Our small household was ticking along very nicely. Our simple lifestyle kept all of us healthy, we were surrounded by good, friendly people, in a country where even trees, plants and grass seemed to grow with extra vigour.
Then one Saturday lunchtime, when my mother and I were making our way to the bus park after shopping in Nakasero Market in Kampala, a black Mercedes Benz stopped and the driver offered us a lift home.
The Mercedes Benz was as much a status symbol in those days as it is today: folk living in tumble-down shacks believed themselves to be socially superior if they could park a Mercedes at the door.
The owner of this particular Mercedes was a neighbour of ours, Augustine Musoke, and he and his wife, Nora, lived in a pretty, modern bungalow.
When he offered us a lift, he already had another passenger whom he introduced simply as Michael.
Auga, as he was known, dropped us off at our house, and we thought nothing more of it, until the following Friday evening when my mother and I noticed a stranger walking through the garden. At first we thought it was somebody wanting directions to someone else’s house.
We still did not recognise him as anybody we knew when he, with elaborate greetings, joined us on the verandah and sat chatting socially: about this and that. He struck me as a strange little man, clean but shabby, and there was an eagerness to please which was almost servile.
My mother and I could not place him, and neither could Joyce. It was very tiring, sitting with what appeared to be a complete stranger, eking out polite conversation.
Eventually, Joyce excused herself on the pretense of seeing to the children, and my mother escaped to make tea.
Kabaka’s emissary arrives
No sooner had the pair of them disappeared, than the stranger dropped to his knees and declared that he brought a message from the Kabaka.
Sure that I was in the company of a madman, I, with false brightness hiding my panic, asked what was the message. Then I recognised the man as the Michael who had been Auga Musoke’s other passenger on the previous Saturday.
He was the last thing anybody would expect of a royal emissary, and I eyed him warily as he explained that His Highness had heard from his brother, Prince Henry Kimera, still in London, that I was in Buganda, and wanted to meet me. He said a car would call to take me to the palace later that evening.
I was too stunned as well as flattered to protest. Nor was I prepared to listen to my mother’s surge of misgivings concerning the Kabaka’s dubious reputation where women were concerned. As she ominously put it, “nobody has his name plastered across the news of the world for nothing.”
A couple of hours later, decked out in mum’s only pair of silk stockings, my best frock, and the high-heels I had not worn for years, I was ready and waiting to be carried off for a night of royal debauchery.
Lift on Kabaka’s Land Rover
It was something of an anti-climax when a land rover, albeit bearing a miniature spear on the bonnet, and the Kabaka’s coat of arms instead of registration plates, trundled up the drive.
The least we had expected was a Rolls or a Bentley. Michael sat beside the driver, but gave up his seat to me, and obligingly climbed into the back. I waved my mother farewell, and was driven away for my first taste of how the other half lived.
The Land Rover was one disappointment.
Not grandly sweeping through the main palace entrance with the bronze shield, crossed spears and lion couchant embossed on the gates was another.
Disappointment gave way to unease as the Land Rover bypassed the main entrance and followed the high outer wall until reaching another gate known as Kalala.
All palace gates had names, and this was a cumbersome tin-covered barrier on badly-fixed hinges, and the two old men in yellow, belted kanzus, whose job it was to open and close it, had a painful struggle heaving it to and fro.
I was even more uneasy when, once inside the palace grounds, we travelled along tracks, past what I took to be a few abandoned huts, a school, and through two enclosures of woven reeds. There wasn’t another soul in sight. It was eerie until suddenly in front of us was a long, low bungalow with brightly lit windows.
From somewhere beyond the building traditional musicians filled the night with the rippling notes of the Kiganda version of a xylophone accompanied by the rhythmic beat of drums.
The Land Rover dropped Michael and me in front of the verandah, and sped away. Michael ushered me up the shallow steps and through an open doorway which led directly into a moderately sized room. Then he, too, disappeared.
The room I was stranded in certainly held enough curious objects to occupy the interest of visitors.
Besides a daunting arrangement of ceremonial spears and daggers, there were two semi-circles of ivory tusks arranged on the floor.
These were flanked by two life-sized busts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I (in his book, Desecration of My Kingdom, the Kabaka claimed that the bust was of Mary Queen of Scots) while one of Oliver Cromwell brooded in a corner near the door.
