Legacy of the Ugandan Martyrs

By: Joseph Okumu

Today, in the year [2016], nearly one-hundred years after their martyrdom, we celebrate the death of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa. How did we come to know so much about them? First of all our elders have a long memory of the important events that happened in the village, and certainly could not easily forget what happened on that weekend of 19-21 October 1918.

They remember many details about the killing of such two good catechists who were truly loved by all. What they had done with the bodies of the two youngsters was something unusual in that the bodies had not been buried the way ordinary dead persons were buried. Their bodies were taken to and left to rot over an empty termite anthill. This very unusual gesture could not have been easily forgotten and showed that the local people regarded the two catechists and their death something special.

In 1927 Mgr. Antonio Vignato collected their remains from Paimol-Palamuku, where they had been left, took them to Kitgum and buried them with honor in the large Church of Kitgum, which had just been completed four years earlier in 1923. Even after their remains had been removed from Paimol-Palamuku, the Christians of the area continued to go and pray at the anthill, already venerated as a special place. It was even renamed WI-polo (“in heaven”), in remembrance of the prayer Daudi and Jildo had taught to the catechumens in Paimol: “Our Father who art in heaven…”.

Moreover, the villagers actually started to bury their dead up at WI-polo, transforming the place into a Christian graveyard. Many parents also named their children after Daudi and Jildo. The great uncles of Jildo composed a bwola, a royal song in his honor.
In 1951 the Comboni Missionaries Fr. Vittorio Albertini and Fr. Vincenzo Pellegrini were asked to collect some testimonies of the alleged martyrdom for a possible opening of a canonical process.

Though records were collected in 1952-1953, the process could not start then due to a number of reasons, like the lack of expertise to undertake the study of the cause, the First and Second World Wars, the anti-colonial feelings that the Comboni missionariesmet by the hands of political progressive parties in Uganda, the increasing government’s religious bias in the late fifties and early sixties and the post independent Uganda periods of Milton Obote in 1962-1970 and of Idi Amin Dada in 1971-1979.

The Gulu diocesan synod of 1996 proposed to take up the canonical process and study of the two catechists’ martyrdom in a professional way. And with the expertise of the Comboni Missionaries, Fr. Arnaldo Baritussio, in Rome and Fr. Mario Marchetti in Gulu, Uganda, and of the diocesan priest Fr. Joseph Okumu, the diocesan process opened in 1997 and closed in 1998. Almost on record time, on 23rd April 2002 a decree of martyrdom was issued by the Sacred Congregation of Saints for Blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa.

On 20th October 2002, Mission Sunday, the Pope in Rome finally declared as “blessed” the two martyred catechists and presented them to the entire Church in what was a deserved recognition of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa’s service for the “missio ad gentes” and a reaffirmation that “there are martyrs even in our time”, in the third millennium, who have irrigated the soil of the Church along the Ni-lo. In Uganda there will be two more crosses shining in the sky, in addition to the earlier twenty two, binding a divided country in a mysterious way through the cross on which Our Saviour died.

Many people, in north Uganda, who know Daudi and Jildo find in them a model of zeal to share Christian values with other people i.e. to evangelise. Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa teach us that the Catholic Christian faith has two essential dimensions, the personal and social. At the personal dimension, Catholic Christian faith is received as a gift of God revealed to us and at its social level this faith must be put shared out to the benefit of other people.

Daudi Okelo received the faith from the Missionaries of Italy and thereafter felt the need to share it out in Paimol. In this way Daudi and Jildo teach us here in north Uganda that when we take our faith seriously that faith easily becomes love of one another. This is what many other catechists after Daudi and Jildo did in north Uganda. During the on going insurgency, 66 catechists have been killed by combatants as they went around rendering services to their needy brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Gulu. They remained in their places of work and service until death because they understood that “a man can have no better love than to lay down his life for his friends”.

In the St. Joseph’s Catechists Training Institute of the Archdiocese of Gulu, the catechists always looked at the painting of Daudi and Jildo and although they had not yet been declared martyrs, they followed their example of strong faith and zeal to share that faith with all peoples. The fame of martyrdom of the two young catechists remain alive in the hearts of all student catechists. Catechists of the Archdiocese of Gulu, like their companions Daudi and Jildo, are always ready to go to preach gospel values to their own people thus bringing to reality what Pope Paul VI had predicted when in 1969, he talked of Africans being missionaries to themselves.


