KAMPALA, UGANDA — The Uganda Martyrs Catholic Shrine and the Anglican Uganda Martyrs Shrine in this capital city are visited by millions of people each year. They are two of Uganda’s most popular religious sites – and are also home to a potentially dangerous health hazard.
A new study reveals that the holy water at the shrines contains high levels of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, stomachaches, urinary tract infections and fever.
But the people who visit, carrying jars, plastic containers and jerry cans, are largely unaware of the danger. Religious pilgrims and daily visitors collect the holy water, which comes from a man-made lake, to sprinkle on religious objects or inside their homes. Many visitors also drink the water.
Microbacteria contamination is higher at the Catholic shrine than at the Anglican site, says Robert Gumisiriza, a lecturer at Kampala’s Makerere University and supervisor of the 2018 study initiated by the university’s biochemistry department. For both shrines, he says the source of the contamination is most likely the toilets located 50 to 70 meters (0.03 to 0.04 miles) away.
While it’s common to boil or otherwise sterilize water before drinking it, that’s not the case with holy water.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
“Those who drink it raw could get diarrheal-related disease like cholera and typhoid,” says Gumisiriza, adding that most visitors think the water is safe because of its religious significance. People come to the shrines to pray and to reflect on the lives of the Uganda Martyrs, a group of 45 Anglican and Catholic converts, 32 of whom were executed for their beliefs by a Ugandan king in 1886.
Father Vincent Lubega, the parish priest at the Catholic shrine, says the water collected from the man-made lake is part of an important ritual for the faithful. He says he has witnessed positive results.
“People with ailments have gotten healed after taking this water,” he says, adding that the study’s researchers don’t understand that the water isn’t for drinking, but is taken or consumed in small quantities for ritual purposes.
There is no formal data about the number of people who have become sick after drinking the water. Tour guides say they advise visitors not to drink it, but not everyone listens.
“I have seen people claim to experience miracles when they take the water uncooked,” says Enock Rukundo, a tour guide and engineer at the Anglican shrine. “Though as a church, we have advised them to cook it before they drink it.”
Still, no amount of advice can sway visitors from putting their trust in a higher power, Rukundo says.
Henry Love Lukyamuzi agrees. He says the water from the lake here healed him from several illnesses. He has never boiled it before drinking.
“I have never felt sick yet I have taken this water several times. If it’s bad, how come I have never fallen sick?” he says.
Bruno Ainembabazi collects the holy water in a small white jerry can and drinks it twice a week without boiling it to bring him luck at his job. As a boda boda driver, a common motorcycle taxi here, he says he used to face a lot of problems on the road.
“Before I started drinking this water, I would have so many problems on the road, like minor accidents, and sometimes make less money. But it has now been three months since I started taking this water and I haven’t experienced any problem,” he says.
But for others, drinking brown, stagnant water from a man-made lake is never a good idea, even if it is located next to a holy shrine.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Hadijah Nabukera says a friend advised her to fetch holy water from near the Catholic shrine to solve her problems. She did, and now she plans to sprinkle the water in her house to chase away bad spirits. But she says she won’t drink the water because it looks dirty.
“The water is brownish and stagnant, it could have mosquito eggs laid in it,” she says.
Vincent Karuhanga, a doctor at Friends Poly Clinic in Kampala, says people often suspend basic knowledge in pursuit of faith.
“People do know that drinking unboiled water can be a health risk,” he says. “But some will chose faith over science because they believe in spiritual healing for a better life.”
That was the case for Sarah Nantege, who visited the Catholic shrine on June 3. She says she drank the water without boiling it first because her faith allowed her to accept that it was safe.
“But I can’t rule out whether my stomachache was caused by the holy water or too much pork I ate that day,” she says.
Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.