The Faith, mission and courage story that is never tired

IMG_1783Evangelism and journalism are difficult missions to accomplish when one considers the faith, courage and sense of mission they take to do them. To evangelize you need to believe there is a God who is calling you to propagate the Good news He has for humankind. Even when it is difficult to do one goes for it or else one decides a priori that there is no such thing as God calling to propagate. To collect and write good news one needs to believe there is always something new to write about or will decide a priori that some events are already tired;  Faith is about postulating that there exists something new and good somewhere to talk or write about even if one does not see it. Along with that belief that something exists beyond our senses given to talk and write about one goes with a sense of mission and courage. It is always hard  to go to something you believe and feel sent to do, see, touch, hear  etc. It is still harder if you already know the hardships involved.

One hundred years ago this year two young Acholi boys Okelo 16 years who later became David and Irwa 14 years who later became [Ermene] Jildo believed and felt called to to talk out what they believed. The circumstance in which they embraced the belief in the Good news was a hard one. A one Antonio cousin of David Okelo had died of fever and hunger in Paimol an Acholi location whose Cultural Leadership was struggling to make sense of the recently imposed Colonial rule; whose medicine men and women were struggling to make sense of the extraordinary and devastating outbreak of diseases that claimed many lives and whose grounds, terrains and neighburhood were unfamiliar.

The faith, calling to propagate both evangelists David Okelo and Jildo Irwa responded to with courage and the one journalists respond to are the same but because the hidden meaning of it is hard to see one is tempted to disbelieve it or to conclude that such event is obsolete.

Introducing his book A profile of two asserted Martyrs of Paimol: Too long in the Dark (1997) Fr Mario Marchetti MCCJ says in these or similar words: “These pages intend to throw light on the facts and [David Okelo and Jildo Irwa] persons who for a short time would go unnoticed in the public eyes. But the voice of Divine wisdom reminds us of a dimension that cannot be erased, that remains along centuries and the history of [Good news] salvation repeating itself”. Then Fr. Marchetti goes on to quote from the Biblical Book of Wisdom: “The souls of the just are in the hands of God, no [hardships] torment will ever touch them anymore…In the eyes of unbelievers they appeared dead and their going is all ruin but they are instead in peace….”.

The bible text quoted by Fr. Marchetti talks about the relevance of living faith, mission and courage in this and the after here life. The heroic story of their lives are tired only in the eyes of the foolish according to the Book of Wisdom.

The martyrs are holy and alive in heavenly peace.

Pilgrims who come to this small jungle area of the East Acholi district of Agago have no doubts about this. They believe that there is unending and peaceful life after here. What assures them even the more is one, that two youths who they know in fact and history are no more here but there in that life and two that such life is attainable.

Because of this strong belief that that life is attainable also by them like it had been by the martyrs they come to learn how Blessed David Okelo and Jildo Irwa attained it. They ask so many questions about it. How old David and Jildo were when they embraced the faith? Who talked to them about the Good news? How long did they spend learning it? Who were their parents, what did they think about their children becoming Christians? What about their clans people what did they think of their children driven away by the new culture of propagating the Good news? Pilgrims ask about their relics or remains to answer questions lingering in their minds about the reality of the whole events of martyrdom.

We all may know that there had been civil war in Uganda and in particular northern Uganda for many years since the introduction of colonial rule, the regime of Milton Obote, Idi Amin Dada to our time in the regime of Yoweri K. Museveni. The particular story of the martyrdom of David Okelo and Jildo Irwa and twenty two martyrs of Namugongo have been alive. In the case of the martyrdom of David Okelo and Jildo Irwa the story of their martyrdom became an important literature in the primary schools learning. We are familiar with Fr. Vincenzo Pellegrini’s Acoli macon Chapter XLI published in 1955 by the Gulu Catholic Press.

The story inspired many youths male and female to become priests, nuns, consecrated men, catechists, doctors and nurses who serve in the Catholic Church with dedicated zeal and evangelize their territories and their neighbourhoods. In the periods of civil wars mentioned above the Catholic faithful looked at Blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa as models of faith, mission and courage to bear witness to Christ. The text of their martyrdom became an object of prayer, meditation and reflection in the displacement camps. So much so that those who experienced favour of God attributed to the intercession of the two martyrs in he faces of hardships and dangers of their lives asked the then Pope now Saint John Paul II to beatify catechists Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa. The Pope did so in October 2002.

