Ngondwe’s parentage and conversion to Catholicism
He was born at Bulamu in Kyaggwe County and belonged to the White Egret (Nnyonyi) Clan. His father, Birenge, was in fact head of the clan when he presented his son to the Kabaka. Ngondwe’s mother was Mukomulwanyi of the Buffalo (Mbogo) Clan. A number of royal appointments were traditionally held by members of the White Egret clan. These included the posts of Kabaka’s medicine-man, coffee¬maker, and keeper of the sacred fire, which was lit at the beginning of a new reign and kept burning until its close.
It was the Keeper’s duty to maintain the fire throughout the reign, first offering to the Kabaka the fuel to be used to feed it, according to a traditional ritual, with the words, ‘Here is firewood for the Sacred Fire. When you go to war, smear your face with the ashes and so obtain victory.’ The post of official Keeper, though one of honour, was not without its occupational hazard, because when the fire was extinguished on the death of a Kabaka, the Keeper used to be ‘extinguished’ with it. Doubtless a Kabaka could be sure that at least one of his subjects would sing with real sincerity the Luganda equivalent of ‘Long live our gracious King’.
After serving Kabaka Muteesa for some years as a page, Ngondwe was drafted into the militia and given a plot of land at Kitibwa, later called Kigoowa. Probably already interested in the Catholic religion, he found there a Christian named Cyprian Kamya, baptized with Kalemba and Baanabakintu, to continue his instructions. Kamya has left it on record that Ngondwe often came to his house at dead of night for religious instruction, and also that, ‘when Ngondwe was not yet a Christian, he had a spiteful and vindictive character, but later he became a changed man and got on well with everybody’.
The imprisonment of Pontian Ngondwe
At the beginning of the year 1886, Pontian Ngondwe was falsely accused of stealing a cow from the herd of Mukaajanga, the Chief Executioner. Ngondwe, one of the king’s military officers, was assigned to be in charge of collecting the tax known as “OMUSOLO OGW’ENSOMOLANO,” through which at least one cow was drawn from each herd of cattle. The team of the tax collectors consisted of the following: Abdul Aziz Buliwadda as the head-chief, Pontian Ngondwe as his assistant and was in charge of the tax collection in Kyaddondo county and Ssajjabbi, Mayanja, Kirwana and others.
Mukaajanga’s herd of cattle was in Kyaddondo county, Ngondwe’s area. The Chief Executioner’s head of herdsmen stole the fattest cow from Mukaajanga’s kraal and falsely accused Ngondwe of levying it as a tax collection, something that was contrary to the Kiganda customs and had automatically deserved a severe punishment. Ngondwe was arrested with immediate effect and put into Kimbale prison without trial by Mukaajanga himself. The fabricated case was reported to Mukaajanga. The thief escaped. Meanwhile the Christian persecution broke out when Ngondwe was still serving an indefinite prison sentence.
The martyrdom of Pontian Ngondwe
The Christian persecution found Pontian Ngondwe in prison serving an indefinite prison sentence. When he was being taken to Namugongo with fellow prisoner, Abdul Aziz Buliwadda, late in the evening, they met Mukaajanga who asked drunkenly: “Who of you two is a Christian?” Ponsian Ngondwe immediately answered: “It is I, leave Buliwadda, he is a Muslim”
Twice more did the old executioner ask Ngondwe if he was a Christian, and twice more the martyr affirmed that he was, adding that he had no wish to deny it, and expressing his readiness to die for his faith.
Then Mukajanga called upon his assistants to swear that they would guard their prisoners faithfully and defend them against any attempt at rescue. After the oath had been taken, he ordered a drumcall to be sounded which, taken up by all the drummers, produced a thrill of excitement and terror in the hearts of the hearers. One of these interpreted the meaning of the call as ‘Kasana jangu! Mpewo genda e Ttanda!’ (Heat arise! Wind depart to Ttanda!) and says that it signalled the beginning of the execution.
As the echoes of this awe-inspiring sound died away, Mukaajanga staggered up to Pontian Ngondwe and drove his spear, aptly named the ‘drunken man’, into the heart of the gallant soldier who bravely stood to meet it. The first thrust did not kill him, so the old man stabbed again, shouting, ‘Now it goes in without effort, like a knife into butter.’ He continued to pierce the body of the martyr long after life was extinct stabbing and stabbing again with his spear until he tired.
While this was going on, the other Christians, believing that their turn would follow, went down on their knees where they stood and – recited aloud the Lord’s Prayer. Abdul Aziz, who seems to have been the only non-Christian amongst the captives, was stricken with horror and terror. He says:
As my hand was fastened with Ngondwe’s in the same stocks, I could not leave him when he was killed. I was thus tied to the dead body. I was helpless, unable to escape and expecting death at any moment. I called upon Sebwira to release me, and Mukaajanga replied in a terrible voice. ‘You call upon Sebwira Do you think I cannot set you free?’ Then he ordered his assistant Sitankya to free me from the dead body.
Mukaajanga then told his men to hack the martyr’s corpse to pieces, which they did, scattering the remains in all directions.
It would appear that Ngondwe was selected as the first victim, not because of any personal grudge that Mukaajanga may have harboured, but because he had proved himself difficult. According to one report, he had objected, at first, to going any further than the square in front of the royal enclosure, saying. ‘I have told you that I am a Christian. Kill me here on the spot! Is death any more in evidence in the place to which you are taking me, than here?’
It was Wednesday evening 26th May 1886 when the martyr’s earthly life was put to an end.
Pontian Ngondwe, dark and slender, with high cheek-bones, was between thirty-five and forty when he was martyred.
Anglican Pastor, Ashe finds Pontian Ngondwe’s remains
Ashe went to Munyonyo on the 30th, but failed to obtain an audience. He did see, however, what must have been the remains of the martyr Pontian Ngondwe. ‘On the side of the road,’ he writes, ‘there was a human head, which looked as if it had been carefully placed there after being severed from the trunk. It had a sort of fascination for me. I tried to discern the features, but it was the face of no one I knew. A little further, on the other side of the road, were the limbs, hacked in pieces at the joints. I went on, sick at heart.”