Working and partying at Mengo with Kabaka Mutesa

Barbara Kimenye (2ndL with back to camera) dances with Kabaka Mutesa in one of the evenings in Mengo.

The Kabaka’s government ministry of Education was one of three long, low verandahed buildings built on a grassy slope between the fence separating the grounds of the official palace or new Twekobe and the high brick wall surrounding the whole of the Lubiri.

The permanent secretary, Harry Hudson, and I had a good working relationship from the start.

He was a short, muscular, balding man, totally dedicated to raising educational standards in the Kingdom of Buganda, even when it meant he was often in collision with the Protectorate Government from which most of his staff were officially seconded.

Harry spoke fluent Luganda, encouraged his fellow expatriates to learn the language, and avoided the insular environment of the Kampala Club in favour of home entertainment where his Baganda education officers were ever welcome.

His wife Carol, busy with three school-age daughters, seemed to be able to turn out simple yet tasty meals at a moment’s notice.

An assistant education officer from up country, at Mengo to sort out some administrative problem, was always invited to the Hudson’s for at least one dinner and given the opportunity to discuss any worries concerning his work.

More often, the Hudson’s would simply invite all the ministry staff to a meal, and any teatime at their house was open-house. I can’t count the times I have lolled about in their straggling garden, eating home-made scones and fruit cake.
The officers included Henry Kyeyune, father of five children, despite looking like a schoolboy, whose tragedy was that after the birth of twins his wife had suffered a nervous breakdown and been hospitalised in Butabika, Uganda’s main mental hospital.

Somehow, she had wandered out of there and disappeared. Henry and the police searched endlessly for her, putting up posters with her photograph, but she was never found.

It has always been assumed that she fell into one of the swamps near the hospital.
Then there was Mr Kassajja, a former teacher, father of a large family.

During one of our Luganda lessons, which he attended as an observer, he fell into some kind of fit, and I shoved a thick china plate into his mouth to prevent him mangling his tongue. It was the only solid thing at hand. I still go cold when I think what might have happened had he crunched the plate with his teeth....

Sometime later, while driving up-country, a student to whom he was giving a lift in his car remarked in horror that flames were darting from the bonnet of the vehicle.

Mr. Kasajja didn’t hesitate. He jumped out and left the student and car to hurtle downhill into a wall. Luckily, the student escaped with minor bruises.

Building friendship
Another officer, Basil Lumu, became a great personal friend of mine. He and Harry were close because of their interest in the development of the Luganda language, and their efforts to encourage parents to allow their children to complete secondary school.

It was Harry Hudson’s idea which was eventually sanctioned by the Protectorate Government, and which is still practised today; i.e. that fees be gradually reduced at each level of primary school, with further reductions in some levels of secondary school, making education cheaper instead of more expensive as children progressed from one class to another, thus encouraging parents to keep their offspring in school until the completion of secondary education.

In the office next door to mine sat Ernest Sempebwa, a walking manual on Kiganda history, court etiquette and protocol. Ernest was Harry’s assistant secretary, and it may have been on his recommendation that Harry enjoyed so much of the Kabaka’s confidence.

The two of them would be engrossed in long discussions concerning the latest strategy of Central Government to limit, as they saw it, Buganda’s sphere of power in education, then they spent hours in His Highness’s private office, planning their counter-offensive.

I grew to know and become very fond of Ernest, despite his strict adherence to traditional court manners: he automatically knelt if the Kabaka spoke to him over the phone, glared at anyone who referred to His Highness as ‘Freddie’, and on the day that the Kabaka’s askaris flew the royal standard upside-down outside the new Twekobe, I expected Ernest to have a stroke.

The office registry for incoming and outgoing mail, as well as the recording of in and out files, was manned by a clerk who remains dim in my memory, although I do recall that he was reputed to practise witchcraft.

Damien, our Luo messenger, had once aroused the man’s wrath and the man claimed to have put a spell on him.

Damien was reduced to a gibbering idiot, unable to step outside his house for fear of being struck dead.

It took all Harry Hudson’s persuasive powers to convince Damien that no harm would come to him, and then Harry took Damien to live in his own staff quarters to give him a sense of security.

Mr Mukasa, another, older messenger, was my special favourite. He used to turn up for work in a battered, wide-brimmed straw hat, a ragged kanzu, and pushing an ancient bike; and then emerge dapper in his khaki uniform.

Mr Mukasa – I never knew his first name – was courteous and kind, the embodiment of Kiganda good manners. But he used to drive Sarah Jarvis mad.

Sarah was a middle-aged expatriate education officer based with us at Mengo, and she prided herself on her Luganda.

Yet she never twigged that if you asked a Muganda a question such as “You never sent it, did you?” and he replied “Yes”, that he was agreeing with her that indeed he had not sent whatever it was.