How real is the story today?

Seventy six more catechists killed just between 1986 and 2007

We are many Catholic priests, nuns, religious brothers and catechists today in northern Uganda. We are all convinced that we are greatly sustained in our faith, calling and strength by our two blessed catechists who passed on the same to our grand parents. But to answer better the above question one needs to know what happened here during the civil wars. Without belief and courage like those of catechists David Okelo and Jildo Irwa commitment to the faith would have totally waned. In many instances the armed combatants seemed to deliberately target the Christian believers who they occasionally accused of spreading religion considered the “opium” of the people, refusing to receive a new anointing into the Lord’s resistance army or joining the sacred altar of the God Father of Severino Lukoya. In fact to date we have on record 76 catechists killed by the combatants. These catechists were and are still the ones who on a daily basis consoled berieved families whose members were and are killed in the villages, and displacement camps.

Priest believes the martyrs saved his index

One priest who was shot in an ambush by armed people is Fr. John Peter Olum great devotee to the Blessed David and Jildo. He testifies: “Had it not been for the intercession of the martyred catechists David and Jildo my index finger would have been amputated. When I saw that my wrist was falling to the ground after it was torn apart by bullet, I collected its pieces in attempt to join it back to the arm. When I saw it did not hold I realized it was dismembered and I cried aloud: Jesus I need this finger to hold the Eucharist. Please give it back to me”. And a few moments later I saw many Catholic faithful around me. One helped me hold to my shattered wrist another pulled out of my car Mrs Albina the dead wife of the catechist who was hit by the same bullet. Albina’s husband catechist Aldo Okot was taken alive into the bushed and killed. The third passenger Mr. Martin Lacen was killed instantly by another bullet”. Fr. John Peter Olum’s index was saved at the Catholic Church’s St. Mary’s Hospital Lacor with the help of a consecrated Brother Elio Croce Mccj and Dr. Tom who both  survived the most dangerous and contagious hemorrhagic ebola with the same heroism of Blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa.

Doctors and nurses at St. Mary’s Lacor Hospital make choice like the martyrs did

Even with medical doctors and nurses the untiring story of faith, mission and courage lives on. To survive the dangers of war and contagious diseases our Doctors and nurses draw from the faith and courage of Blessed David Okelo and Jildo Irwa. Like the two catechists chose to go to continue the mission of catechists Antonio who died in 1916 in Paimol Doctors Cyprian Opira, Martin Ogwang, Odong Emmington, Tom Okelo and countless nurses chose to renounce their better paid jobs and positions in the Country’s highly reputable Mulago Hospital in the capital city Kampala to become part of the faith and mission of our martyrs of the rural north. Their unrelenting commitment here today is yet a demonstration that the story of the martyrs is not a tired one.

Most Rev John Baptist Odama thinks the martyrs give him wisdom

The virtue of Hope practiced by our martyrs continues to inspire people across religious denominations. Our catechists strongly believed there is life eternal. When Okelo David and Jildo Irwa came to ask the priest Fr. Cesare Gambaretto permission to go to Paimol to continue the mission of Antonio the priest asked them if they do not fear to be killed in Paimol. It was David who answered: if they kill us we will go to heaven. Antonio is already there (P. M. Marchetti p. 26)- This sort of unwavering hope and faith is found in many people today. When at the height of insurgency the Most Rev John Baptist Odama Archbishop of Gulu was asked if he did not fear the rebels would kill him. He said that he answered the military: “then I will go to heaven and you and the rebels will remain orphans because I your father would be dead”. Powerful. Is n’t it?. Archbishop John Baptist Odama keeps the bones of the martyrs in his private chapel where he spends all Thursdays asking the martyrs to speak to him for all the missions ahead. This is real. The prelate spends whole Thursdays talking with the martyrs in the belief that from heaven they guide his mission to success. All his Thursdays are blocked for that purpose. The femur and skull bones of the martyrs are there with him all this time in the urns.