Wisdom says one thing about life in many different ways. History repeats itself, nothing is new under the sun, a fool can only learn by his own mistake. But there is one best way to put all these sayings together. Life is learning, now, from the past to become better in the future. In other words it is to know how to fit well together the past present and the future. Martyrs like Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa said it is to live in Faith, Love and Hope.

Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa are known as martyrs of evangelisation because of their zeal to go and preach the gospel of love some eighty kilometers away from their homes. This seems to be a very simple thing which anyone would be in a position to do in theory. But today Ugandans know how difficult it is to go and export the gospel values of love to neighbor’s. Daudi and Jildo had all reasons to fear Paimol people and areas but they decided, in the name of Jesus Christ, to look at the good results which their mission would bring to Paimol without counting the cost. This is a zeal that may look in a world torn apart by ethnic differences but it truly happened and still happens.

Recently Ugandans remembered a catholic priest of Kasaana Luwero who was killed in an ambush in Burundi. The national and independent dailies paid tribute to him. Gulu archdiocese remembers that over 66 catechists have still been killed where they went to export the gospel values of love. Many Ugandans have learnt to appreciate the zeal to evangelize and now that they have concrete models of their own stock they should love to be more zealous.

Political situation has not completely changed from what it used to be in 1918. When you recall the imposition and arrest of local chiefs by the British administrators of the time and their attitude towards the areas beyond Masindi, then you will realise that many African states are still far from free and democratic. Blessed Daudi and Jildoknew how to live in a situation of the same sort with a tolerance inspired by faith and love.

When the killers fell upon the young catechists in their huts they tried to dissuade them to teach the new gospel values in Paimol. They would live if they stopped teaching it. But the two catechists stood by their faith. Like Daudi and Jildo we find it difficult to stand by our faith in the face of opposition. If we want to stand firm in our convictions, Daudi and Jildo will be our models.

Examples fervent faith

Blessed Daudi and Jildo offer us a lesson in faith and fidelity. Of the young martyrs, two things strike us with admiration; their young age and the short time they lived their Christian faith with determination. To them Jesus Christ was not a reality who could be chosen today and abandoned tomorrow. The life according to the gospel, prayer, fraternal charity, work and the desire to be instruments of evangelization, teaching the new religion gave them confidence in front of all difficulties.

They felt that their service in Paimol, as catechists, entered well into the plan of God by which the priests and other catechists preferred them to others. For this they remained stronger and more matured than other people of the place who asked them to abandon the new religion and the church at the time of difficulty. They had said “Jesus and Mary are with us” before they came to Paimol and now they must show this practically. Great example indeed!

An examination of conscience for us today who easily give up the true faith and the church for practices contrary to Christian faith. These two lay catechists, who did not fear to witness their faith by the shedding of blood, are an awe-inspiring example to the universal Church and, more specially, to the Church in Uganda. At the dawn of the third millennium Christians are invited to renew their faith in a God who is always with them till the end of time.

Apostolic zeal

The lives of two young catechists Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa are a testimony in our own time of the truth of Christ’s words. It is not just enough to receive the great gift of faith but one must be willing and convinced to share this great gift with others.

For Daudi and Jildo, it all started with a simple but zealous question: “Father, who will go to Paimol to take the place of Antonio?” This was a question loaded with faith, love and hope of so simple and youthful souls of Daudi and Jildo. They wanted to go to evangelise Paimol, 80 or more kilometers east of their own villages of Ogom-Payira and Labongo Bar-Kitoba.

Catechist Antonio of Paimol had died a year earlier in 1916. The two of them feel that they must go to replace him. In this way the great apostolic appeal apostle Paul must be obeyed also in our time, “But they will not ask his help unless they believe in him, and they will not believe in him unless they have heard of him, and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher and they will not get a preacher unless one is sent” (Rm 10:14-16).

Apostolic zeal is always based on faith. Daudi and Jildo had just embraced the faith and been confirmed in the Spirit of God, and already, hardly a year later, they are willing to go and propagate the new religion as catechists in Paimol. It was difficult to serve as catechists in that part of acholi land. Faced with indifference and lack of enthusiasms today every Christian learns from Daudi and Jildo to be charitable and zealous to share all gifts with others.

