Denis Ssebuggwawo was born at Kigoloba in Bulemezi County, in the Kingdom of Buganda. His mother, Nsonga, was a member of the neighbouring Soga tribe. She had been carried off as a child by Nkalubo Ssebuggwawo of the Cane Rat (Musu) Clan, who gave her to his son Kajansi. Nsonga bore him nine children, including three sets of twins. Denis Ssebuggwawo Wasswa and Isaac Kajane Kato were the first of the pairs, Wasswa and Kato being the traditional names for male twins. Not long after their birth, Kalubo was put to death by King Mutesa I, and Kajansi moved to Bunono in Busiro County. Here the twins grew up until they were presented at court, to Mutesa’s successor by their fellow clansman, the chancellor (katikiro) Mukasa, in 1884. The chancellor presented his own sons, Mwafu and Kasamitala, at the same time.
These four boys all became royal pages in the private apartments of the young king, Mwanga, under the control of the majordomo and future Catholic martyr, Joseph Mukasa Balikuddembe. Under the latter’s influence Ssebuggwawo and his brother became keen Catholic catechumens. Kajane, however, was promoted to be chief before the persecution began in 1885-1886, and left court. Mwafu was a pretty boy who quickly succumbed to the homosexual proclivities of the king and who, in fact, became his favourite plaything. Ssebuggwawo, however, resisted the king’s blandishments. He and Kajane were assiduous in receiving religious instruction from Joseph Mukasa at his own dwelling near the palace. Both of them lost no opportunities to spread the new faith to their companions at court. Kajane even attempted to convert the king on one occasion. When the persecution later broke out, Kajane was spared martyrdom, but was thrown into prison for two years.
When his mentor, Joseph Mukasa was executed in November 1885, Ssebuggwawo was not daunted, but became even more determined to become a Christian and, if necessary, to die for his faith. On the night of November 16, 1885, the day after Joseph’s martyrdom and the king’s threat to kill all the Christian pages, Ssebuggwawo was among those who slipped away from the palace to ask for baptism at the Catholic mission. Their request was granted by the missionaries who marvelled at the young men’s constancy and courage. Ssebuggwawo was baptized there and then, being given the name of Denis, patron of France.
On the fateful afternoon of May 25, 1886, Mwanga returned from his hippopotamus hunting expedition at Munyonyo. They had seen no hippos, but had shot a few birds, and the king was in a bad mood. No pages were on hand to receive him and he angrily suggested that they had gone off for Christian instruction. “The country is no longer my own,” he shouted. At the palace, he called for his pages and Ssebuggwawo and Mwafu came running. In a fury, the king hacked open the door of the armoury and seized a small spear that had belonged to his father Mutesa. The king demanded to know where the boys had been. From the boys’ answers it transpired that Ssebuggwawo had been with Mwafu and had been giving him religious instruction, and that Mwafu hoped to become a Christian like Ssebuggwawo.
Furious that the affections of his favourite page were being alienated by the Christian teaching he had forbidden in his palace, Mwanga beat Ssebuggwawo repeatedly with the spear he had in his hand, until the spear broke, wounding him on the head, neck and back. He then seized the lad by the arm and dragged him into the court of the audience hall, shouting for men to come and kill him, and threatening death to all Christians. Two Muslim companions of the king, Kyayambadde and Mberenge, came forward to take Ssebuggwawo. Meanwhile, the king went raging through the royal enclosures, personally beating the Protestant assistant treasurer, Apolo Kaggwa, and ordering the castration of the Catholic Honorat Nyonyintono, Joseph Mukasa’s successor as majordomo. Shortly after this, he assembled all his servants and pages, condemning to death all who confessed to be Christians.
Kyayambadde and Mberenge took Ssebuggwawo outside the main gate and stripped him of his clothing. As they had no weapon, they seized a butcher’s knife from a neighbouring house, intending to behead their victim with it. At this moment an official executioner, Mpinga Kaloke, came up and took charge. He took Ssebuggwawo to his house and let him sleep the night there, with a small piece of bark cloth to cover himself . The boy remained totally silent all night.
The executioner feared to be too hasty, since Ssebuggwawo was the nephew of Mukasa, the chancellor. Next morning, however, Mpinga ordered his men to put Ssebuggwawo to death and they killed him in an adjoining wood. The fact that they had only knives with them suggests that the martyr was hacked to death. His body was left lying in the wood, where six days later a witness saw vultures feeding on the remains. The witness of Denis Ssebuggwawo was the fuse that lit the king’s anger on that terrible day, the day that saw the martyrdom of so many other Christians. Denis Ssebuggwawo was beatified by Pope Benedict XV in 1920. He was declared a canonized saint 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