Sacrificing to see faith, mission zeal and courage grow in the people today

Four great structures have since sprung up in honour of the martyred catechists David Okelo and Jildo. The Church of Blessed David and Jildo here below

IMG_6406  Rector's residence

the priests’ residence here below

two dormitories of female and male foot pilgrims,

the great arches of reconciliation also known as theforgive our trespasses arches here below

The "Firgive our trespasses Arches"

and the open air altar.IMG_2997






“We’ll be Back” say Arua Diocese Pilgrims


wiPolo Martyrs shrine has been the center of pilgrimage once again these past two days when it hosted Pilgrims from the West Nile Diocese of Arua. Twenty eight catechists turned up to see the holy place where their fore runners martyrs Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa were killed.

The catechists led by Fr. Marius Andiaku, the Director of Catechist’s training in Arua diocese arrived on Thursday evening for their spiritual retreat with the purpose of learning about Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa whom they had heard but knew so little about and true to their goal, their visit to wiPolo lived met their expectations.

With facilitation sessions led by the incharge of Spiritual Guidance at wiPolo Reverend Sister Margaret Pirango of the Congregartion of the Little sisters of Mary Immaculate of Gulu (LSMIG) and Ivan Aboga Rackara, a student of journalism that addressed the historical background of the martyrs and the relevance of the sacrifices they made, the catechis ended their pilgrimage with a deep sense of fulfillment. They were awesome struck by the narratives of the heroic lives led by fellow catechists Blessed Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa in the very early age of Christian evangelization in north Uganda.

Sr Margaret Pirango facilitates an afternoon session on family life

“I was well impressed by the fact that Daudi and Jildo young as they were, dedicated their lives to preaching the gospel which teaches me that age is just a number” said Tom Nyakuayo, a catechist from Micu parish.

Nyakuayo further noted that the catechists’ story was a life changing one that every Christian irrespective of their denomination must listen to. He ended by sending out an open invitation to Christians to make the journey to Paimol and witness first-hand the lives of these young brave men.

The visiting group of twenty-six men and two women was also given a brief tour of wiPolo that saw them come face to face with the two sites now that had housed the huts in which the two martyrs had lived and also the place where their dead bodies were left in an anthill in 1918.

Fr. Andiaku encouraged his team of catechists to take advantage of their short visit to get to see the monumental tomb of the two christian faithfuls who were willing to die for the sake of their religion, citing that the catechists should be women and men of courage in preaching  the gospel and lead exemplary lives like those led by the two Ugandan martyrs.

For Francesca Draru 45, the youngest catechist in service amongst the group, the sight of the tomb of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa was one that would always remind her about the importance of being brave and defending what is right.

“Now I know that you have to defend what is right and it doesn’t matter whether it’s dangerous or not, Daudi and Jildo were killed more than ninety years ago, yet we still remember them even up to date. She mentioned.

The catechists left early today Saturday February 23 with the promise to return to Paimol for the centenary celebration later October this year.

How Jildo Irwa and Daudi Okello Came To Become Martyrs

By Joseph Okumu

Martyrdom does not happen by chance. The events of all martyrdom’s are always dressed up in many other events. That of the martyrs of Paimol Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa had a number of other historic events.

Firstly, the well remembered slave trade carried out by some Arabic-speaking traders from Sudan named, by the Acholi of the time, munu Kutoria and subsequently munu Jadiya who had been official representatives of the Egyptian administrators on the upper Nile until 1888.

Secondly, the new administrative policy to supplant acholi traditional and legitimate chiefs by the agents of British Administration,-munu Ingereza.

Thirdly the Spanish fever which broke throughout Acholi land.

Fourthly the venereal disease, which became known as nyac abac, believed to have been spread by the slave traders who often raped beautiful looking Acholi women and fifthly the advent of the new religion propagated by yet another group of white people, munu karatoum. These were Italian Catholic missionaries of based in Verona, Italy.

All these were new events which threatened the traditional Acholi integrity. The Acholi people resented and sought ways to put an end to them all. “Due primarily to British pressure on the Egyptian government to halt slave trading by its subject on the upper Nile, the Kutoria period was brought forcibly to a close in 1872 and, in 1888, at the hands of a multi-polity Acholi force the Jadiya were defeated and then finally withdrew from Acholi land” (Ronald R. Atkinson, 994: 268).