Sarah always thought that the person concerned was deliberately lying.

She used to have endless arguments with Mr Mukasa in this connection, leaving him utterly bewildered and sure that the woman was mad.

Apart from such misunderstandings due to language, Sarah was like Harry Hudson in the way she formed real friendships with her Baganda colleagues. She took a great interest in their families and was often invited to their houses and they to hers.

At one of her get-togethers we were treated to a projection of her photographic slides: Sarah tended to have crazes, and photography had its day.

Most of her pictures were out of focus, or portrayed the subjects apparently standing at an angle on a hill, but we were all perplexed when Sarah announced “And here’s the Kasajja family!”, and showed an upside down herd of giraffe.

I don’t know where Sarah got the idea that sherry was non-alcoholic. Anyway, she began refreshing herself with a bottle of the stuff whenever she spent a quiet evening at home.

In next to no time, various people in the office expressed concern at Sarah’s haggard appearance. Some even pressed her to see a doctor after she admitted to regularly feeling ill.

Eventually, somebody discovered the root of the problem and gently explained to her that she was in the grip of a chronic hangover. The news came as a shock, but she quickly lost the taste for sweet sherry.

Years later, when Henry Kyeyune was imprisoned by the Obote regime on some trumped up charge, Sarah visited Uganda and did what she could to see to the welfare of Henry’s family.

Work environment
We didn’t have very much to do with our neighbours in Health and Natural Resources. Only the permanent secretary and their staff were based at Lubiri.

The ministers of Education, Health and Natural Resources, for whom rather splendid houses were being built across the road from the palace, had offices in the new Bulange.

In any event, the permanent secretaries of the other two ministries were more typical of the British civil servant and careful not to encourage familiarity from the natives.

Just as I arrived in Education, Amos Sempa, the minister, was moving on to become Omuwanika (Treasurer) in the Kabaka’s government. Harry Hudson was full of regrets.

Sempa was an intellectual in anybody’s cultural estimation, and the two of them were firm friends. In hoping to placate the relatively small Muslim community in the kingdom, His Highness had decided to give our ministry to a respected Muslim, Kassim Male.

I don’t know what we expected, but when Kassim turned up to greet us before his okweyanza (swearing-in) everybody was immediately under the spell of his charm.

Tall, slim, fair-skinned, and with one of the gentlest faces I’ve ever seen on a man, Kassim immediately won us over.

Although his educational achievements were well below those of Amos Sempa, he was willing to listen to advice and formed his sensible judgments.

In no time at all, he and Harry were buddies fighting for a common cause.
I regret to say that later on my mother contributed to Kassim’s downfall.

He came across her one evening at the Speke Hotel where John Ayres was now manager, and asked what she was drinking. She happened to be drinking gin and tonic.

Kassim, so far a non-drinking Muslim, tasted it, found it delightful, ordered it for my mother and himself, and set off on the road to ruin.

From then on, he was drinking gin and tonic as though it were the nectar of life. Soon he was rarely sober, his work suffered: we at the ministry managed very well without him; and within about 18 months he died of drink.

But before all this happened, we were invited to attend the okweyanza of the new ministers and chiefs at the new Bulange recently formally opened by His Highness the Kabaka in the presence of the governor, Sir, Andrew Cohen.

Parties all over
In fact, we were invited to all sorts of functions, all over the place, because the celebrations of the Kabaka’s return were still going on. And by we, I mean everybody employed in the Kabaka’s government.

The okweyanza, for instance, were more or less public holidays. We all downed tools for the occasion.

Those of us who weren’t allocated seats in the Lukiiko chamber simply joined the drummers, dancers and the crowds lining the road between the palace and the new Bulange.

The moment the Kabaka’s open-topped car appeared, everybody went wild and surged forward, so that the car crawled along in first gear, and it is a wonder that nobody was run-over.
There was no attempt at security.

When at last the Kabaka arrived at the new Bulange, he was led into the chamber in the traditional manner by a man jumping around and flourishing a shield and spear.

To reach there, he crossed the mosaic floor of the wide hall depicting the emblem of Buganda, and passed through the great mvuli (Muvule) doors set in mvuli (Muvule) walls made up of panelled carvings of all the clan totems.

The Lukiiko chamber itself was arranged similarly to the British House of Commons, minus the centre table and Speaker’s chair, and with a platform at one end to accommodate the throne.

Although it was an honour to be given a seat in there as a guest at the ceremonies, there must have been many people envying the crowds outside, for the chamber had no air-conditioning, and the heat after a couple of hours could be stifling.

And because the Kabaka was appointing a whole new administration, including ssaza and other ranks of chiefs besides ministers, the okweyanzas seemed endless.

Individually, the appointees were called and came forward to strike the pose of holding a shield and spear, and begin listing the heroes and achievements through the ages of their particular clans with the formula “Ssabasajja Kabaka! I am a Muganda....”

