Saint Jean-Marie Muzeyi was born just inside the modern border of Tanzania in a small hamlet, near Minziro in Buddu County (Uganda). His father, Bunyaga, had the duty of carrying the Ganda King on his shoulders, when he visited Buddu. He was a member of the buffalo clan. Muzeyi’s mother, Mukatunzi or Nnamalayo, belonged to the monkey clan. Muzeyi was originally called Musoke, but at the royal court he acquired the name Muddembuga. Because of an eye affliction (probably trachoma), he looked older than his years, and he was, in fact, considerably older than most of the young men at court. Because of this, and because of his reputed prudence, he was called Muzeyi, from the Swahili title mzee, meaning “elder” or “old man.” On becoming a Muslim, he took the forename Jamari (“Good Luck”). With a touch of genius, the missionary, Simeon Lourdel, gave him the similar sounding French Christian name Jean-Marie.
When Muzeyi was quite young, a sub-chief named Kabega, saw him herding cattle and kidnapped him. At the capital, Kabega sold the boy to an acquaintance named Bigomba, who offered him to the king for a piece of cloth and a gourd of beer. Too young to be a page, he was entrusted to the royal fence-maker, Ttamiro, whom many came to believe was his real father. In his teens he was made a royal page and became a Muslim when King Mutesa I began to be interested in that religion. When the plague broke out in 1881, he was given leave of absence and went to Mutundwe where he got to know some Christians or catechumens who taught him the rudiments of the Catholic faith. On his return to court, he became the right hand man of Saint Joseph Mukasa, the majordomo, attending the king in his sickness, and helping to spread the knowledge of Christianity among the pages, several of whom were future martyrs.
He was baptized on November 1, 1885. Because of his delicacy of conscience and gravity of demeanour, his opinion was often sought after. He used his small savings to ransom small children from slavery and give them Christian instruction. Although he was of marriageable age and in a position to marry, Jean-Marie announced his intention of remaining celibate for the Kingdom of God. When King Mutesa I died in 1884, he was assigned to the royal tomb at Kasubi, but withdrew his services because of the pagan rituals that took place there. He seems to have played a role in persuading the new king, Mwanga, to invite Lourdel and the missionaries back to Uganda in 1885, after their self-imposed exile in Tanzania.
Before the martyrdoms of June 1886, Jean-Marie was confirmed by the first Catholic missionary bishop of equatorial Africa, Monsignor Leon Livinhac. Although threatened with death by Mwanga, Jean-Marie did not go into hiding. In September 1886 it became apparent that Mwanga was intent on the secret execution of some other Christians. In January 1887 Muzeyi, who was staying with Stanislaus Mugwanya, the future Catholic regent, received a summons to go to court. In spite of all attempts to dissuade him, Jean-Marie obeyed the summons. Although he was received kindly by the king and his chancellor, his suspicions were aroused by their insistence that he return with other selected Christians. On the morning of January 27, 1887 Muzeyi heard Mass, received Holy Communion and returned to court alone. He was never seen again. It was reliably reported that he had been beheaded and his body thrown into a swamp. In this way, Jean-Marie Muzeyi became the last of the Uganda Martyrs. He was declared “Blessed” by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, and a canonized saint by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
J. F. Faupel, African Holocaust - The Story of the Uganda Martyrs, 4th edition (Nairobi: St. Paul Publications Africa, 1984).
This article, submitted in 2003, was researched and written by Dr. Aylward Shorter M.Afr., Emeritus Principal of Tangaza College Nairobi, Catholic University of Eastern Africa.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (complete article): Martyrs of Uganda