In 1916 part of Acholi’s chiefdom of Agoro, the Logot, killed a certain Musa, an agent of the British or munu ingereza. Another chiefdom, Paimol, rebelled against Amet imposed on them by the same munu ingereza. It was the responsibility of the Acholi witches, ajwaka (sing.), ajwakki (plur.) to find remedy to Spanish fever and the nyac abac diseases.

Where there was need, the Acholi did not hesitate to consult and make alliance with other forces to defeat a stronger enemy of their traditional integrity. In the case of the martyrdom of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa, deposed chief, Lakidi of Paimol, consulted with and made alliance with some rebels, the abac and some karimojong in the jungle.

Eye witnesses Fiberto and Daniele reported how the adwi planned to kill the catechists. Another witness Gabriele Aloo assured that they were dependable witnesses (Raccolta Albertini 1952-1953: 124-129). Over seventy five witnesses of the martyrdom of Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa narrated the complex story of a simple act of fidelity which has become a life inspiring value of all cultures and times.

Early missionary expeditions

In the 19th and 20th century, on many European journals, much news had already circulated on Uganda’s central and eastern districts and two such information’s were supposedly accurate and at once challenging. One such news had been reported by Sir Samuel Baker of slave trade he had seen during his sourjourn in Acholi land as far beyond Masindi as Pabo, Patiko and Padibe in 1863 and 1865. But little was really known and said about the Uganda north of Masindi to the border with Southern Sudan.

Indeed the Catholic missionaries had not been slow in taking the challenge of moving into all this and other areas of Africa. In 1845 the first missionaries, the Holy Ghost Fathers, started evangelisation on the Western coast of the African continent. In 1859, after numerous and often unhappy attempts, the Fathers of the African Mission of Lyons were able to establish themselves in Dahomey.

On the Eastern coast the work of evangelisation began around 1860. In 1874 the Missionaries for Africa (White Fathers), founded by Cardinal Lavigerie, started moving towards the area of the Great Lakes. On 17th February 1879 ten Missionaries for Africa, led by Fr. Lourdel, sailed from Marseilles and, starting from the coast at Mombasa, reached Uganda around the area that is now known as Entebbe. The farthest they could move northward of the country, though, was Masindi.

Besides the way from the coast, there was another possibility of entering Uganda and this was from the north, through Sudan. This was the path taken by the Comboni Missionaries, founded by Blessed Daniel Comboni. From Europe, they would sail to Egypt and then on the river Nile or cross the desert by camel all the way to Khartoum. From there onwards, the journey was on foot or, later, by steam boat, but only as far as the Nile cataracts.

The Comboni missionaries spread the Gospel in the vast and little known areas of Southern Sudan, arriving eventually in North Uganda. Driven by their founder’s cry “Africa or death” and by his charisma to evangelise the “poorest and most abandoned”, they faced enormous challenges and sacrifices with determination and enthusiasm, overcoming obstacles and hardships that many a times seemed insurmountable. The area in the north of Uganda, bordering with Southern Sudan, is where the martyrdom of Daudi and Jildo took place.

The villages of the two martyrs in the grip of interested groups (1848-1888)

From the southern end of Uganda, Sir Samuel Baker ventured into the interior reaching the Acholi land at Palaro, a slave market near Patiko, also market place of traders in white and black ivory. But to put it in colonial terms of the time, these areas were “marginal and inferior in many ways”. During the period 1863-1865, Baker stayed among the Acholi at what later was called Fort Patiko and made notes on the people and the land.

Then Baker was named by the Egyptian government to lead its forces against both the slave traders, whom their Acholi victims referred to as munu kutoria, and the Mhadi rebels that were still rustling the land unabated. The kutoria were defeated in 1872. England had at long last decided to do a little more than just look after the Uganda protectorate, which by now also included the Acholi land, and began to lay claims against the Belgians’ colonial greed for what was called the Lado enclave, northwest of present Uganda.

