“The Mengo set” was how we came to be known, frequently in a derogatory way: meaning the people who were recognised as the Kabaka’s personal friends, and who some considered were a bad influence on him.
This was unjust to the majority of us because we were not in a position to influence him one way or the other, even if we had wanted to, but there were a few ready to dabble in politics, and even to my simple mind, it was obvious that they were ruled by wishful thinking as opposed to the realities of modern politics on a national scale.
Seeing the Kabaka’s return from exile as a major victory over the mighty British government, these folks, mostly young men of the Kabaka’s generation, expected to go on winning until the kingdom was an independent state.
They were wilfully blind to what was happening outside the Lubiri. They dismissed as fanciful the significant body of Baganda professionals engaged in politics which aimed at independence for a united Uganda.
The Kabaka listened to his cronies instead of taking advantage of the widespread support from the rest of Uganda gained at the time of his exile.
Rather than foster good public relations with the other kingdoms and districts, he was lulled into the belief that a document known as the 1900 Agreement, contracted between one of his forefathers and the British Government, safeguarded Buganda’s right to remain a sovereign state. Later events proved him very wrong.
In some ways, it was easy to understand this complacency, which only really deserted him at the eleventh hour.
The court was still run on lines which were not much altered from what they had been when the first Europeans arrived in Uganda, as the kingdom was called before giving its name to encompass the surrounding regions.
Indeed, it still applied solely to the kingdom as recently as the early part of the reign of Mutesa’s father, Daudi Chwa II, for a framed scroll from the Church Missionary Society, on a wall of the reception room in the Old Twekobe, hailed him as the first Christian king of Uganda.
The princesses always sat to the right of the Kabaka, with Princess Mpologoma seated nearest to him. They were also addressed as “Ssebo”, meaning sir as opposed to madam, a form of address common to all men whether water-carrier or king.
Wives, that is, women who had borne the Kabaka’s children, and there were quite a few of them, came next, with special deference given to a woman who while she had not produced either a prince or princess, and was now married with a young family of her own, had been the virgin who custom decreed was made available to the Kabaka at some stage after he reached puberty, probably immediately before his marriage, to confirm his manhood.
Just as anything or anybody on Kabaka Anj’agala (the Kabaka loves/wants me), the tree lined avenue sweeping between the Lubiri and the New Bulange, traditionally became the Kabaka’s property, should he care to claim it, every woman in the palace was deemed to belong to him while she was there. I can’t say that I ever saw him take advantage of this ancient right.
The princes were more informal as to where they placed themselves, and generally sat among any visitors who happened to be there.
Everybody except the Kabaka, sat sideways on the floor, and knelt whenever he entered or left the room, as well as when one was addressed by him.
Eliva Kiggundu, who was then Secretary to the Kabaka’s Council of Ministers, and Ernest Sempebwa, both impressed upon me that kneeling to the Kabaka was out of respect for the crown as the institution topping the pyramid formed by the administrative and social structure that had for centuries made the kingdom unique in the whole of Africa.
Bidding the Kabaka goodbye was also taboo. You had to be very good at reading the signals when he disappeared: he might have been only going to the loo or to make a phone call when, mumbling “‘I’ll see you later”, he strolled away.
If anybody tried to take formal farewell of him, they were put off with a few vague words, which often kept them hanging about until some kind soul informed them that His Highness had gone to bed or was no longer in the palace.
Another inconvenience was that nobody, except young children, in the palace, was allowed to eat before the Kabaka had taken food and he was one of those people who can work for a full day without giving a thought to as much as a cup of tea.
The staff in his private office were used to starving. However, anybody drafted in to help, as I was more and more immediately before the independence talks got underway, suffered dehydration besides feeling weak hunger as the day wore on.
It didn’t help that a drink, usually gin and tonic was offered at the end of the working day, which could be any hour after eleven at night, when the Kabaka absently responded to Sarah’s demands that he take dinner, and the workers were allowed to go home.
I used to return to my house slightly high and unable to eat the food faithfully kept warm for me.
The most important person in the Kabaka’s household, apart from Kabaka himself and the Kabejja, was a white- headed old gentleman called Firimala.
I often wonder what happened to him when Obote’s troops shot up the Lubiri, for Firimala belonged to a by-gone age.
Like so many of his social class, meaning the rich landed gentry, as a boy, he had been sent by his family as a page at the court of Daudi Chwa II, to learn court etiquette, and risen to be the person in charge of the pages, the wine cellar and the housekeeping.
Normally, many of the pages, went on to climb the ladder leading from minor chief to Ssaza or county chief, or received government appointments.
Firimala was benign and gentle with the people of whom he approved; he guided me over many pitfalls. But, and there are no other words for it, he had it in for people whom he considered drank too much, laughed too loudly, and showed too much leg.
A display of knee was anathema to him. He still lived in the days when to show an ankle was a punishable act.
I know just how punishable, because old Musa, the gardener of the Mukasa family, who was well into his 80s, was scarred from neck to heels as a result of the beating with elephant grass he received for running as a palace page during the infamous Mwanga’s reign and displaying his ankles and the calves of his legs.
