Auguste-Amand-Aimé Achte, one of the great Catholic missionary apostles of Uganda, was born at Warhem near Dunkerque in French Flanders, in a family of fifteen children. His father Lievin Achte and mother Sophie Vandaele were humble farmers. Achte expressed his desire to be a missionary at an early age and was sent to the junior seminary of Hazebrouck. In 1881 he applied to join the Society of Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers), was accepted and completed his studies at Algiers and Carthage (Tunisia) where he was ordained priest in 1885. Two of his brothers also became missionaries. Stanislaus joined the Cistercian Order and was sent to Beijing. Jeremy became a Brother Auxiliary in the Missionaries of Africa. Auguste Achte was first sent to Jerusalem as a teacher at St. Anne’s seminary for Greek Melchite priests. This was an establishment run by the Missionaries of Africa for students from Syria. Here his knowledge of Arabic, gained in North Africa, stood him in good stead.
In 1889 Achte asked to go to Equatorial Africa and was appointed to the procure of the Missionaries of Africa on the island of Zanzibar. On the boat from Port Said he commenced his study of the Swahili language. Achte is remembered as a remarkable linguist. In addition to Flemish, French, Arabic and Swahili, he later learned Luganda, Runyoro-Rutoro and Kiziba, translating the Gospels, catechisms, hymn books and devotional works into those languages. Achte also taught himself English in order to communicate with the British authorities in East Africa. At Zanzibar he taught a baptism class of ransomed slave children and went to Bagamoyo on the mainland to meet the missionaries who had accompanied H. M. Stanley and Emin Pasha on the last stages of the Emin Relief Expedition. In April 1890, he and the German missionary Schynse were allowed to join Emin’s caravan to the interior and walked the 800 or so miles to the southern shore of Lake Victoria.
For several months Achte remained there at Nyegezi, recovering from the journey, rebuilding the mission station and teaching Sukuma and Ganda pupils in Swahili and Luganda. In January 1891 he was ready to accompany Bishop Hirth across the lake to Uganda. This canoe journey is remembered for having encountered a storm during which a cherished harmonium had to be jettisoned in order to lighten the craft. Arrived in Uganda, Achte first helped to found a shortlived station in Kyagwe, east of the capital, and then travelled to the Sese Islands in Lake Victoria to claim the region allocated to the Catholics there. He was in Sese when dramatic events occurred in the capital during January 1892.
The arrival of Captain F. D. Lugard, representative of the Imperial British East Africa Company, with orders to annexe Uganda, aggravated ill feelings between the Anglican minority and the loyalist Catholic majority. When hostilities broke out, Lugard supported and armed his co-religionists, fearing that otherwise they could be annihilated. Lugard’s superior fire power brought about the unexpected rout of the loyalists, the flight of the Ganda king and Catholic bishop across the lake, and the pillage of Catholic mission stations and chapels, for which they were afterwards indemnified by the British government.
Achte was in Sese when his bishop arrived ordering him to minister to the Catholic refugees, massing in Buddu and across the border of German East Africa. Achte, a man of gentle disposition and infinite patience, was a born peacemaker. During his fourteen years as a missionary in Uganda, he made blood pacts with African chiefs on no fewer than eight occasions. He now took it upon himself to write to Lugard, asking for a division of the country and fairer terms for the defeated Catholics. This letter was eventually instrumental in securing the return of the king and successive agreements giving better guarantees to Catholics. Achte lived in great poverty among the mainland refugees and Sese exiles, rejoicing that he shared so literally in their conditions of life, and walking everywhere with his big Jerusalem rosary beads. In the midst of this turmoil he managed to found the mission of Bikira, build an elegant church, continue his linguistic work and instruct 1,200 people for baptism and confirmation in 1893. Achte’s missionary experience was a paradoxical mixture of violent upheaval and mass conversion. Although the polemics of Catholics and Protestants in Uganda had tragic consequences in the violence it engendered, it also bore fruit in deeply rooted Christian convictions.