The Acholi people lived in fear of long droughts, wild animals, slave traders and cattle rustlers from neighboring drier lands. Unfortunately the British administrator, Munu ingereza in the local language, added to their plight in an effort to bring them (the heathen, as they were called) into the empire system by employing non-Acholi agents, irrespective of their reputation. Indeed the neighboring Banyoro, referred to by the Acholi as Luduni, and remnants of the slave traders, the feared Munu Jadiya, were readily available for such a job.

Because of their centralised-polity, the Banyoro were held in higher respect by the Crown than the heathen or pagan Acholi, because the Banyoro had one king (a centralised social structure), while the Acholi had many kings. The Missionaries of Africa in their evangelising drive had reached the Banyoro and made numerous converts among them, but did not enter Acholi land. “In 1888, defeated at the hands of a multi-Acholi forces, the munu jadiya finally withdrew from Acholi land”. The Acholi, though, always kept a careful watch on the various groups that showed interest in their territory.

Bending the “heathen” Acholi to come part of the empire (1894-1916)

In 1894 a final treaty was signed by England and other European powers to safeguard the whole of the Uganda protectorate, including the Lado conclave. The Acholi land, though, where raids, inter tribal feuds, famine and disease continued unabated, was still considered as marginal and inferior. In 1902, however, Acholi land was declared as one of the three districts of the Uganda protectorate, but, even so, things did not improve much.

One of the tasks of the administrators of the Uganda protectorate was to collect an “annual hut tax” from every adult male. Since the people had no money to pay this tax, the administrators in exchange introduced a kind of forced labour where the men were made to construct roads and administrative buildings. It was a way to completely subjugate the new district of the Nile province. Discreetly also the slave trade continued, as the Comboni missionary, Mgr. Antonio Vignato, Prefect Apostolic of the Equatorial Nile, would later confirm in his first official correspondence with Propaganda Fide in 1923.

The administrators of the Protectorate (F.K. Girling 1960, 109-110) started a long process of what they considered civilising the Acholi social structure by deposing their traditionally anointed chiefs and rulers. The great Acholi Payira sub-clan, ruled by rwot Awic, was the first to be targeted. Between 1911 and 1912, on the order of Munu ingereza, the indigenous chief was deposed and replaced with Yonna Odida, believed to be more subservient to the government.

In 1917 chief Lakidi of Paimol was also deposed and replaced by Amet, also reputed to be submissive to the government. Similar changes were made among lower ranks of the chiefdom. In Padibe a government administrator imposed a certain Musa, a Muslim, who in 1916 was killed by the Logot. In Paimol, the sub chief Ogal, the one who welcomed the two martyred catechists, was replaced by a certain Bongi. Most of the government administrators had been assisted in carrying out their duties by the Banyoro and Baganda.

By the time the Protestant and the Comboni missionaries arrived in Acholi land, there were many educated Banyoro and Baganda in the area. The Protestant missionaries made great use of their skills to translate books. The Comboni missionaries, instead, did so to a much lesser extent.

The arrival of the Comboni Missionaries.

The Redemptor steamboat, with Comboni Missionaries on board, set off on 30th December 1909 from the small port of Khartoum in Northern Sudan. Acholi land had officially been recognised by the government open to Catholic missionaries since 1902, when there was an historical policy change.

Fr. Federico Vianello, the Superior General of Daniel Comboni’smissionaries, Mgr. Franz Xavier Geyer, Vicar Apostolic of the Central African Mission, and his secretary Brother Cagol might have looked like the happiest men on earth as on board of the Redemptor were beginning their journey towards the north of Uganda.

The Comboni missionary Fr. Albino Colombaroli, then in Wau, the capital of the province of Bahr-el-Ghazal, received an urgent telegram to leave for Shambe, by way of Tonje-Rumbek, to join the team coming on the Redemptor. Once it reached the cataracts of the river Nile, the boat had, unfortunately, to be abandoned and the impatient missionaries had to proceed on foot.

This might have been a blessing in disguise for the Italian missionaries who wanted to approach the local people with a distinctly friendly method suggested by their founder Daniele Comboni, namely to “save Africa by Africans”. The method will from now on borrow much from the African value of community life at meal. Salvation must be based on sharing a meal with each other.

