The Evolution of Religious Tourism and Holy Sites in Uganda

Religious tourism in Uganda is a steadily growing product niche among a progressive wildlife-based tourism industry. Uganda’s tourism has seen a steady growth curve in the last three decades, supported with gifts of varied tourism resources, including biodiversity, quintessential landscapes, a cultural history, and the religious heritage struggling to break through the cloud.  

There’s no doubt that the country’s natural history and the nineteenth-century European exploration, trade, and colonization significantly shape tourism in Uganda.  The nineteenth-century brought Arab traders,  European explorers, and Christian missionaries who drove native religions to extinction and introduced widely practiced foreign faiths. The evolution of religious tourism in Uganda is typically centered around the natives’ resistance to foreign religions, the process of adapting, the consequences between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Today, 99.8% of Uganda’s population subscribes to some form of religion with 39.3% Catholic, 32% Anglican, 13.7% Muslim, 11.1% Pentecostal, 1.5% Seventh-Day Adventist, 0.1% Orthodox,  0.1% native religions, and 0.2% non-believer.  (UBOS, 2016)

In retrospect, religious tourism is a new niche in Uganda’s tourism business, in the early stages of developing organically with minimal attention from industry players. The most prominent attraction in religious tourism in Uganda is tourists’ visits to the 19th & 20th-century holy martyrs’ sites.

Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine Namugongo, where 22 Catholic martyrs were killed between 1885 and 1886, is the most prominent religious attraction for martyrdom and pilgrimages. Other sacred tourism sites in Uganda include Anglican Martyrs Shrine Namugongo, Munyonyo Martyrs Shrine, St. Mary’s Rubaga Cathedral, St. Paul Namirembe Cathedral, Kibuli Mosque, Old Kampala National Mosque, Kigungu landing site, Baha’i Temple, Bishop Hannington site, and Paimol site in Agago District.

Development of Religious Tourism

Historically, traveling for religious fervor is part of human migrations. From biblical times, human migrations and journeys have been exclusively or partially motivated by contemporary spirituality. UNWTO (2014)  estimated that about  300-330 million tourists visit the world’s key religious sites every year, making religious tourism a significant part of domestic and international tourism. 

Although indigenous religions have always existed before Arabs and European traders introduced foreign religions about one and a half centuries ago, faith-based tourism is relatively new on the Uganda travel market. Nevertheless, it is progressively gaining significant recognition from industry players, including the government.  

Religious tourism in Uganda is highly respected and protected in law and practice (Chapter 2,  Section 29, Sub-section C of the 1995 Constitution). In national panning: the National Development Plan II (NDPII), the Uganda Tourism Policy (2015), Uganda Tourism Development Master Plan (2014-2024), and the Tourism Sector Development Plan (2015/2016 -2019/2020) recognize religious tourism as a distinct travel product niche that needs attention.  

Although the Uganda Tourism Board has increased its focus on marketing religious events and festivals over the years, the efforts are still fragmented, leaving an unmanifested travel product that requires a powerful spiritual touch.

Annual Uganda Martyrs Pilgrimages, a top spiritual tourism attraction in Uganda.
Annual Uganda Martyrs Pilgrimages, a top spiritual tourist attraction in Uganda.

Evolution of Religious Tourism in Uganda

In the pre-colonial period (the 1880s), religions dominated African tribal politics. Pivotal actors were the community leaders like Shermans, spiritual leaders, clan chiefs, and kings.  

For example, the Buganda Kingdom worshiped one deity, Katonda, over twenty pantheons (Balubaale, gods), and enumerable benevolent spirits important to local folk. The King of Buganda (Kabaka) was seen as the religious head of the worshipers.

In the nineteenth century, foreign traders arrived in present-day Uganda and introduced the first overseas foreign religion to locals.  Arab traders introduced and spread Islam in the 1840s.  The first Arab traders reached Buganda in 1844. Not long after, the English Christian missionaries penetrated the interior of Eastern Africa following the pathway opened up by explorers like John Hannington Speke, who arrived in 1862, and Morton Stanley in 1875. 

It can be argued that the Arab traders and the early missionaries were the first foreign religious tourists in Uganda. The first holy Martyrs are recorded in this period when over 70 Muslim faithful were burnt to death in 1877 on the orders of Kabaka Mutesa I. This was after they defied the leadership of Kabaka  Mutesa I (who later converted to Islam and assumed the headship of the religion in his kingdom), arguing that he was not fully observing the practices of Islam, including circumcision. The first Christian missionaries arrived after the Muslims at the shores of Lake Victoria in 1879.  