Firimala’s form of punishment was hardly as drastic, but the expression on his face, and a certain something in his attitude towards offenders put them beyond the pale.
It was enough for others in the vicinity to curb their own lower instincts and behave quite cowardly in pretended disapproval.
We shamelessly did this because, although it may have been pure coincidence, people out of favour with that old man were seldom again seen at any private parties in the palace.
Through Firimala, I grew to know how the respective clans had adjusted their traditional court functions to the necessities of the day.
For instance, members of the Buffalo Clan, for generations the Kabaka’s personal bearers in that it was their job to carry the monarch on their shoulders on ceremonial occasions, were updated to become his chauffeurs.
Similarly, [another] clan, which was allowed to prepare his food, continued to supply the cooks in his kitchens [the Fox clan prepares the Kabaka’s food on special occasions such as coronation ].
And the Rain Clan still brought the Kabaka’s drinking water from their special well, the water from which was the exclusive right of kings.
When the Kabaka appeared on the throne, it was set on magnificent leopard and lion skins, which could only be handled by members of the Ngeye Clan.
During the Kabaka’s exile, the Ngeye Clan refused to produce the skins for Governor Cohen to stand on over while he addressed the Lukiiko, and this act of defiance resulted in the clan leader spending some time in prison.
Yet another clan were responsible for looking after Lutembe, the sacred crocodile, at the bay off Lake Victoria, while she lived.
She would come and be hand-fed when called by a member of the clan, and she was no legend: the photographer and travel writer, Cherry Kearton, who knocked about East Africa during the 20s and 30s of this century, has a picture of Lutembe in his book Cherry Kearton’s Travels (the old crocodile looks astonishingly pleasant!) and describes meeting Kabaka Daudi Chwa II, who was on his way home from a visit to Lutembe.
Prince Henry Kimera, a younger brother of the Kabaka, clearly recalls being taken as a child to Lutembe Bay and together with his sister riding on her back.
According to history, Lutembe was always so obliging. She is supposed to have been useful to Kabaka Mwanga, Mutesa’s grandfather, in disposing of his enemies.
In the 1940s, when a crocodile cropping exercise was underway, Lutembe’s affinity with mankind cost her her life. She must have provided the easiest of shots.
The clan responsible for her claimed that another tame crocodile had replaced Lutembe, but there was a big rush to introduce the royal children to the replacement.
While there were many other clan connections with the royal family and household, all of them enjoyed more significant links with the Kabakaship. Unlike most African dynasties, Buganda had no royal clan.
The Kabakas were of their mothers’ clans: Mutesa II belonged, through his mother to the Cow Clan, while his sons by the Lady Sarah, and his daughter by the Nabaeereka, belonged to the Monkey Clan, and his children by miscellaneous wives also belonged to the clans of their respective mothers; the rest of Baganda society became members of their fathers’ clans.
Because the Kabaka down through the ages took wives from practically every clan; (as a matter of fact the monkey clan was barred to them, since a monkey clan elder acted as the Kabaka’s father at the coronation, and this rendered any union with a Monkey clan member incestuous), every clan at one time or another, had blood tie in the form of princes or princesses with the Kabakaship.
Until the Christian practice of acknowledging only off-spring from an officially recognised union, many clans could hope to see one of their princes succeed to the throne.
In the rough old days, the princes themselves must have been more than anxious to succeed and not solely from political ambition; when a prince was selected to become Kabaka, the rest were put to death to save any argument.
As the embodiment of the Kiganda clan system, one of the Kabaka‘s main titles was Ssabatakka, Head of Clans, and it was in this capacity that his judgement was sought by people frustrated by the traditional judicial system or simply unable to accept a Buganda Government judge’s ruling.
Litigation was food and drink to the majority of the population, besides being a good source of entertainment to folks who had nothing better to do than pass the time in court.
Land disputes made up the bulk of the court cases, although disputed wills came a close second.
The Ham Mukasa Will was a cause celebre for years, and at the end, nobody was very sure who came out on top.
Ham Mukasa, who died at the age of nearly 100, was a Christian page at the court of Mwanga I, and managed to escape from being among the youngsters who were burnt alive for keeping their faith and their chastity, and subsequently cannonised as the Uganda Martyrs.
He lived to become one of Buganda’s greatest statesman. He outlived his first wife who produced quite a large family, then married again and had another family. Ham Mukasa died while we were still living on Rubaga Hill.
I remember passing his house, a huge, low, rambling place set back from the Rubaga Road, when word had got out that the old man was dying.
The grounds were packed with silent people, and at night the verandah was hung with lanterns.
Before the end came, the Kabaka visited. He went as an ordinary Muganda, not as a king, so there was no fuss.
The fuss came later. The Will was alleged by one side of the family to be either a forgery or altered since being reliably witnessed.
Accusations of foul play flew thick and fast. Forget what was happening on the political scene; everybody was scanning the newspapers for the latest revelation about the Ham Mukasa Will.
Practically, every family of note was involved, showing how determinedly wealth was kept through convenient marriages within the confines of the elite. A good opera script writer would have made millions out of the emerging scandals.