The Eucharist basis: The first impressive manifestation of faith in the area was seen on 18th January 1910 when Mgr. Geyer’s group arrived at the Commissioner’s house in Gondokoro to a warm welcome by a large crowd lead by a Catholic employee from Goa, a certain “Mr. Dias, and many Catholics from Uganda, easily recognised by the crown they carried on their necks”. The Ugandans had settled in that place as soldiers, servants and traders. The following day, 19 January 1910, Mgr. Geyer celebrated Holy Mass in the house of one of the sergeants, a catholic from Uganda.

Msgr. Geyer was very pleased by the large congregation and by their faith. Relations with the authorities, though, did not go so well. Monsignor’s obedience to and patience with government administrators, love for and trust in the “underprivileged” people and the urge to go whenever the need arose, became the characteristics of a typically Comboni missionary’s apostolate in the Equatorial Nile Prefecture, laying the foundation of a loving and zealous community headed by the martyrs Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa.

The difficulties encountered in setting up missions were quickly felt, not only on account of lack of material means, but also due to contrasts, oppositions and mistrust. “On 2nd February 1910 we arrive at Nimule, a lovely fertile piece of land where the small Unyama meets the Nile and Koba rivers, just on the right side where the Nile enters Lake Albert and turns on its course. The desire to settle here is irresistible. But all will depend on the governor who, with some discomfort, witnessed the large congregation at the first Catholic Mass.

The Commissioner, Mr. Hannington, son of the Protestant bishop assassinated in Busoga on 29th October 1885 by order of the Buganda’s King Mwanga, has cautiously suggested a temporary settlement at Nimule, but the final decision is still to come” (Negri A 1937.14). A new English Commissioner had just arrived and Mgr. Geyer’s attempt to explain his position by referring to the recommendations of the Governor General of Khartoum was in vain. Though uncertain of a permanent stay, the caravan settled on a site by the regular Butyaba-Nimule route link (Negri A. ibidem).

The favorable answer to Msgr. Geyer’s request for a place where to settle arrived four days later, but the message was not given to him straight away. In those days, in fact, the ex-president of the United Sates of America, Theodore Roosevelt, was visiting the area with 600 porters and set up camp just next to Msgr. Geyer’s spot. Msgr. Geyer was finally handed over the permission to open a mission station at Nimule, by the Lake Albert, near a government post. Koba was suggested as the place for a permanent mission station.

An interesting thing that Msgr. Geyer recalls was that the Shilluk, when asked the name of the river the Redemptor was on, they said: Ni lo? – meaning who knows?- a mystery indeed (Cisternino Mario 2000). Indeed the missio ad gentes had started off on a mystery course, partly revealed by the events that took place in Paimol, at Wi-Polo. Msgr. Geyer, though, would never know of this event.

In the first months of 1911 a Protestant World Missionary Conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. 1200 delegates from the remotest parts of the world participated. At this conference a new approach to apostolate of the CMS was discussed with specific appeal to collect a hyperbolic sum of money to finance missionary activities in Omach.

The German representative, Dr. Kraff of the CMS, had already sent a catechist to stay at Koba as early back as 1848. These two were areas where the Comboni Missionarieswere just beginning their work, always behind the CMS who enjoyed the government’s favour.

Evangelization and human development

From Koba Msgr. Geyer had free contacts with both the Alur and Acholi neighbor’s. He was planning to establish a second mission station in the region. Soon Msgr. Geyer met with Alur and Acholi chiefs to decide for a more permanent settlement among either of them. In Msgr. Geyer’s assessment, the Acholi were more primitive, difficult to trust and warlike and so he would be rather careful before opening a mission among them (Negri A. 1937.17-18).

On 6th March 1910 Mgr. Geyer blessed a cross for a church among the Alur, at Omach. The converts were increasing. There was a clear need for more labourers. Fr. Luigi Cordone and Fr. Pasquale Crazzolara arrived from Italy with Bro. Clement Schroer and Bro. Benedict Sighele. There was also the need to diversify evangelisation by taking into account human development and education. Msgr. Geyer only had the time to bless the new arrivals before returning to Europe to recover some strength.

Meanwhile the work at the mission continued with a new dimension added, that of education. To the suspicious local population, it now appeared clearly that the new white people were not interested in black and white ivory. Fr. Pasquale Crazzolara was very well prepared and keen to learn the local languages, Luganda and Acholi, and to translate the catechism of Pope Pius X into the Alur language to be used in their evangelising work. The text was in a question and answer form, approved for catechetical instructions all over the Apostolic Prefecture.

