Saint/s of the Day – 20 October – Blessed Daudi Okelo (1902 ca.-1918) and Jildo Irwa (1906 ca.-1918) – Martyrs, Catechists.
The martyrs Daudi Okelo and Jildo Irwa were two young catechists from Uganda at the beginning of the 20th century. They belonged to the Acholi tribe, a subdivision of the large Lwo group whose members even today live mostly in the North of Uganda but they are also present in Southern Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Congo. They lived and were martyred in the years immediately following the foundation of the mission of Kitgum by the Comboni Missionaries in 1915.
Daudi Okelo was born around 1902 in Ogom-Payira, a village on the road Gulu-Kitgum. The son of pagan parents, Lodi and Amona, at 14-16 years of age he attended the instruction to receive baptism. Baptised by Fr Cesare Gambaretto on 1 June 1916, Daudi received his first holy communion on the same day and was confirmed on 15 October 1916. After completing his formation, Daudi accepted to be enrolled as a catechist.
At the beginning of 1917, Antonio, the catechist in charge of Paimol, died. Daudi went to Fr Cesare, then superior at the mission of Kitgum, offering to take Antonio’s place. Daudi’s appointment came only towards the end of that year, during one of the catechists’ monthly meeting. The young Jildo Irwa was to go with him as his assistant. Before setting off, the two of them went to Fr Cesare who informed them of the difficulties of their work, like the long travelling distance—the village was about 80 km from Kitgum—and, in particular, the frequent in-fights of the local people, instigated also by gangs of raiders and traders of slaves and gold, sporadically visiting the area. To all this Daudi is alleged to have answered: “I am not afraid to die. Jesus, too, died for us!”.
So around November-December 1917, with Fr Cesare’s blessing, Boniface, the head-catechist of Kitgum, accompanied Daudi and Jildo to Paimol. Here Daudi immediately began his work by gathering children willing to take religious instruction.
At dawn he beat the drum to call his catechumens for morning prayers and, for Jildo and himself, also for the Rosary. He taught them the prayers and the catechism’s questions and answers, repeated often in a sign-song like manner during the lesson, to facilitate the memorising. It was a matter of teaching the first elements of faith, the so-called Lok-odiku (the words of the morning), namely the essential parts of the catechism. To this activity Daudi added the visits to the nearby small villages from where the catechumens were coming, busy during the day in assisting their parents to look after the cattle or work in the fields.
At sunset, Daudi gave the signal for common prayer and the Rosary, always closing with a song to Our Lady. On Sunday, he held a longer prayer service, often enlivened by the presence of catechumens and catechists of the area.
Daudi of Payira is described as young man of peaceful and shy character, diligent in his duties as a catechist and loved by all. He never got involved in tribal or political disputes, fairly frequent at that time, as submission to the British government was often followed by ill-concealed intolerance. In fact, due to an unhappy decision taken by the District Commissioner, there rose a serious tension. Raiders, Muslim elements and witchdoctors took advantage of the violent situation to get rid of the new religion brought by Daudi.
During the weekend of 18-20 October 1918, long before dawn, five people headed for the hut where Daudi and Jildo were staying with the clear intention of killing them. A village elder confronted the new comers telling them they were not allowed to kill the catechists, as they were his guests. Daudi appeared at the door of his hut and entreated the elder not to get involved. Then the intruders entered into Daudi’s hut and insisted with him that he gave up teaching catechism. Realising that Daudi was not giving in to their threats, they dragged him outside, pushed him to the ground and pierced him with their spears. He was about 16-18 years old.
His body was then left unburied until a few days later some people, tying a rope around the neck, dragged the body over a nearby empty termite hill. The mortal remains, collected in February 1926, were later placed in the mission church of Kitgum, at the foot of the altar of the Sacred Heart.
Jildo Irwa was born around 1906 in the village of Bar-Kitoba, North-West of Kitgum, from pagan parents: Ato, his mother, and Okeny, his father who later became a Christian.
He was baptised by Cesare Gambaretto on 6 June 1916, at the age of 10-12 years; on the same day he received his first Holy Communion and was confirmed on 15 October 1916.
Father Cesare wrote about him “Jildo was much younger than Daudi. Of lively and gentle nature, like many Acholi youngsters, he was quite intelligent and occasionally acted as secretary to the vice-chief Ogal who had given hospitality in Paimol. He was of great help to Daudi in gathering the children for the instruction with his gentle way and infantile insistence. He knew also how to entertain them with innocent village games and noisy and merry meetings. He had recently received baptism, whose grace he preserved in his heart and let it transpire by his charming behaviour”.
He had spontaneously and very willingly offered to go with Daudi to teach God’s word in Paimol. Here he was loved by everyone because he was always available and exemplary in his duties as assistant-catechist.
On the morning of their martyrdom Jildo answered to Daudi who was warning him about a possible cruel death, “Why should we be afraid? We have done nothing wrong to anyone; we are here only because Fr Cesare sent us to teach the word of God. Do not fear!”
He repeated the same words to those who were urging him to leave that place and his duty as assistant-catechist. “We have done nothing wrong”, he was saying in tears “For the same reason you killed Daudi you must also kill me, because together we came here and together we have been teaching God’s word”. Having said this, somebody grabbed him, pushed him outside the hut and, placing him at a distance of two steps, pierced him through with a spear. Then one of them struck Jildo’s head with a knife. He was about 12-14 years old.
The martyrdom of these two young catechists from Uganda is very meaningful for the current events the country is going through. It is a matter, first of all, of two young lay catechists who together carried out and remained faithful to their assignment to spread the Gospel by words and deeds. Furthermore, by courageously accepting to move to a place outside the influence of their own ethnic clan, they have become in their environment a sign of the catholicity and unity of the Church. Finally, having lived during a period of tribal fights, colonial interests and still flourishing domestic slavery, they represent the integrity of a Gospel that always protects and safeguards personal dignity and promotes peace among peoples, ethnic groups and cultures. For this, even today they are remembered in their land as Christ’s true “witnesses by blood”.