Kalemba was a member of the Soga tribe, born in Bunya County in eastern Uganda. Together with his mother, he was captured by Ganda raiders belonging to the Otter clan. His captors sold him as a slave to Magatto, uncle of the Chancellor Mukasa, and a member of the Edible-Rat Clan. Kalemba grew up in this family, treated as a member of the clan and as a free man. After the death of his adoptive father, he remained for a time with Magatto’s brother, Buzibwa. On attaining manhood, he took service with Ddumba, the chief of Ssingo County, becoming effectively the head of his household and supervisor of all the other servants. On Ddumba’s death, his brother gave official recognition to Kalemba’s position, by creating an office for him in memory of Ddumba. Henceforth, Kalemba was known as The Mulumba.
Kalemba was a man of fairly large stature and light colouring. He sported a small beard, unusual for a Ganda. He was immensely strong, of a joyful disposition and a passionate searcher after truth. This passion led him first to Islam, and then - after the arrival of the Anglican missionaries - to their Christian instructions. It was the duty of the chief of Ssingo to carry out construction at the royal palace. When King Mutesa I decided to build houses for the Catholic missionaries, Kalemba was assigned to the task. Coming into contact with Catholics for the first time, he discovered that Protestant prejudices about them were not true. On May 31, 1880 he enrolled as a Catholic catechumen, but continued occasionally to attend Anglican Bible classes.
Kalemba took his Christian allegiance seriously. Although he was the owner of a large number of women, he made other provisions for all except one, called Kikuvwa, whom he kept as wife. He was baptized by Father Ludovic Girault on May 28, 1882. Kalemba schooled himself in humility by undertaking menial tasks, working in his garden, carrying loads and even accepting unmerited blows from the king’s soldiers. He declared proudly that he was a slave - “the slave of Jesus Christ.” He is said to have driven off a wild buffalo with the aid of a stick. He took part in the war-raids organized by his chief, but refused to take share in the looting which was their main object. He also refused to take bribes when administering justice on behalf of his master.
At his home in Mityana, forty-seven miles from the capital, Kalemba lived a humble life, taking up the trades of pottery and tanning. During the absence from Uganda of the Catholic missionaries from 1882 to 1885, Kalemba organized a Christian community at Mityana where, together with the future martyrs Noe Mawaggali and Luke Banabakintu, he gave Christian instruction. When persecution broke out in 1886 this community of Christians and catechumens numbered about two hundred.
When the storm broke, Kalemba was at the capital rebuilding the king’s palace that had burned down in February 1886. Although in imminent danger, he did not leave his post. Kalemba’s master, the chief of Ssingo, deemed it best to arrest him and his companion, Luke Banabakintu, himself. They spent the night of May 26 at the chief’s town residence, with their feet in the stocks and their necks in slave yokes. The following day they were taken to the palace, where the chancellor sentenced them to a savage death for acknowledging that they were Christians. On the way to Namugongo, the traditional place of execution, Kalemba stopped and asked to be put to death there and then in Old Kampala. His executioners butchered him on the spot, cutting off his limbs and tearing strips of flesh from his body, burning them before his eyes. His courage and endurance were extraordinary and the only sound that came from his lips were the words: “My God ! My God !”. The executioners then tied up his arteries and left him to die a lingering death.
Matthias Kalemba’s passion began at noon on Thursday, May 27. On Saturday it had not ended. Some men coming to cut reeds in the swamp heard a voice calling: “Water! Water!” They were so horrified by the sight that they fled. He died presumably on Sunday, May 30. God alone knows the full extent of his agony. Luke died with Charles Lwanga and his companions at Namugongo on May 27. Matthias Kalemba, the Mulumba, was declared “Blessed” by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, together with twenty-one other martyrs. They were proclaimed canonized saints in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.
Aylward Shorter M.Afr.
J. F. Faupel, African Holocaust (Nairobi, St. Paul’s Publications Africa, 1984 ).
J. P. Thoonen, Black Martyrs (London: Sheed and Ward, 1941).
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