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Mackay's cave

By Titus Kakembo

AMONG the locals, the place is known as empuku ya Makayi (Mackay's cave). On a wall above the cave entrance is an engraving, in the corner of which are two winged angels blowing trumpets on either side of Jesus Christ.

This cave was where the adventurous missionary, Alexander Mackay, educated chiefs and preached the word of God. To get there, you have to endure a walk up a muddy and bumpy path that winds uphill in a slum in Nateete, off the Kampala-Masaka highway.

Many years ago, this was a mission and a school. It was linked to the next village by a 2km tunnel.

In Mackay of the Great Lakes, a compilation of the missionary's diaries, C.E. Padwick says this cave served as a missionary house. It is here that Mackay weathered the royal storms of Buganda in the 1870s.

It was also here that he translated the gospel according to St. Matthew into Luganda. The laborious job took him 12 years as he mastered Luganda while his Baganda converts learned English and Kiswahili.

The cave housed the country's first printing press, which can today be found at the Uganda Museum. It was also in this cave that the Scotsman equipped the locals with skills in carpentry, writing and reading.

Just below the cave is a spring dug by Mackay. Here, village women swap the latest gossip and children play as they fetch water, as Mackay watches over them from the wall engraving.

Asked what she knows about the cave, Cissy Nalubega, 84, a landlady in the area, runs her scraggy fingers through her grey hair. "In this cave Mackay suffered the wrath of our kings like the young and vain 18-year-old Mwanga and Kiweewa.

Because they were unpredictable he built a tunnel between this village and the next," says Nalubega. We were told it was an escape route because Mackay foresaw danger in case the Buganda kingdom and the Church clashed."

Fingering her wrinkled forehead Nalubega says her forefathers told her that before Mutesa I died in 1884, the cave was a workshop and a Protestant church.

J. Ngombe, who is in his 40s, speaks of the cave with nostalgia. His face cracks into a smile as he mentally goes back in time.

"We used to play hide and seek in the tunnel. If you wanted to prove that you were tough, you went into the dark tunnel alone.

However, with time it got overgrown with grass and our parents got scared that snakes would bite us. The late Mikayi Nsereko, a resident, mobilised resources and had the passage blocked," recalls Ngombe.

He says as he grew older criminals took over his childhood playground, and it became a refuge for smokers and prostitutes from Nateete and a market for local gin brewers.

"It was a no-go area. Women risked being raped there and men were mugged there," says Ngombe. Eventually, after discovering that criminal activities were being hatched here by people under the influence of drugs, the Military Police in the mid-1970s warned that anybody seen there would be shot first and questions asked later.

The warning came at about the time Archbishop Janan Luwum was found dead at the scene of a staged motor accident.

"That year, 1977, the cave was searched for guns, just like Bishop Luwum's house was," says Ngombe, recalling that jeeps full of armed soldiers speaking Swahili stormed the village. "They threatened to slaughter any criminals they found there," he adds.

"Idi Amin's State Research Bureau suspected that the cave was a rallying place for anti-establishment elements," says Mzee Mpima.

After the Obote II regime, criminals took over the cave again, storing their booty and hiding from the authorities. Today, a Luganda phrase calls out from the work of art at the entrance: "Mujje gyendi mwe abakoye…." (Come to me you who are weary).

In an echo of the ancient rivalry between Islam and Christianity, below it is some writing in Arabic. Nnalongo Francesca Lukuuse, a staunch Catholic who stays a few meters away from the cave laments that in spite of the rich history of the village, it has not gained respect.

She says other than school tours there are not many visitors to the area. Locals take the place for granted.

"I hope when the Queen comes for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting she will come to honour Mackay who suffered with Africa in its raw form," Lukunse says.

John Bosco Masiko, the headmaster of Mackay Memorial Primary School, says the cave was robbed by the National Museum of Uganda.

"This is where Mackay put the first printing press in the country. The Printers Association in Uganda should lend a hand in maintaining the site," he says.

"This cave was a fortress where illiteracy, polygamy and slave trade as practiced by his host Kabaka Mutesa 1, who had 300 wives, were successfully fought."

In the distance the shakers of a traditional healer are audible as he summons the gods and his spiritual powers.

Outside his home is a placard announcing his prowess in treating ailments like syphilis, loss of libido and high blood pressure.

His are the powers that Mackay fought tirelessly until his death.

Published on: Saturday, 6th October, 2007