Fr. Albino Colombaroli was the superior of the mission. Children were coming from all over the place to see the Comboni Missionaries, the new white people whom they soon referred to as the munu karatum – the people from Khartoum (Negri A Op. Cit 18-20). The Acholi chief Lagony, who had sixty wives, was very happy to send one of his children to the new munu. Soon the people willingly sent their children to the friendly munu karatum who had truly come to teach them the way to heaven, to WI-Polo

Fr. Beduschi and Fr. Pietro Audisio settle among the Acholi

The Alur chief Okelo of West Nile, whose territory used to be under Belgian authorities due to the first Anglo-Belgian treaty of 12th May 1894, repeatedly kept sending one of his pages, a certain catechist Areni, to call the new munu to his quarters to teach him catechism. Fr. Colombaroli, who occasionally visited him, had to enter the Lado enclave, still under Belgian authority.

When the Belgian King Leopld II died, 17th December 1909, a second Anglo-Belgian treaty transferred the Lado enclave under British authority. The missionaries were then free to visit the West Nile and Acholi areas. On 28th April 1911 Fr. Giuseppe Beduschi and Fr. Pietro Audisio, from Verona and via Omach, arrived among the Acholi to open the new mission of Gulu.

As the number of catechumens was steadily increasing, the Comboni Missionariesturned for help to the White Fathers who had at hand a good number of trained Bunyoro catechists. Knowing that an indigenous catechist would do better in his own environment, as he is familiar with the situation and enjoys the trust and love of the people, the Comboni missionaries avoided the mistake of employing many catechists from outside.

The administrators of the protectorate and the Protestant Church Missionary Society (CMS) had been employing many Bunyoro people in various positions. For Gulu mission, the missionaries asked just for three catechists. These were granted by the Apostolic Vicar of Uganda, Msgr. Streicher.

By the middle of 1912 Fr. Colombaroli brought to Gulu Fr. Giuseppe Zambonardi and Bro. Luigi Savariano. Fr. Zambonardi was to found the new station of Foweira (Payira?) on the left bank of Victoria Nile, just near Kamdini. Foweira, unfortunately, was not suitably placed to serve both Omach and Gulu.

In September 1912 Fr. Colombaroli and Fr. Zambonardi abandoned Foweira and moved to Palaro, on the opposite side of the bank, where on 19th October they settled in the village of the great Palaro chief Rasigala and there they founded the first Palaro mission station. Palaro, one of the oldest slave markets, needed a special approach.

In Kitgum, en route to Paimol

At the beginning of February 1915, Fr. Vignato and Fr. Beduschi left Gulu for Kitgum, which is on the mouth of the river Pager, just about one Km from a government settlement. They reached the place on the 11th of the same month, feast of the apparition of Our Lady Immaculate of Lourdes.

They burned the tall grass and cleared they had selected for the new mission. A month later, in March 1915, Fr. Gian Battista Pedrana and Fr. Cesare Gambaretto joined them. Bro. Poloniato arrived a little later and they all finally settled down.

On 7th May 1915 Fr. Gambaretto writes that, ever since they had arrived there, he was happy to report that they were having many people coming to them for instruction, including an eleven-year-old boy who already knew all the prayers and the songs, as he was at the Protestant mission, but went to the new missionaries because he said: “we want God”. “The [Catholic] school is well developed”, continues Fr. Gambaretto, “and in the morning we have up to fifteen children coming around. In the evening we have up to fifty boys who sleep in the huts near us, among them eight sons of the local chiefs.

The Protestant arrived here before us and made converts. Thank God we had prepared a handful of catechists whom we posted earlier on in this area. These are the Catholics catechists posted in the following places:

The head catechist Bonifacio Okot in Kitgum;
The 52 year-old catechist Elia Adeka in Omiya Pacwaa;
Romolo Olango in Wool station;
The catechist Antonio in Paimol.

Antonio was a cousin of Daudi Okelo. As it happened, when Antonio died, Okelo volunteered to take his place as catechist in Paimol.

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.