By the end of the sixteenth century AD, the pre-modern state of Buganda had been fully consolidated. All arms of government had been fully institutionalised; the kingship, the executive, the parliament, chieftaincy, the judiciary, and the military were all fully functioning. Most significant to the Namugongo story is the judiciary, which had a fully functioning system.
The offenders were sanctioned and condemned often resulting into death by execution and or banishment. Two institutions in charge of executions were institutionalised: that of executing civilians and that of executing the royals (princes and princesses), and important officials/dignitaries in the palace. Mukaajaanga was the title given to chief executioner charged with the execution of royals and important officials while Kunsa was the title given to the chief executioner charged with the execution of commoners. AII these executions were done at different places to distinguish important people from civilians.
In Buganda’s culture, royals were treated differently throughout their life and death. For the reason, even the convicts, awaiting death had to be treated with some respect. Therefore, different places were gazetted for the execution of royals and important dignitaries. Such places included, Busega, Mpimeerebera, Munyonyo and the famous Namugongo. Indeed, all these places hosted the execution of some Uganda Martyrs.
Namugongo is derived from a Luganda word Omugongo or backside of the human body. Ssekabaka (Late King) Kyabaggu established the site between 1750 and 1780 as the official execution site for the royalty.
By 1760, Namugongo was considered the main execution site for the royals, chiefs and other important dignitaries in Buganda kingdom. One might ask why there were executions of royals and dignitaries. The answer is that all those royals that the king considered threats to his throne could not survive his wrath. Some princes would try to claim the throne usually backed by princesses and important dignitaries. Once these were discovered, the consequences would be clear, Execution!
The name Namugongo was derived from the fact that people or subjects were dragged on their backs by the royal guards, Mukaajaanga’s men, when there were on their dreadful journey to meet death at Namugongo. In this journey, some of the convicts would get ext emely exhausted the fact that they were tied and brutally beaten. Ultimately many would fail to walk on their feet up to the site. Mukaajaanga’s men however would tie the convicts and grad them by their back. On reaching the site, the back would have lost all the flesh instead only bones would be showing.
Seeing the terribly wounded convicts, onlookers would ask in Luganda, Bali Batuuse batya wano? I How did the other ones arrive here? the answer was, Bazze Namugongo. They travelled by the back.
Hence the place was named Namugongo!
Namugongo had a prison where the condemned were first locked while the guards prepared themselves for some days or time. In the prison, prisoners were tied with sticks around their legs, which made pr.ospects of escaping hard.
There. was also Mukajanga’s command post and a tree called “Ndazabazadde”, this is where prisoners were tortured and killed from. Between Mukajanga’s house and “Ndazabazadde” tree, there was a place where Mukajanga’s men sharpened their swords or knives before they killed the prisoners. And near Mukajanga’s house, there was a fireplace where prisoners were burnt. The martyrs church or chapel is where the remains and the bones of the martyrs were buried.
In Namugongo there was even to the present day, a well where Mukajanga and his men washed their knives and swords after killing the convicts. Mukaajaanga and his men even washed their hands from this well as a way of absolving themselves of all killings they had done. The claimed innocence arguing that whatever was done was all in the King’s name and the god called Nende, who was charged with securing the boundaries of the kingdom.
Note: The Uganda martyrs were the last people or prisoners to be killed from Namugongo on 3rd June. After that the site was officially closed.
The following Kings (Kabakas) who followed Kyabaggu also used this Namugongo as the execution site for the people who challenged their power. These include; Jjunju (1780-1796), Ssemakokiro (1797-1814), Kamaanya (1814-1832), Ssuuna (1832-1856), Muteesa I (1856-1884), Mwanga (1884-1897)
As noted before, Kunsa was a title given to the chief executioner who was charged with executing civilian convicts. He operated with a group of strong men called Abagwira (those who fall onto) spread across all the counties of Buganda kingdom. These professional executioners, on orders of Kunsa, would waste no time but just grabbed the culprit and in matter of seconds the culprit would be killed.
It should however be noted that even the condemned had an opportunity for acquittal. The most common method of skipping death once condemned was by running to one’s life. Once the running commenced, the Abagwira would chase down the convict for days and nights till they were captured.
However there were places considered sacred such that if a convict managed to successfully overrun the speed of Abagwira and crossed these gazetted boundaries; then he/she would be free from execution. These places of acquittal were usually sacred hills, rivers and forests. Many people lay on the other side of these sacred places boundaries waiting for those who had survived Kunsa’s wrath.
When such survivors reached, they would be given a lot of food to congratulate them upon surviving Kunsa. On the other hand the survivors, who might have spent sleepless nights running without food, would eat very aggressively to celebrate their freedom. A famous saying thus developed, ,Olya nga eyasimattuka Kunsa or You eat like the survivor of Kunsa.