The Colonial Period (1880–1962)

In the following colonial period (1880–1962), Buganda  Kingdom was at the forefront of interacting with the early Arab traders and missionaries. To get a foothold in spreading their religions, Arab traders and missionaries converted the Kabaka and his chiefs and later used the administrative structures to convert the masses. 

Just like the Romans, the religion chosen by the King was the official religion in the kingdom. Religion was already in politics and trade pre-colonial era, used as a collective means of bringing the masses together for a common goal. This time its entry was dramatic, getting foreign trade into native politics and shelving native religions that would have looked attractive on Uganda’s religious tourism portfolio.  

By the 1880s, the English Church Missionary Society, French Catholic White Fathers, and Muslim traders from Zanzibar had successfully converted a big chunk of Baganda’s population, including chiefs and servants in the King’s court. The race for foreign religions to convert more people set the stage for fierce religious and political battles.  A four-year civil war ensued in which different religious groups tussled to gain political control of the kingdom and install a king who would support their political and trade goals wrapped in religious fervor.  

The King, Kabaka Muwanga, threatened by losing control of his subjects to religious sects and its conflicts, and threats from Christian converts that continually disregarded his authority on spiritual matters, made a difficult decision that today is considered a  focal point for religious tourism in Uganda.  The persecution of Christians in Buganda ensued in 1885 and climaxed on June 3, 1886. At Namugongo, King Mwanga ordered the killing of 45 Catholic and Anglican converts who defied the Kabaka orders to denounce Christianity.  

The “1986 Uganda Martyrs” persecution at Namugongo is a massively remembered and annually celebrated event at the Namugongo shrine on June 3. The Uganda Martyrs Day is the most prominent religious tourist attraction in East Africa, attracting over 2.5 million Christian pilgrims worldwide.  

There’s no doubt that colonial religion laid the foundation for Uganda’s contemporary politics, trade, and culture. The colonial period is characterized by intensive missionary activity that witnessed the arrival of various missionaries into the country and the establishment of churches, mosques, nation-wide infrastructure like schools and hospitals. Today, the martyrdom infrastructures stand out as primary religious tourists sites.

Post-independence period (1962 – 1986)  

Uganda attained independence from British rule on October 9, 1962. The new generation of rulers could barely fuse religion, politics, and trade for good governance. Political party leaders used the religious flag to convert followers creating sectarian divisions among the population. The political environment further became porous. The government could not support the religious divide. Additionally, the competition of religious sects to get more converts meant limited space to establish a framework to develop spiritual tourism jointly.

This civil unrest washed the country in the post-colonial period and left the entire tourism industry to hitch in almost four decades of darkness. Iddi Amin’s brutal military rule made it darker by slaughtering the lives of some influential spiritual leaders like Archbishop Janan Luwum in 1977 that would have kept the spiritual tourism candle burning.

TAILOR-MADE GORILLA SAFARIS WITH A LICENSED LOCAL OPERATOR

The Recovery Period (post-1986)

After assuming power by military force in 1986, the National Resistance Army banned all political parties for nearly 20 years, opening a new chapter for the country’s recovery and creating a healthy environment to develop religious tourism and the entire country’s tourism industry.

With neutral politics, the government could now extend support to religious institutions without seeking political favors. The neutral government and developments of frameworks in the last three decades have allowed religious tourism in Uganda to gain recognition and progressively grow.

Although the government’s support for the spiritual tourism industry is not as aggressive as expected, the government’s improved infrastructure and inclusive economic environment have allowed religious tourism to grow with little marketing support from Uganda Tourism Board and local tour operators organically. 

The critical factor in supporting the development of spiritual tourism in Uganda is the constitutional guarantee of freedom of worship which enables religious organizations to develop strong institutional structures and preserve Uganda’s religious heritage. 

Religious Tourism Sites in Uganda

Martyrdom infrastructure built in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries stands out as primary religious tourist sites in Uganda, with the Christian Martyrs shrines and churches found around the central region attracting most tourists. Let’s explore the list.

