Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe was born in Mawokota County, bordering Lake Victoria in the kingdom of Buganda. His father, Kajwayo, was a member of the kayozi or Giant Rat clan and his mother was a cousin of Mazinga, one of Kajwayo’s eight wives and a member of the Nyoro tribe. Mukasa was brought up by Mazinga, but at the age of six was sent to live in the household of a man named Kabadzi. He grew up healthy, intelligent and tall for his age, noted for his prowess at sports. In about 1874, when he was fourteen, Mukasa was presented to the king (kabaka) Mutesa I to be one of his many pages. At that time the royal court was situated at Kasubi, the present site of the royal tombs in Kampala. Here Mukasa spent the last eleven years of his short life.
Mukasa gave complete satisfaction to the officials responsible for him and he was also popular with his fellow pages. He soon began to be employed in the private apartments of the king. When the Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) came to Uganda in 1879, Mukasa was enrolled as a catechumen in the following year. Making an exception to the rule of a four-year catechumenate, Mukasa was baptized by Father Simeon Lourdel on April 30, 1882, togther with Andrew Kaggwa, another future martyr. Mukasa was given the baptismal name Joseph.
From November 1882 to July 1885 the Catholic missionaries were obliged, for reasons of security, to abandon the Ugandan mission and live temporarily at the southern end of Lake Victoria. In their absence, Joseph Mukasa quickly became the leader and teacher of the Catholic royal pages, caring for their physical, spiritual, and moral welfare. He also became the trusted and favourite personal attendant of the king until Mutesa’s death in 1884.
When Mwanga became king, Joseph Mukasa was reappointed to the royal service and remained the king’s personal attendant. He was also made majordomo of the royal household and was given permission by the king to administer reproof to him, if he thought him guilty of unbecoming conduct. He was also able to intercede successfully with Mwanga on behalf of Sarah Nalwanga, an Anglican convert who had been condemned to death. In addition, he helped Mwanga in early 1885 to thwart a plot against the king’s life. However, he also began to alienate Mwanga by protecting the pages in his care from the king’s homosexual practices, by urging him to put away his charms, and by openly organizing catechism classes at court.
In late October 1885, after the return of the missionaries, it became known that the Anglican Bishop Hannington was making his way from the (Kenya) coast overland to Uganda, instead of travelling across Lake Victoria from the south, which was the customary route. This news, coupled with rumours of British and German colonial developments at the coast, and the growing influence of Christian missionaries at court, made Mwanga determined to murder Hannington en route. On October 28, Mwanga sent for Joseph Mukasa, who urged him not to put the bishop to death, adding that his father, Mutesa, had never killed a European. Mutesa ignored him and five days later the news of Hannington’s murder reached Kampala.
In November Mwanga used the side-effects of some medicine administered by Lourdel as an excuse to accuse the Catholics of a plot against his life. In a memorable night-long interview with Joseph Mukasa he poured out all his resentment against the majordomo, for his insult over the death of Hannington and his obstruction of the king’s vices. Next morning Joseph assisted at the Holy Eucharist and received Communion from Lourdel. Summoned again by the king, the latter condemned him to death, making it clear that he was to die for his religion. Joseph was taken to a spot near the Nakivubo river, between Mengo and Nakasero hills. Here he forgave the king and his other enemies, before being knifed and his body burned to ashes on a pyre.
Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe, the Catholic proto-martyr of Uganda, was declared “Blessed” by Pope Benedict XV in 1920 together with twenty-one fellow martyrs. They were proclaimed canonized saints by Pope Paul VI in 1964.
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