A chandelier hung from the ceiling, and among the many autographed photographs on the walls, Queen Victoria’s held pride of place: the crochet work in the form of doilies and antimacassars on the few chairs and occasional tables was probably in deference to her.
I was having a good look at everything until I instinctively realised that I was being inspected with as much attention as I was giving the bric-a-brac.
Nevertheless, the swishing aside of a heavy curtain on the opposite side of the room caught me by surprise. I spun around and was face-to-face with Kabaka Mutesa II.
We stared at each other for a moment before he stepped forward, smiling. Meanwhile, I had taken in his tweed jacket, patched with leather at elbows and cuffs, his check shirt and woolen tie, the drill pants, and the suede safari boots which cried out for a dose of hair-restorer.
The Kabaka of Buganda looked more like a university under-graduate student than a king. He was considerably better-looking than most of his photographs led one to expect, and his voice was particularly attractive, whether he spoke in Luganda or English.
We exchanged a few pleasantries to the effect on his part that it was good for me to come at such a short notice, and kind of him to invite me on mine, then the Kabaka held the curtain aside and we passed through a “wide archway” into another room. There was no Victoriana here.
The room was the size of the average suburban sitting-room, and the only furnishings were a “striped chaise lounge, a baby grand piano and a radiogram.
There were about 10 people already present; one of whom was a European, Basil Sebley, acknowledged as Kampala’s best dentist. The others were brothers of Kabaka, the tall, handsome Robert Ntambi, who as assistant ADC, was the only person allowed by the Protectorate Government to join the Kabaka on the RAF plane which flew him into exile, and James Lutaya, the powerful Ssaza Chief of Ssingo.
Everybody sat on the floor, and as soon as the Kabaka entered they crouched on their knees and stayed there until he sat down on the chaise lounge.
Somebody made room for me on one of the mikekas (woven mats) arranged for seating on the fitted carpet, and during the informal introductions I was handed a gin and tonic.
I don’t recall any other woman being there, except perhaps Nalinya (or princess) Mpologoma very briefly.
She was comparatively new to the job of official consort, since the elder sister who had previously held the position had died of a heart attack upon hearing of the Kabaka’s exile.
Apart from the seating arrangements, there was nothing to distinguish the gathering from any other where friends get together for a drink.
Talk was light, with everybody joining in, and when Basil Sebley rather amusing new bar, he had discovered in the Industrial Area, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that we should all pile into cars and visit it.
Ride with Kabaka
I travelled in Basil’s sleek Rolls Royce with him, the Kabaka and a couple of the princes. The others followed in their own cars.
We pulled up outside the bar at about 10:30, and it certainly did not appear very amusing from the outside. It was a converted warehouse situated in a row of workshops.
Inside it was like a barn with a long bar on one side, and the only customers were a few mechanics in greasy overalls. A wide, open flight of steps, a glorified ladder in fact, led up to a gallery on which were placed a few easy chairs and tables.
Our party didn’t attract much interest until the Kabaka walked in. Then there was a moment’s excited buzz which subsided when it was realised that he was supposed to be incognito.
Whatever amusement Basil had once found in the place was sadly lacking on our visit.
We climbed up into the gallery, had drinks served by the barman who deliberately treated the Kabaka as an ordinary customer, (and had the sense to hand the bill to one of the princes), and less than 30 minutes later were on our way to Basil’s house for a later dinner.
Basil’s was a tiny jewel of a house. Every room was perfection. Not a bit like the common East African interior decor of the time.
We ate a splendid dinner in the room which was also his library - book-lined walls and soft furnishings.
Shy good night
Afterwards, the party broke up and he drove me and the Kabaka back to Lubiri, or, as I soon came to know it the Old Twekobe, the Kabaka’s real home – the New Twekobe being the white palace seen from the road which housed the Nnabagereka on the first floor and which was only used by the Kabaka on official occasions.
Again we entered, as we had left, through Kalala, and the moment we crossed into Lubiri grounds the royal drums thundered the message of the Kabaka’s return home. The same drums, by tradition, fell silent whenever he left.
We said good night rather shyly outside the Old Twekobe where the Land Rover waited to take me home. It was past midnight and His Highness was due to leave on a hunting trip in the early hours of the following morning.
He promised to contact me as soon as he returned in a few weeks’ time. I looked forward to hearing from him.
-Continues in Saturday Monitor