Uganda Martyrs Shrine Namugongo, religious tourism in Uganda
The main church building at Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine, Namugongo

1. Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine, Namugongo

Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine, Namugongo is the largest and most famous religious tourist site in Uganda. The shrine is located in Namugongo, Wakiso District, Central Uganda. It is the site where 22 Catholic martyrs were killed between 1885 and 1886. Pope Pius XI also consecrated the site in 1920, and in 1964, Pope Paul VI canonized the 22 saints, the largest group of saints ever canonized by the Catholic Church.

Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine has attracted three papal visits from Pope Francis (2013), Pope Paul VI (1969), and Pope John Paul VI (1993). Uganda is the only African nation to host three papal visits.

The Namugongo Martyrs church can seat 1000 people with pavilions sitting 8000 people and the open theater 4000 people. The shrine has visitor interpretation facilities, recreation gardens and supports restaurants, accommodation, and other facilities within the church’s campus and surrounding private areas.

Activities include the 3d June Annual Religious Pilgrimage, year-round visits to the shrine, priestly-guided weekly prayers, religious retreats, events, and celebrations. 

Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine, Namugongo Pilgrimage
Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine, Namugongo Pilgrimage

2. Anglican Martyrs Shrine Namugongo

Anglican Martyrs Shrine is located in Namugongo, Wakiso District in Central Uganda. The site is where 23 Anglican martyrs were killed between 1885 and 1886. 

The Anglican Martyrs Shrine contains tourism facilities and services, including the Church of Uganda Martyrs Museum, visitor interpretation facilities, recreational gardens.  The shrine also has support facilities like restaurants and accommodation developed by the church and private businesses around the site.

Tourism activities around the Anglican Martyrs Shrine include the 3rd June annual religious pilgrimage, year-round visits to the museum, priestly-guided weekly prayers, religious events, celebrations, and retreats.

Munyonyo Martyrs Church | Photo by Charles Okiror

3. Munyonyo Martyrs Shrine

Munyonyo Martyrs Shrine is located in Munyonyo, Kampala City, in Central Uganda. It is the site where the first four Christians were killed in 1886 and later canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1964.

The church has a capacity of 1050 people, with the outside sitting up to 500 people. Facilities include visitor interpretation halls and support facilities outside the church like restaurants and accommodation.

Tourism activities include the annual religious pilgrimage, priestly-guided prayers, meditation, and religious events.

St. Mary’s Rubaga Cathedral - religious tourism sites in Uganda
St. Mary’s Rubaga Cathedral

3. St. Mary’s Rubaga Cathedral 

St. Mary’s Rubaga Cathedral, the oldest Roman Catholic diocese in Uganda, is the principal seat of the Uganda Catholic Church. The French Catholic missionaries (White Fathers) started constructing the elegant cathedral in 1914, completed it in 1924, and consecrated the cathedral in 1925. 

The cathedral has a seating capacity of 5000 people, recreational gardens, and support facilities within the church campus and outside the premises privately run. 

It houses the remains of the first African Catholic Bishop (Archbishop Joseph KiwanukaMosqueMosque’sMosque, 1899 – 1966), the first African Catholic Bishop, and the first African Archbishop of Kampala Diocese.

Rubaga Cathedral is located about 3 kilometers (1.9 mi), by road, west of the central business district of Kampala, on Lubaga Hill, Rubaga Division, Kampala City.

Spiritual tourism activities include prayers, year-round visits to the cathedral, meditation, events, and celebrations, 

St. Paul Namirembe Cathedral

St. Paul Namirembe Cathedral

St. Paul Namirembe Cathedral (aka Namirembe Cathedral) is the oldest and biggest cathedral of the Church of Uganda (Anglican Church). It serves as the provincial cathedral of the Church of Uganda and the diocesan cathedral for Namirembe Diocese, the first diocese to be founded in the Church of Uganda province, in 1890.

Namirembe Cathedral is located on Namirembe Hill, in Lubaga Division, in Kampala City, about 2 kilometers (1.2 mi), by road, west of the city’s central business district. It was first constructed in 1890, with a capacity of 800 worshipers, then abandoned a year later because of its location in a swampy area at the base of the hill. Unfortunately, the wind blew off the top a year later, and fire gutted it again in 1910. It was rebuilt in 1892, this time with a seating capacity of 4,000 people.

The current St. Paul’s Cathedral was constructed between 1915 and 1919 using earthen bricks and earthen roof tiles. The cathedral is still standing but needs repairs from time to time.

