Tales from mutesa’s palace: Fun and sleepy side of Mengo township

A view of Mengo township back in the 1950s where the writer preferred to do most of her shopping. COURTESY PHOTO

What you need to know:

Thrilled. Young and beautiful British-born Barbara Kimenye arrived at Port Bell by ferry from Bukoba, Tanzania, to start a whole new life after her marriage had fallen apart. It is a life that would see her mix with ordinary Baganda and bring her close to their king. In the third part of our serialisation of her unpublished book,Tales from Mutesa’s Palace, she writes about the fun and drowsy side of Mengo township. The first part was published in Saturday Monitor last week

Eddie and his wife had informed my mother of Daudi’s birth by cable, and as she was able to fly out to Uganda on the Sunday, two days after he was born I was back at work on the Monday. It wasn’t easy, and I probably could not have managed it had not strangers as well as neighbours been good about stopping to offer lifts in their cars to and from town.

Sometimes, these journeys were touched with embarrassment because a car would pull up beside me as I walked along, the driver would laconically mutter “Rubaga?” or, if I were on the way to town, ‘Kampala?’, and not say another word till he dropped me where I wanted to go: In the prolonged silence, I would be wondering whether or not I had boarded a taxi, and start worrying about the size of the possible fare. There never was anything to pay, but I never got used to this impersonal generosity which was widespread.

Neighbours whom we hardly knew would present us with cabbages or mangoes if they had more than enough for their own requirements. It was simply the custom to share with others whatever they had to spare.

Lengthy greetings
Another custom was the stringing out of greetings to unbelievable lengths, beginning with the parties wishing each other good morning or evening, dependent on the time of day, then exchanging enquiries about the well-being of individual members of both families. Replies received a satisfied or sympathetic “Eeh!” before the next polite question was put. Too bad if you happened to be in a hurry. In Buganda, good manners ruled, OK?
In the city, or on Mengo’s busy main street, while it was acceptable to shorten greetings by lumping the whole family together, such behaviour was considered uncouth in the suburbs and rural areas. Everybody encountered on track or lane was expected to go through the full ritual, although, to be fair, there was nothing in the book to say that you should not carry on walking.

This was part of the overall leisurely pace of life in Buganda during the late 1950s. It had to be something of acute interest or excitement to stir anybody into a run. And a crowd ran regularly at the time of poll tax collection, in the days when women were exempt from paying it, to laugh and jeer at the men dressed as women, whose disguise had failed to save them from the Kabaka’s government askaris intent on weeding out tax defaulters.

The Kabaka’s palace at Bulange Mengo today. Its design was chosen by Kabaka Mutesa. COURTESY PHOTO

These dejected creatures exposing boney or muscular legs beneath ill-fitting skirts, and with scarves on their heads, never stood a chance of passing for women. Their feet gave them away, especially when squeezed into high-heeled shoes.

As they shuffled miserably up the road to the Omukulu we Kibuga’s court, roped together with other more conventional tax defaulters, they provided crude entertainment for a mob, and usually there was some wag prancing alongside, the file of prisoners, pretending to extol the beauty of the most bizarre of the men masquerading as a woman.

Asians top trade
Gradually, Joyce and I took to doing most of our shopping in Mengo, because we soon realised that it was much cheaper than shopping in Kampala. Our part was lined with Asian-owned shops selling everything from groceries to dress materials, and most of them stayed open from six in the morning till late at night.

Kamulu’s bar, fronting the Toplife nightclub, also sold groceries and never seemed to close at all. Kamulu and his brother, Uganda-born Asians like most Mengo shopkeepers, were always there, no matter how early or late the hour, as though they had no need of sleep. And because the bar was always in operation, shopping at Kamulu’s for anything as simple as a loaf of bread often turned into a congenial hour of a beer-drinking with a few other customers.

Almost directly opposite Kamulu’s was a plastered mud-and-wattle squat building with a large Pepsi-Cola logo painted on its tin roof; another Asian owned shop, but a tiny one with just enough room inside for dusty wall-shelves and a counter under which a few hens and chickens lived behind netting.

The owners were a little thin man and his fairly overblown wife whose plaited hair always looked sickeningly greasy. Early one morning, when I was dashing to Kamulu’s for milk, the owner opened for business by pushing back the two halves of the door which shut off the shop from the road, and I saw his wife rising languidly in her nightie from behind the counter. If, as seems likely, the two of them slept on those tiny premises alongside the chickens, the sight rather put paid to the idea that all Ugandan Asians were stinking rich.

