A portrait photo of wiPolo martyrs shrine Rector Rev. Fr 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.

Rev. Fr. Joseph Okumu is the Rector, wiPolo Martyrs Shrine

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