When Catholics were allowed to evangelize Mawokota in the south east of the Ganda kingdom, Achte was sent there to found a mission station at Koki, where a flourishing community was established. During a week long retreat at Koki, Achte and two other priests heard the confessions of 3,286 people. Then in 1894 the British authorities launched punitive expeditions against the Nyoro of western Uganda and Achte was asked to establish a Catholic mission on the Nyoro border, under Kikukule, a local chief of doubtful loyalty. Although the Catholic position was fragile in the extreme, Achte repeatedly managed to assuage the chief’s latent hostility and to build the mission of Bukumi. This mission survived in spite of being swept again and again by waves of Nyoro rebels.
In 1895 Achte was asked to go to the Kingdom of Toro, also in western Uganda, to found the mission of Virika near Fort Portal, at the foot of the Ruwenzori mountains. Achte was the first foreign missionary among the Toro, although the Toro King and court were already pledged to become Anglicans. Achte made his foundation in spite of considerable penury and a sustained hostility from the native authorities. Mission buildings were completed, three schools started, and by 1897 there were more than three thousand catechumens. Achte continued his linguistic work, while teaching religion and giving medical treatment. Above all, Achte taught his Christians to pray and to lead a moral life. He even found time to climb the Ruwenzori mountains to plant a cross on the summit. The Toro version of Achte’s name was Ati, but his fellow missionaries jokingly called him “Father Act-ivity”, such was his boundless energy.
Early in 1897 Achte explored the region south of Lake Albert, with a view to a foundation at Katwe and making contact with Belgian officials of the Congo Free State across the river Semliki. There, on one of his journeys, he and his small party fell into the hands of the dreaded Mulamba, leader of an army of mutineers from the Belgian Force Publique and in league with the equally feared Manyema, well known for their cannibalistic tendencies. Achte was stripped and his life threatened. After three days without food, and several interviews with Mulamba in which his powers of reconciliation were put to their severest test, he persuaded his captors that he was a man of God, a Frenchman and not a Belgian, that he was unarmed and that he had never struck an African. At this, he and his companions were released.
In 1897 Achte was asked to return to the capital and take charge of Rubaga cathedral parish, where it was felt that his gift for reconciliation and good relations with the British would be put to good use. During this time, the Ganda king, Mwanga, now a nominal Protestant, led a rebellion, in alliance with the Nyoro, against the British. Mwanga counted on Catholic support and some Catholic chiefs were foolish enough to join him. Once again, the country was in turmoil, with widespread pillage and unrest. Mwanga was captured in 1898 and sent into exile in the Seychelles, where he died in 1903. His infant son, Daudi Chwa, was placed on the throne. Besides his heavy pastoral duties at Rubaga, and in the midst of all this turmoil, Achte became “Pro-Vicar of Northern Nyanza,” that is administrator of the diocese for a year during the bishop’s absence. He travelled far and wide, to all the mission stations, calming and reconciling everyone, and helping in the work of restoration. In his spare time, he wrote a History of Uganda.
At the end of 1899, Achte was elected a member of his Society’s general chapter, due to meet at Algiers in 1900. He travelled back to the coast, made a stopover in his beloved Jerusalem, visited his family in France, made a pilgrimage to Rome where he assisted at the canonization of Saint John Baptist de la Salle, and then went to Scotland to brush up his English, while staying with the Marist Brothers in Glasgow. It was in Glasgow that he learned of the danger posed to his brother Stanislaus in Beijing by the Boxer rebels. Fortunately, Stanislaus was unharmed.
After attending the general chapter in Algiers, Achte returned to Uganda and was again appointed to Rubaga from 1901-1902. At the end of this period, he asked to return once more to Virika and the Toro where he spent two very active final years. It was at Virika that he died, after a short illness, on February 2nd 1905, at the age of 44 and was buried on the following day. It has been said that Achte’s death marked the end of a missionary era in Uganda. When he came in 1891 there were nine Catholic missionaries, three mission stations and a combined total of 12,000 baptized and catechumens. When he died, fourteen years later, the Catholic Church in Uganda counted seventy-two male missionaries, sixteen missionary sisters, 965 catechists, more than twenty mission stations, a junior seminary and senior seminary, 92,182 baptized Christians and more than 100,000 catechumens. An Anglican missionary friend, Archdeacon Walker, wrote that Father Achte devoted his life to God’s glory. Nothing could be more true than this moving tribute.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
G. Leblond, Le Pere August Achte (Algiers: Missionnaires d’Afrique, 1912).
Elizabeth Mary Matheson, African Apostles (New York: St. Paul Publications, 1963).
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.