusations. While the Guild at the end of the 1980s had about thirty members, in 2002 there were about ten thousand. No active member of the Guild was ever accused of being a witch by Guild members. The UMG thus succeeded in establishing a sort of “communitas” (Victor Turner), a social space in which no witchcraft reigned and people could trust each other. It is not by chance that the UMG became the fastest-growing lay organization of the Catholic Church in Tooro.

The new order that was established through the cleansing of witchcraft carried within itself the seeds of evil and the reemergence of witchcraft. The new order was based less on the real resolution of conflict than on the ebb and flow of energies required to combat death by new exclusions.15 While targeting at the beginning of their crusades, above all, “traditional healers,” the UMG later also identified followers of other Christian denominations, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, as satanic agents who had to be cleansed by them.

Around 2005, members of the UMG changed their procedures once more and started to refrain from naming witches. They shifted their former role as accusers and agents of victimizing to revealers of the cause of suffering and death only and kept quiet about the responsible persons. Thus, since the early 1990s, the UMG has shown itself to be flexible and open to social experiments, responding to all sorts of criticism. While at first the organization was violent and attacked its victims with direct accusations, members increasingly attempted to control the processes they had unleashed; they offered healing and security for their own members and those who were willing to join the UMG and by avoiding the naming of witches accepted the limits of their understanding of others in regard to themselves. In addition, one of the American Holy Cross priests who had strongly supported the witch hunts was sent back to Texas.

Review of the Literature

The historiography of the UMG begins with texts written by Catholics such as Monsignor Henry Streicher, the founder of the UMG, who was the first to use the information made available by the process of beatification or Father René Lefèvre, who spent twelve years doing research on the history of the martyrs. He had access to a variety of Luganda documents, including the original version of the Processus (sworn statements of witnesses); they formed the basis for later publications, such as J. P. Thoonen’s Black Martyrs (1941) or J. F. Faupel’s African Holocaust (196216), in order to make the martyrs icons of Catholic piety and to promote a Catholic cult of martyrs.

Africans also wrote about the martyrs, for example, the famous ethnographer and historian of the Baganda, Sir Apollo Kagwa, a member of the Anglican Church, published his book on the kings of Buganda in 1912. Catholic African authors have produced a series of texts, such as a booklet written by Serapio Magambo and Albert Edward Barahagate, Okujaguza Habwa Ba-Isenkuru itwe omu nyikiriza (Celebrations for our ancestors/grandfathers in the faith; 1986), and the publication The African Heroes, by Brother A. Tarcis Nsobya, Masaka (199917).

With a shift in anthropology from a focus on so-called traditional societies or cultures to modern ones, the global Catholic Church, in localized versions, became the object of anthropological studies. The anthropologist Ron Kassimir worked in western Uganda in the 1980s and, in an article (1991) and later in his PhD dissertation (1996), provided the first comprehensive and critical ethnographic and historical studies of the UMG and the Catholic Church in western Uganda18. Building on Kassimir’s work, Heike Behrend (2011) continued to trace the emergence and transformation of the UMG into a witch-finding movement up to 200519. Both authors deal with questions of power, the processes of indigenization and popularization of the UMG, and the politics of the Catholic Church on the local, national, and global levels.

Primary Sources

The most important source is the unpublished Processus ordinarius that was started by the White Fathers in 1887 in order to collect information about the martyrs. The French original is in the archive of the White Fathers, and copies are in the archives of the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Propaganda in Rome.

Another important source is Monographie sur les bienheureux martyrs de l’Ouganda, by Father René Lefèvre, who, as mentioned earlier, spent twelve years doing research on the history of the martyrs; he had access to a variety of Luganda documents, including the original version of the Processus (sworn statements of witnesses).

J. F. Faupel’s classic African Holocaust from 1962, pp. 233–236.

A good overview about unpublished and published sources is provided in 20

Digital Materials

  • A film made by Armin Linke and Heike Behrend shows a UMG-organized crusade to identify and cleanse witches in rural Kyamiage in 2002. A DVD is included in Behrend’s book, Resurrecting Cannibals. The Catholic Church, Witch-Hunts and the Production of Pagans in Western Uganda (2011).

  • The UMG has its own website.

Further Reading

Behrend, Heike. Resurrecting Cannibals. The Catholic Church, Witch-Hunts and the Production of Pagans in Western Uganda. Oxford: James Currey, 2011.Find this resource:

Kassimir, Ronald. “Complex Martyrs. Symbols of Catholic Church Formation and Political Differentiation in Uganda.” African Affairs 90.360 (1991): 357–382.Find this resource:

Kassimir, Ronald. “The Social Power of Religious Organization: The Catholic Church in Uganda 1955–1991.” PhD Diss., University of Chicago, 1996).Find this resource:

Kassimir, Ronald. “The Politics of Popular Catholicism in Uganda.” In East African Expressions of Christianity. Edited by Thomas Spear and I. N. Kinambo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.Find this resource:


(1.) Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990); J. F. Faupel, African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1962); and Ronald Kassimir, “Complex Martyrs. Symbols of Catholic Church Formation and Political Differentiation in Uganda,” African Affairs 90.360 (1991): 357–382.

(2.) Kassimir, “Complex Martyrs. Symbols of Catholic Church Formation and Political Differentiation in Uganda,” 367.

(3.) Ibid, 378.

(4.) Ronald Kassimir, The Social Power of Religious Organization: The Catholic Church in Uganda 1955–1991 (PhD Diss., University of Chicago, 1996), 151.

(5.) Talal Asad, “Agency and Pain: An Exploration,” Culture and Religion 1.1 (2000): 29–60.

(6.) Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 12.

(7.) Heike Behrend, Resurrecting Cannibals: The Catholic Church, Witch-Hunts and the Production of Pagans in Western Uganda (Oxford: James Currey, 2011), 112.

(8.) James Siegel, Naming the Witch (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 29.

(9.) Ibid., 30.

(10.) Rosalind C. Morris, “Witchcraft,” Social Text 26.295 (2008): 118.

(11.) Jean Baudrillard, Der Geist des Terrorismus (Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 2003), 19.

(12.) See the DVD included in Behrend, Resurrecting Cannibals: The Catholic Church, Witch-Hunts and the Production of Pagans in Western Uganda, which shows such a ceremony.

(13.) Michel de Certeau, The Possession at Loudun (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 23, 27.

(14.) Maria José de. Breath Abreu, “Technology and the Making of Community Cancao Nova in Brazil,” in Aesthetic Formations. Media, Religion and the Senses, ed. Birgit Meyer (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 12.

(15.) Morris, “Witchcraft,” 116.

(16.) Faupel, J. F., African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs (New York, 1962).

(17.) Magambo, Serapio, and Albert Edward Barahagate, “Okujaguza Habwa Ba-Isenkuru itwe omu nyikiriza” (Celebrations for our ancestors/grandfathers in the faith) (Hoima, 1986); and Nsobya, Tarcis, A., “The African Heroes” (Masaka, 1999).

(18.) Kassimir, Ronald, “Complex Martyrs. Symbols of Catholic Church Formation and Political Differentiation in Uganda,” African Affairs 90.360 (1991): 357–382; and Kassimir, Ronald, The Social Power of religious Organization: The Catholic Church in Uganda 1955-1991, PhD diss., (Department of Political Science, Chicago, 1996).

(19.) Behrend, Heike. Resurrecting Cannibals. The Catholic Church, Witch-Hunts and the Production of Pagans in Western Uganda. (Oxford: James Currey, 2011).

(20.) Faupel, African Holocaust.