Tourism activities at Namirembe cathedral include priestly guided prayers, meditation, and year-round visits to the cathedral.

Spiritual tourism in Uganda, A view of Kampala city from Kibuli Mosque
A view of Kampala city from Kibuli Mosque

Kibuli Mosque

Kibuli Mosque has been the principal seat of the Muslim faith since 1884. The first Mosque at the site was built in the late 1800s, the current Mosque was built in 1951. The mosque campus houses a school and a hospital.

Tourist activities include prayers, meditation, year-round visits to the Mosque. However, the site has limited interpretation facilities.

Old Kampala National Mosque aka Gaddafi Mosque

Old Kampala National Mosque

Old Kampala National Mosque (aka Gaddafi Mosque) is one of the largest Muslim facilities in Africa. It is said that Idi Amin wanted to build the largest Mosque in Africa, but he never completed the work. A year later, deposed Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi gave the money for its completion and commissioned the Mosque as a gift to Uganda and the benefit of the Muslim population.

The mosque has a seating capacity of 15,000 worshipers and can hold another 1,100 in the gallery, while the terrace will cater for another 3,500. It has a visitors’ interpretation center, a conference hall, and a library.

Tourists attractions include the mosque’s unique architecture, prayers, meditation, and year-round visits to the Mosque.

Kigungu Landing site

Two French missionaries, Father Simeon Lourdel and Brother Amans crossed Lake Victoria in 1879 and landed on the Kigungu Peninsular. They were the first Catholic missionaries to arrive in Uganda, and an annual pilgrimage still convenes at their landing site.

Kigungu landing site is recognized as the first place to welcome the arrival of Catholicism in Uganda. Today, a brick monument marks the spot on which the two missionaries first landed in Uganda.  On February 17, annually, hundreds of pilgrims travel to the Kigungu landing site to celebrate the missionaries.

Tourist activities include the annual pilgrimage, prayers, meditation, and year-round visits to the site.

Baháʼí Temple in Kampala
Baháʼí Temple in Kampala

Baháʼí Temple

The Bahá’í Mother Temple of Africa, also known as the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, is the only Bahá’í temple on the continent and one of only nine around the world. Built in 1961, the temple on the hill is located about three kilometers (two miles) from Kampala city.

The Bahá’í Mother Temple of Africa, also known as the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, is the only Bahá’í temple on the continent and one of only nine around the world. It stands at nearly 38 meters (125 feet) tall, and at the time of construction, it was the tallest building in East Africa. It has a meditational 52-acre recreational garden that attracts many visitors.

Religious tourism activities include prayers, meditation, regular guided visits, and marveling at the temple’s architecture.

Bishop Hannington Memorial Site

Bishop Hanning Memorial Site is believed to be where the first Anglican British Missionary was killed on orders of the Buganda king in 1885 with 45 of his helpers.

Located in Kyando Village, Mayuge District, the shrine, which sits on 220 acres, is believed to be where Bishop James Hannington and 48 of his African helpers were murdered on October 29, 1885. 

The site has a commemoration church and resort center with over 40 accommodation rooms for pilgrimages. Tourists activities include annual pilgrimage and prayer celebration and occasional Prayers.

Paimol Martyrs Shrine

Paimol Martyrs Shrine is located in Uganda’s northwestern region. It is celebrated as a religious site where two martyrs were killed in 1918. Okello and Irwa were young Acholi Catechists killed in 1918 for spreading Christianity in East Acholi, the present Day Kitgum District. Pope John Paul II beatified them in 2002, and each year, on October 20th, pilgrims gather at Paimol Martyrs’ shrine to celebrate their martyrdom.

The site has a memorial church and limited support facilities. The interpretation facilities are inadequate compared to other Christian martyr shrines in Uganda. Religious tourists activities include the annual martyrs’ celebrations, prayers, and meditation.

Conclusion

Religious tourism is one of the oldest forms of tourism recorded in history, and religious travel is one of the fastest-growing segments in tourism with significant economic impacts.  About 60% of the world’s population practices religion. It is estimated that over  25% of international travelers are interested in religious tourism, and about  20%  of sites on the  UNESCO World Heritage list have a religious or spiritual connection (UNESCO,  2019).  

Despite the devastating effects of the recent pandemic, we have high hopes for Uganda’s religious tourism to return to steady progressive growth.

References: