The return and burial of Kabaka Mutesa’s remains

Mutesa’s casket being placed on a trolley pulled by a military vehicle before it was driven around the parade as if inspecting the guard of honour. Photo by Henry Lubega

What you need to know:

Historic. Tuesday March 30 will mark 44 years since the return of the remains of Buganda’s King Fredrick Edward Mutesa II, who died in 1969 in exile in London. Salongo Mulumba (Katikkiro w’amasiro) was an energetic youth who, having grown up in the palace, courtesy of his father’s close relation with the king, witnessed the events from the body’s arrival at Kololo Airstrip to the burial grounds at Kasubi. He shares his recollection of the emotional events with Saturday Monitor’s Henry Lubega

When it was announced that the body of late King Edward Mutesa II would be returned, the news was received with mixed reaction among the Baganda. Some never believed that their beloved king was dead. My father belonged to that group. On March 30, 1971, just two months after overthrowing the Obote government in a military coup, Amin became a darling of Buganda when he returned Mutesa’s remains with full honours.

On the day of the body’s return, I was at Kololo airstrip as early as 10am, though the body did not arrive until 3pm.”

People flocked to the airstrip in their thousands in anticipation of seeing the body. The mood was very sombre. Women were clad in their black busuuti, while men wore kanzu’s with a bark cloth tied around their waists as a sign of mourning. In the middle of the airstrip was a military parade as though waiting for a living president to inspect.

By the time I got there, women, in small groups, were seen sobbing and so were some men, while others were talking more or less in whispers.
At around mid-day, a plane was seen on the horizon coming close to the airstrip and then it disappeared. Before it disappeared, as if on a cue, almost everybody burst out in tears. People were wailing, others rolling on the ground. With the plane’s disappearance, word started going round from the doubting Thomases that Mutesa had not died, while others insisted that the plane contained the body, and it was back home.

As if conspiring with the mood of the people in Buganda, the day was very cloudy, as if the sun was equally in mourning with the rest of us.

A few minutes to 3pm, president Idi Amin arrived at Kololo. Then suddenly, we saw three military helicopters coming towards the airstrip and the soldiers on parade reorganising themselves. Loud cries and rolling by some men and women started again, as the police struggled to keep them at bay.

When the body was brought out of the chopper, it was put on a trolley being pulled by a military vehicle. The glass coffin was driven around the parade like the dead king was inspecting the guard of honour. I saw the body was in a black military uniform, complete with black shoes. At this point, I broke down in tears. Amin was followed by senior military, police, and prison officer to salute the body. They were followed by ambassadors and other government officials, who paid their respects to the body. We in the crowd were not allowed to come closer to the coffin.

At Kololo, Amin gave a brief speech in which he said: “This is a place of history. We therefore felt it right and fitting that the late Sir Edward Mutesa should come to this place for one more event of history….”

The Kololo ceremony was more of military function than a general public function for the public to pay their last respects to the deceased king. That evening, the coffin was driven on an open carriage to Hannington Chapel at Namirembe Cathedral for the night.” I had a mission to get as close to the coffin as I could.

Women were seen sobbing in small groups. PHOTO by Henry Lubega

From Kololo, I went back home to Kasubi and told my father that his friend, the king, was indeed dead. In response, and without saying a word, he slapped me so hard. To him, I was a stupid child talking nonsense, for how could the Kabaka be dead.

That evening, loud speakers had been mounted around the Namirembe Cathedral and used for calling on people to come and pay their last respects to the Kabaka. After dinner at home in Kasubi, I went to Namirembe for the vigil. Inside the Hannington Chapel, there were nurses in white dresses with their caps on, seated beside the coffin.

By 6am, the line of people coming to Namirembe had reached Lubiri, going towards Natete Secondary School. Having seen the body earlier, I joined a group of volunteers who were giving out drinking water to the people queuing on the road. Many of the people came out of curiosity to prove that it was indeed the King’s body in the coffin, not a statue of him as had been earlier alleged.

Other people had volunteered their pick-up trucks to carry drums of water to the people lining up along the roads to Namirembe.

The second night, the body was taken to one of Mutesa’s palaces in Bamunanika, where people in the rural areas who could not make it to Kampala paid their last respect.

It was my father who took me to Bamunanika, and this is the day I wore my first kanzu, which I had bought at Shs6 in preparation for the return of the remains. The body arrived in Bamunanika in the evening, at around 5pm and by then, there were thousands of people at the palace. But I managed to get inside and sit next to my grandmother, who was very close to the table on which the coffin was placed.

The body was carried off the helicopter by European soldiers, with another blowing an instrument. On the same plane was Sarah Kabejja, Prince (now King) Ronald Mutebi, and Lady Damalie Kissosonkole, the Nnabagereka.

The body was brought back to Namirembe the following day, where a requiem service was held. By the time we got back to Kampala, Namirembe was overflowing with people mourning. Others had already moved to Kasubi to await the burial. I went back home with my father and by that time, the Kenyan company, which was constructing the grave, was almost done.

On the burial day at Kasubi, things were very different. Because of the visiting heads of state, security at Namirembe had been made so tight that I did not have the same access I had on the first night. People lined up all roads that connected Namirembe to Kasubi in the hope that they would be able to catch a glimpse of the coffin as Sir Edward Mutesa II went to his final resting place.

Like he had foretold before his death, he had promised to return to the land of his fore fathers, saying in his book: The Desecration of My Kingdom, that: “In the end I shall return to the land of my fathers and to my people.”