Ronald Mutebi

Ugandan Affairs

African Princess


Hamish Hamilton 230pp £9.95 order from our bookshop

London in the fashion – conscious 1960s was enchanted and enthralled by Elizabeth Bagaya. Black and beautiful, well – educated and urbane, above all she was pristine, a Princess of the blood royal, scion of an ancient ruling family – she was not just a pretty face off a boat from the sugar cane islands.

Naturally strong – willed, ambitious and equipped with a wide streak of vanity it was no real surprise that her career as a model should have been such a triumph. It helped, of course, if one had patrons such as Princess Margaret and Lord Harlech, Hugh Fraser and Jacqueline Kennedy. Nevertheless, she had arrived in England a penniless refugee, forced out of her homeland after her brother, The Omukama (King) of Toro, had been deposed by Milton Obote along with the three other monarchs in Uganda. After a few months of destitution in London it was all glamour and glory.

From being penniless and roofless I came to have a choice of three homes. Apart from Joan Vickers’ spacious flat adjoining the Houses of Parliament, Peter Tapsell gave me his children’s former nanny’s room in the Albany: a French Count lent a flat in Paris: and later I was to rent my own flat in the King’s Road, Chelsea.

David Bailey photographed me as Queen of Sheba for British Vogue, the Earl of Lichfield for American Vogue and I modelled in fashion shows at Norman Hartnell’s, Thea Porter’s and Annabel’s, while other photographs of me appeared in Harper’s Bazaar and Queen magazines. I joined the Paris Planning Agency, where I found myself at my first session in the company of Picasso’s daughter. Alexander, the then top hairdresser in Paris did our hair…

Such was the pace of her life. Lord Harlech and Jacqueline Kennedy paved the way to New York, where her achievements were even more spectacular, becoming the first black model to appear on the covers of both Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

The Kingdom of Toro in the far west of Uganda is a land of immense charm. Blessed with a lush and fertile soil and an agreeable, temperate climate, it nestles at the foot of the Mountains of the Moon – the lofty guardians of Uganda’s western approach. Lord Lugard, sent by the British East Africa company in 1886 to secure the Nile trade routes for Britain, described Toro as a ‘land of almost terrible beauty’. The chilling irony of his observation still hangs tragically over the whole country.

Dauidi Kyebambe IV, the ruler of Toro at the turn of the century was the Master Architect of what became the modern Kingdom of Toro. With the help of missionaries he cajoled his people into accepting western – style education along with the other questionable benefits of Christianity. Princess Elizabeth credits her grandfather with ‘having opened the door to a new era’.

The missionaries, mostly gritty, intrepid matriarchs from England, had their own idiosyncratic ways of instructing the heathen of Africa. Edith Pike, one of the first of this breed to set foot in Toro, when asked to compose a national anthem, chose ‘Swanee River’ – no doubt influenced by the idea that it must have been ‘African’ somewhere along the line.

Kyebambe’s heir, Kamurasi Rukidi III was a remarkable man. He stood well over 6ft 5ins and was a tower of strength. A warm and caring man, he foresaw all the disasters that would descend on the new nation of Uganda and had a healthy loathing for the country’s new leaders whom he regarded as young impetuous fools. The machinations of modern politics eventually undermined his health and sapped his will to live. ‘He resolved to die rather than acquiesce in the disrespect which arises from lack of patriotism – and to die not by poison as ancient custom demanded, but by force of will’.

Fearing for his daughter’s virginity he had previously decided to send the young Elizabeth to Britain to complete her education. She found Sherborne ‘testing and fruitful’. At Girton she led a vigorous social life and was ‘thoroughly spoilt’. Her suitors there included Prince William of Gloucester and Alaistair Hamilton, and was hostess to Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Maboya, the two heavy – weights of Kenyan nationalism. At the end of the day she came down ‘a virgin’ – no mean feat.

Her modelling career came to an end when she accepted Idi Amin’s invitation to be his Foreign Minister. It was a dubious step to take, although she remains adamant about the probity of her motives:

It was a singular honour for the Monarchy … since the Monarchy had been abolished by Obote. There had been a deliberate policy to discredit it … My appointment was clear recognition of the fact that there is ability and merit in the Royals … I believe Amin quickly came to admire me for the way I applied myself to my job, and to appreciate that I had genuine concern for my country, and as long as I could convince him that this was so, I was able, up to a point, to be taken into his confidence and to sway him to my way of looking at things.

Many people thought otherwise. Even at the time of her appointment the hue of Amin’s regime was very distinct – it was blood red. The Chief Justice had been dragged from his Chambers never to be seen again. A similar fate had befallen the President of the Industrial Relations Court and many others. The Asians had been expelled unceremoniously and hundreds had left the country voluntarily. It was estimated that 50,000 had lost their lives. Her decision looked too much like opportunism and greed for power.

She confirms all the conventional diagnoses of Amin’s character; his impatience with Government bureaucracy and Cabinet decision – making. His proneness to manipulation by anyone with a subtle tongue (a hazardous business this, as Princess Elizabeth was to discover) and his chronic personal insecurity and paranoia.

As time went by Amin became more and more frustrated, nervous and irascible. More people disappeared and the reasons behind Princess Elizabeth’s tenure of office appeared more and more obscure. The Ministry she headed was in disarray and the nation as a whole was crumbling around her feet. Still she held on, making a trip to the United Nations to deliver a speech that was to be her undoing. On her way back to Uganda she stopped in France to change flights at Orly Airport. The rumoured details of that episode are fodder for the prurient.

She has led a remarkable life. In one way or another she has kept herself (and Uganda) persistently under the world’s gaze for over two decades. In this way she has fulfilled her own particular brand of patriotism.

If the reader can withstand the relentless barrage of self-congratulation and an occasionally erratic and repetitive narrative, hers is a unique and exceptional story.

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