Examples of responsibility

The decree with which the Holy Father Pope John Paul II acknowledges the martyrdom of Daudi and Jildo reminds us that our two heroes had been notable disciples of the Lord because of their good conduct.

By their lives, they preached what they themselves had received. Just because they were real catechists, faithful to their mandate and service they become examples to the local church and examples also to each person who is part of the Christian community.

By their lives they appeal to both the catechists and all Christians. They appeal to the youth and adults, individual and communities, church and society and peoples of all walks of life to rest their lives on stable spiritual and moral values.

Examples of Freedom

We may ask what lessons Blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa may teach us today. Firstly, a lesson of freedom. To be a Christian is to be free, free to make choices. Daudi and Jildo attained this freedom by accepting to evangelise their brothers and sisters. They were free to run away from Paimol when the situation there became manifestly dangerous. They chose, instead, to remain, to continue in their mission.

Even when they became aware that the adwi intended to kill them, they still chose to remain. The choices one makes in life determine the kind of person one becomes. Emulating Daudi and Jildo we are invited to have that type of freedom of choices that determines what we want to be, remembering that the best choices are always life giving, love inspired, noble and generating peace.

Today, many young people rush to make choices very easily and so they often go wrong. For example, the rash choices to use drugs, heroines, join the army which often ends up in killing a person, etc. are not a noble choice. The noble choices of Blessed Daudi and Jildo do challenge us today. What have I done with my life? Have I put my talents to the service of the Gospel or of Mammon?

Examples of truth and justice

Daudi and Jildo are a voice, which cannot be silenced, of truth and justice. In fact in front of their killers they continued to proclaim their innocence “you may kill us, but we have done nothing wrong”.

The witnesses of their death also said “they killed them [Daudi and Jildo] for no reason”. These voices of the innocent of all times must be remembered because they continue to remind us of the grave responsibilities of those who use power to exploit, down trod, oppress the weaker and the innocent.

The blood of Daudi and Jildo cries against the injustices committed against the innocent by those who continue to spill more blood for selfish interests. “The blood of the just Abel… and of many others like him… among whom there are also Daudi and Jildo, continues to ask for clemency, measure, pity, justice compassion and truth!

Will our society hear them? The martyrs return again today in our time”. The Pope reminds us.

Examples of pardon and reconciliation

Like Jesus and St. Stephen, Daudi and Jildo forgave their persecutors telling them of the meaninglessness of their gesture. They told whoever wanted to kill them that their mission would not be finished with their death even after they had been killed, other catechists would have come to Paimol to continue the mission. No one would anymore stop the preaching of the gospel in Paimol.

They did not deceive themselves because as we can see today all the Christian communities prepare to celebrate the martyrdom. By their heroic example to suffer the violence other than not, they call all Ugandans, suffering and torn apart by ethnic and political divisions to the only way to lasting peace and unity which is pardon, reconciliation, justice and truth.

Responding to evil with, to violence with violence, to tyranny with tyranny may give the impression of being very powerful or invincible but in the end of the day it brings more insecurity in the country. Daudi and Jildo invite all to find a way different from the violent one of the present.

The role of the catechist today

The history of the arrival and growth of Christianity in Uganda can only be fully explained by the role of the catechists, persons who had been able to reach even the remotest villages of the Christian communities. In effect, the catechists have represented and continue to represent the basic Christian communities of the church, priests and the people. They know both the priests and their people better because they live with both better than anybody.

Today, catechists continue to be indispensable in the growth and maintenance of the parishes and their outstations. In fact, they are the immediate contact with the people of all places for an effective and fruitful pastoral organization of the communities. Without them the priests would have insurmountable pastoral difficulties in their parishes.

The catechists therefore are vital and reputable leaders of the people. They are, to sum it up, the indispensable point of reference at all times. It is therefore understandable that in this part of the country, concretely in the Archdiocese of Gulu between 1986 and 2002 at least 66 catechists should have been killed in the course of their ministry. The drama of these heroes does not however discourage many others who still continue to come to the training to take up the ministry.

At least there are still 630 working with ever stronger faith to minister the word of God in the field and to reconcile with those who do not agree with them.


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