Tension and insecurity in the region of Karamoja, North-eastern Uganda, was rife. Well-armed warriors were taking advantage of the lack of security personnel on the ground to wreak havoc by raiding cattle belonging to neighbouring ethnic groups. It was in the late afternoon of Friday 15th August 2003 when the shocking news reached the Mission of Kapedo.
On the night of August 13th 2003 there had been a cattle raid by the Jie, an ethnic group living in and around Kotido, against kraals of the Dodoth ethnic group who live to the north of Kotido, around Kaabong and Kapedo. Several people were killed and many hundreds of animals were stolen. A group of young Dodoth warriors apparently decided to take revenge.
On the morning of August 14th 2003 Brother Godfrey Kiryowa was travelling home with Father Mario Manovani from Kotido to the Mission of Kapedo, about seventy miles north. They set out from the Mission of Kanawat near Kotido at 9:00 a.m. in the morning and about an hour later reached the Loyoro-Kaabong crossroads near a mountain named ‘Lobel’. Brother Godfrey was driving slowly because the road was in such a poor state of repair. By the side of the road, the grass was tall. The silence was broken by a sudden volley of shots from an AK-47 Kalashnikov assault rifle. A hail of bullets struck the car. Brother Godfrey was hit and died instantly. Father Mario managed to get out of the vehicle, but was shot dead a short distance away. Brother Godfrey was only thirty years of age and was the first Ugandan Comboni Missionary Brother killed in Africa. Father Mario Mantovani was eighty-four years old.
Brother Godfrey Kiryowa was born on December 20th 1973 into a family originally from Tanzania at Kwawangabi in the Parish of Kasaala, about forty miles north of Kampala. He entered the Comboni Postulancy in Layibi on the outskirts of Gulu where he trained for three years in ‘Building Construction and Design’. He then went to Namugongo from 2000 to 2002 for his Novitiate, and he took his First Vows there on May 5th 2002. After that he was assigned to the Mission of Kapedo in Northern Karamoja.
The semi-arid region of Karamoja is among the least developed and most insecure areas of the country. It is a place of low agricultural productivity, serious food insecurity and high levels of extreme poverty. When Brother Godfrey arrived in Karamoja he was truly shocked to see the levels of poverty and deprivation there coming, as he did, from a far more fertile region in the centre of the country.
In the Mission of Kapedo he joined Father Mario Mantovani, whom he already knew, and set to work. The Brother made himself available for the various chores needed in running the Mission: maintaining the water pump, the electricity generator and the buildings; going for provisions and fuel to Kotido, and further afield to Mbale and Kampala for spare parts and supplies; and being the driver for his elderly Confrère.
Brother Godfrey tried to understand what really lay behind all the cattle raiding in Karamoja. He noted that some people justified such criminal behaviour with phrases such as: “When you have nothing, you have to go on a raid. It is people who have no work who raid”; “No cows, no dowry, no marriage”; or “People are not educated so they depend on raiding for survival”. Yet Brother Godfrey was not naïve and soon realized that business interests often lay behind the phenomenon of cattle rustling and the seemingly endless amounts of guns and bullets readily available to the cattle raiders. The growth in cattle raiding on a commercial scale had greatly facilitated the supply of vast numbers of cattle for slaughter to the urban populations in the South of the country. The extent of such raiding, Brother Godfrey argued, was far more than was needed for the supposed survival of individual families or providing for marriage dowries in Karamoja.
Brother Godfrey constantly asked himself what he could do to remedy matters but he was determined that he would not change his own routine just because of cattle raiding. One day raiders started to fire at his vehicle as he was driving on the road from Loyoro to Kapedo. On that occasion, there happened to be some soldiers in the back of the pick-up who had asked him for a lift along the way, and they returned fire. The warriors thought better of the encounter and beat a hasty retreat. He later told friends that although he had been ‘frightened to death’ by the episode nothing was going to put him off driving on those roads if it was necessary for his work in maintaining the Mission. Notwithstanding such experiences, he remained always smiling, good humoured and courageous.
Sadly, Brother Godfrey never got the opportunity to put his analysis or his courage to further use. The ambush that took place on August 14th as he was driving Father Mario home to the Mission of Kapedo proved fatal for both of them. The reasons for their untimely end are still contested. Some claim that there was no connection between the killing of the two Missionaries and the cattle raid by the Jie which had taken place in the area the night before. The man caught in possession of Father Mantovani’s shoes and wrist-watch was later killed in mysterious circumstances at Kotido Police Station. Some alleged this was to prevent him from revealing the names of his accomplices. All that is known is that the body of Brother Godfrey was found the following day, on the morning of the Feast of the Assumption, and that the body of Father Mario was found a short distance away at around 2:00 p.m. in the afternoon of the same day.
When the news of Brother Godfrey’s death reached Kasaala, the local Bishop Cyprian Lwanga was celebrating the Solemnity there as the Parish Church was dedicated to the ‘Assumption of our Blessed Lady’. The Bishop personally informed Brother Godfrey’s father, who was a Catechist of the Parish and a man of deep faith, of his terrible loss. The father reacted with great composure and, understanding the difficulty of the situation, said that the family were willing to have Godfrey buried in Karamoja if moving the body would endanger the lives of other Missionaries.
On Saturday 16th August 2003 Bishop Denis Kiwanuka of the Diocese of Kotido, with the participation of a number of Comboni Missionaries, other Religious and Members of the Local Clergy, celebrated the Funeral Mass of Father Mario Mantovani and Brother Godfrey Kiryowa in the Mission of Kanawat. Father Mario was then buried next to the Church in Kanawat while Brother Godfrey’s remains were taken to his home Parish in Kasaala. The following day many fellow students from Brother Godfrey’s days at Secondary and Technical School took part in the Funeral Rites there. He was buried next to the two Missionaries of Africa (White Fathers) who had founded the Parish in Kasaala and had worked there for many years.
The evident faith and great serenity of Brother Godfrey’s elderly father, who publicly forgave his son’s killers at the graveside, was a great sign of evangelical witness: showing the power of the Gospel to transform the human heart and to give meaning even to the tragic death of a young and precious son.