Our market was not large and apart from the butchers who had covered stalls on the edge of a piece of ground where they slaughtered cattle and where vultures congregated, the vendors sat on the ground with their goods arranged in small neat piles in front of them. Beyond bunches of matooke, the staple food of much of Uganda, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, pineapples and sugarcane, there wasn’t much choice.

Enough to get by
Still, when times were hard, you could buy enough fresh food to prepare a meal for four people at a cost of about fifty cents, the equivalent of the old British sixpence. And you could always buy fish, dried or fresh, as well as cooked over charcoal.

Fresh tilapia was our usual choice because it was cheap, but I can never forget the special taste of Nile perch grilled over charcoal from that market. Even now, having been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years, I know I could never resist a plateful placed in front of me. I’ve eaten grilled fish all over the world, but never come across anything so wonderfully tasty as the Nile perch from Mengo market.

Now and again, there was entertainment in our market. Mostly, it was a flute-player with marionettes flopping about to his music on a revolving wooden disc. Occasionally, however, when he thought there were no askaris around, he would turn up with his wife to give a live show. He was reputed to have once been a court musician, and she a court dancer.

Entertaining couple
They were a poverty-stricken couple: he in a shabby trilby hat, worn jacket and threadbare trousers; she in a dirty old suka tied at the hips with a piece of rag. Their act comprised him playing a drum while his wife danced. Only it didn’t stop there. Inevitably, the couple would be egged on by lewd members of the crowd with promises of more than the usual few cents they could normally expect provided they performed the sex act. And they did. Right there, in the middle of the market.

My mother, at Mengo market to buy a tomatoes, and accompanied by the children, once came home in a state of shock. Attracted by the drumming, she had allowed the boys to join the spectators while she bartered for the tomatoes, and rejoined them just as he was lowering his pants, and his wife spreading herself out on the ground.

I could only thank God that Miss Daly hadn’t been in the vicinity. I bet she would have expired on the spot. I never came near to seeing the pair in action, although I did catch a glimpse of the dancer, scuttling awkwardly down Sir Albert Cook road, trying to pull up his trousers, and pursued by a couple of askaris.

Backing onto the Sir Albert Cook road, and majestically facing the Kabaka’s palace, or Lubiri, on the opposite hill, was the New Bulange, a surprisingly elegant building. The cream stucco walls, green tiled roof, and long windows were completely at odds with the rest of Mengo which was a mixture of mud and wattle dwellings and concrete monstrosities.

The design of the New Bulange had been chosen by His Highness and was said to follow the lines of a famous English country house. It was, in any event, a beautiful place, and the terraced gardens, landscaped by the late Peter Greensmith, the man responsible for making East Africa famous for its garden cities, were exquisite.By contrast, the Old Bulange, which the new one was destined to replace, was a tin-roofed shack in the grounds of the Kabaka’s palace.

When I first came to Buganda, the Old Bulange still housed the Lukiiko, or Buganda parliament, and I was there in the crowd when Michael Kintu received the Ddamula, the staff of office of the Katikkiro (prime minister of the Kabaka’s government), at the time the Kabaka formed his first government since returning from exile.

The ceremony was a riot of drums, and took place mainly outside the palace gates, near the site of the sacred flame. The most notable feature, to me at any rate, was the presence of Lugard’s drum.

This not very large drum had a base encased in copper, and twisted copper loops and bells encircled the top skin. The story is that it was presented to Lugard after he helped the Baganda vanquish their historic enemy Bunyoro, and that he in turn presented it to the British Museum.

But the drum became homesick and the museum throbbed to the sound of its misery every night, so it was packed off home. Like many Kiganda tales, this one should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, but I like it.

Women were not supposed to set eyes on this drum but Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother of Britain was allowed to inspect it at close quarters during her Ugandan visit shortly before independence.

When the Kabaka formally opened the New Bulange, and Lukiiko members took their seats in the well-upholstered chamber, the Old Bulange became a storehouse for Kabaka’s government archives.

The New Bulange was everybody’s pride and joy. In common with the greater part of the palace grounds, the general public was allowed access to the New Bulange gardens. There was a great deal of traffic and it wasn’t entirely at a business level. Altogether the New Bulange attracted hundreds of local tourists. They arrived by the busload.

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