Some of these men would hold forth for at least an hour, bragging and shamelessly exaggerating.

At the end of the swearing-in, sometimes mid-afternoon, the audience flopped out, limp and sweaty, while the Kabaka must have been melting beneath the heavily embroidered red velvet ceremonial robe worn on these occasions.

From the new Bulange it was on to the parties given by various of the newly-appointed.

The excuse was to extend congratulations, but those rich enough to lay on plenty of food and drink, besides traditional entertainment, naturally received the most.

I particularly remember that Leonard Bassude, the new minister for Natural Resources, keen to show off the luxurious furnishings of the equally new ministerial house he occupied, threw a tremendous bash: but what impressed his visitors most was an illuminated fountain which changed colour in the middle of his sitting-room.

Others who had received promotions and experienced okweyanza earlier in their public service careers wisely took off for their country estates and avoided the expense of entertaining a crowd of freeloaders.

Then there was the first anniversary of the Kabaka’s return from exile celebrated with a public holiday so that everybody could be out in the streets again to cheer him as he went to the new Bulange to receive loyal addresses from his government leaders and clan elders.

There followed a short drinks party in the state apartments of the new Twekobe - no crochet work or homely touches here ; instead, chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors, and wall-to-wall carpet woven in the design and, colours of the royal standard (a plum-coloured background replacing the deep blue of the Kiganda flag to the crossed spears, shield and lion couchant).

Lubiri cocktail
A large cocktail party was held in the Lubiri gardens that same evening, with music provided by the Police band conducted by Inspector Moon. This was my first palace cocktail party. It proved typical of those I attended later.

They were held either in the formal garden fronting the state apartments or on a terrace between the state apartments and the old Twekobe.

The main feature of this terrace was a lively illuminated fountain, presented by the women of Buganda to mark the Kabaka’s return from exile.

Other lighting came from several huge flood lamps strategically placed to blind, and with cables snaking dangerously through the grass.
Guests were constantly tripping over them, and inevitably somebody would trip hard enough to yank the main plug out of the socket, and plunge the party into darkness.

Sometimes the darkness lasted far longer than it should normally take to replace a plug, and the Kabaka’s private secretary, Charles (better known as C.M.S.) Mukasa, carrying an oil lamp, anxiously made the rounds in search of an electrician.

Meanwhile, the barmen who in any case were always short of water to dilute strong drink would throw together some interesting concoctions as they fumbled with the nearest bottle to hand in their attempt to provide service a usual.

At some point in the evening, one of the Kabaka’s aides quietly issued invitations to various people to join His Highness at a private party in the old Twekobe.

It was at one such party, comprising about 12 of us that I first met the Kabejja, Lady Sarah, sister of the Nnabaggereka or Queen, and mother of Princes Mutebi and Walugembe.

First came the rustle of a brocade busuuti, then the excited bounding of a young Alsatian dog, and then there she was, the Kabaka’s childhood sweetheart whom he had abandoned in a fit of pique to marry her sister Damalie, only shortly afterwards to regret his mistake and take Sarah from her father’s house, in the arrogant tradition of his forefathers.

Sarah was nowhere as pretty as her sister, and she was plump whereas Damalie was slim.

Yet she possessed grace and dignity as well as an air of authority lacking in Damalie. Her appearance at the party was brief.

I later realised, after attending one of her birthday parties, that drinking and dancing were not her idea of fun.

At her birthday party, we guests wore ourselves out playing team games such as passing a balloon down the line from forehead to forehead, and musical chairs.

30 minutes of alcohol
Also, while good food was served to revive us, alcohol appeared for about 30 minutes in the entire evening.

The sort of activities marking the Kabaka’s return from exile were repeated a month later on his birthday, with the addition of an enormous garden party held in a part of Lubiri grounds that few knew existed.

It was a vast field with a bandstand in the centre, and hundreds of tea tables were set up, together with a large marquee for the preparation of tea and sandwiches. The Speke Hotel did the catering, so John Ayres was everywhere at once.

Considering the vast number of guests, the catering was impressive: dieting was not a fact of life in those days, and nobody thought of calories or cholesterol as we gluttoned on ham or egg mayonnaise sandwiches, éclairs, baba rums, and heavenly-filled pastries.

When the band struck up “Happy Birthday to You!”, and John set a massive birthday cake in front of the Kabaka, some of us were so full that we could scarcely keep awake.

Christmas was relatively quiet. Personal friends of the Kabaka and Sarah were invited to join the entire royal family, in Lubiri for a carol service presented by the choir of Namirembe Cathedral.

Afterwards, the family dispersed to their country homes, and the Kabaka and Sarah took the children to Bamunanika, His Highness’ private palace.

-Continues in Saturday Monitor
next week