Kotanda, Kotanda, Kotanda!

Today is Trinity Sunday. It is also June 3, which is the day when both the Anglican and Catholic churches remember the 22 Ugandan Christians who, between 1885 and 1887, were martyred. Many of them were killed on this day in 1886, which was Ascension Thursday that year, burnt for their opposition to the king and their refusal to give up their faith. Today’s poem remembers them. The title comes from the name for God which Charles Lwanga, one of the martyrs, called out before he died.

It was a particularly difficult poem to write, both for the complexity of the subject matter and my feeling of inadequacy in doing justice to martyrdom. I hope the result is of benefit to some.

Kotanda, Kotanda, Kotanda!
(For the Martyrs of Uganda, on Trinity Sunday)
Charles, bearing his agony without a murmur, replied, ‘You poor foolish man! You do not understand what you are saying. You are burning me, but it is as if you were pouring water over my body.’
(John F. Faupel, African Holocaust: The Story of the Uganda Martyrs)
Ascension Thursday:
Many rose and danced,
Bodies smeared in ochre-red,
Amid the sound of beating drums
And voices in their circling chant:
The women who have borne children shall weep
Today they will weep. Yes, they shall weep.
Ascension Thursday:
The flames rose up and danced;
The martyrs sang, embraced each other,
They who soon would overcome,
Shocking those who watched and frowned:
Do they not think they will die?
Do they have no fear of fire?
Ascension Thursday:
The sacrifice prepared.
Taunting, guilt brushed off in cries:
It is not we who kill you.
Nende kills, Mukasa kills,
Kibuka whom you despised kills;
Much blood to please three angry gods.
Ascension Thursday:
Charles Lwanga leads the throng,
Joyful in their union and
The time of union soon to come,
Pities his mockers who would burn
His body yet can but pour
Water and usher in new birth.
Ascension Thursday:
The flames, in anger, rise and rise.
Charles Lwanga, dying, cries
To his God: Kotanda! cries
The first of many; the first
To lead the way, now silent,
Now patiently awaiting, dies.
Ascension Thursday:
The Spirit in the martyrs cries,
Abba! Father! Cries and cries
The cry of desperate sonship to
The only one to save from fire,
The cry within of Holy Fire,
The anger of a righteous God.
Ascension Thursday:
The Son of God rises
And takes His place upon the throne,
To depose the pagan king
And free from flame His holy ones,
Who, suffering, now are one with Him.
Who now from dying with Him rise.

2 thoughts on “Kotanda, Kotanda, Kotanda!

  1. I liked the link between the sonship of the martyrs and the Sonship of Jesus. What does kotanda mean? Google’s not complying, unfortunately 😦

    Have you come across Shusaku Endo’s novel ‘Silence’? He poignantly depicts the internal agony of a would-be Jesuit martyr in 17th C Japan. After reading it I hold even greater appreciation for martyrs who show strength like that of Charles – ‘You do not understand what you are saying’.

    1. Thanks! I was struggling with the fact that I technically had about four different poems that the Liturgical Calendar required me to write yesterday, until I found Romans 8:17 and it all somehow made sense. Glad it came through okay in the end.

      I’m pretty sure “Kotanda” just means “God”, though it would be the Christian God as opposed to the various other local deities I mention.

      I’ve never read “Silence” but I’ve heard of it. I find the idea of it quite fascinating, having always taken for granted that, if given the chance to recant and live, I wouldn’t. I suspect it’s a much harder choice than we think, and I’m quite grateful that I haven’t yet been faced with it. I find stories like Charles Lwanga’s deeply convicting and the liturgical calendar just keeps throwing them at me…

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