On the lawn outside the Old Twekobe, was a large well-built kennel with a good sized run fenced in with iron railings. The Kabaka’s pet baboon was the present occupant, but the kennel had formerly housed his leopard.
For such an intrepid hunter, the Kabaka was paradoxically a collector of exotic pets, and he was genuinely fond of them.
Besides the baboon, two buffalo calves roamed Lubiri with one of his herds of cattle. Now and again a couple of small deer could be glimpsed, and there was a horse of his which was always in the company of a bedraggled crested crane.
The baboon, however, was undoubtedly the star attraction. When it was out of the cage, it was never on a leash or chain, and occasionally it would find its way to our offices, suddenly appearing at a window and making a grab for whatever was within reach.
Its keeper patiently did his best to lure it home with pieces of fruit, and when he did manage to pick the animal up, it screeched at the top of its voice. The fault was mine, I think.
Every time I paid a daytime visit to the Old Twekobe, I used to spend some time with the baboon and feed it Vicks Lozenges, my own favourite sweets.
If I stayed away for any length of time, say while His Highness was away hunting, the poor thing came looking for me and the Vicks Lozenges.
According to Prince Henry Kimera, the leopard, a female, and two lions – a male and a female, had been the Kabaka’s favourites in the 1940s, when he was studying at Makerere University.
Personally, I find this intriguing in view of his well-known dread of cats.
The Kabaka once visited our house at a time when our cat, Cleopatra, had given birth to several kittens and mother and offspring had to be locked away before he would step inside.
However, his leopard and lions seem to have been remarkably tame and enjoyed full freedom in the palace.
The leopard in particular, travelled in the back of his car, her paws on his shoulders, as he drove himself there and back from Makerere, and all three animals were regularly fed with cake at tea time.
They were treated like domesticated dogs, in that people familiar to them could fondle them, although nobody, on the Kabaka’s orders, was to allow the leopard and lions to lick their hands.
This novel state of affairs was horribly shattered during one of Uganda’s characteristic heavy thunderstorms.
A child ran for shelter in one of the many tiny mud huts dotting the Lubiri grounds, and one of the lions chased after it.
Naturally, the child panicked and screamed, and the lion attacked, resulting in the child’s death.
It was later suggested that the keeper was lax in not confining the animal along with the other two during the storm, and that none had been fed at the usual time.
Whatever the reasons behind the tragedy, the Baganda were angry and demanded the killing of all three animals.
The Kabaka himself carried out the distressing job of leading the lions into their compound and shooting them. But he refused point blank to destroy the leopard.
She accompanied him to Britain when he continued his studies at Cambridge, and was donated to Whipsnade Zoo where she unfortunately perished in a flu epidemic.
At a guess, he might well have become an enthusiastic conservationist, as opposed to being a hunter, because his interest in wildlife extended beyond the killing.
Had somebody taught him to use a camera instead of a gun, his skills in tracking wild animals might have been put to more rewarding use.
His desire to observe them from as close as possible often gave rise to protests within certain sections of the Baganda. They accused him of taking undue risks.
Apart from that, people invited to go hunting with him saw the honour as dubious.
You had to be a James Lutaya or a Robert Ntambi, both of them avid hunters, to appreciate the trek on foot through thorny bush, the ban on smoking and use of soap for washing, and the dreary cold food; a fire for cooking, like cigarette smoke and soap, would give off an alien scent in the bush. A royal hunt was certainly no picnic.
His critics failed to understand his rare gift for immediately coming to terms with animals, and they with him. And criticism rose after it was leaked sometime in 1960 that he had taken his son, Prince Mutebi, then aged 5, on an elephant hunt.
A herd of these majestic beasts was discovered within walking distance of the Kabaka’s camp, and, unarmed, he took the child to see them.
Several members of the hunting party followed at a distance, and were horrified to see the Kabaka and his son standing about fifty feet away from the placidly grazing herd.
Some of the elephants glanced briefly in the direction of the Kabaka and Mutebi, but seemed not to mind them.
It was only after the followers drew attention to themselves that the animals grew restive, and one frightened and misguided person fired a shot which, incidentally, passed through the leg of the Kabaka’s trousers.
Consequently, there was a mad stampede of elephant, carefully by-passing the Kabaka and the small boy.
Other members of the royal family were gifted in different ways. Not so much the princesses who, even when married, spent a lot of their time congregating and chatting to each in the Old Twekobe.
But Prince Kimera qualified in Britain as a Royal Air Force pilot, and Prince Ndawula was a talented photographer working with the Uganda Information Office.
The most interesting prince of all was Prince Joseph, an uncle of the Kabaka, who always looked as though he had wandered into the palace straight from working on his farm.
His English was impeccable, despite his never having been abroad, and some of the results of the experiments carried out on his farm earned the respect of the Agriculture Department.
Among the Baganda, however, Prince Joseph was famous for his portrait of Mutesa I.
Mutesa I died in 1884, long before Prince Joseph was born, and the portrait, probably Africa’s first Identikit composite, was produced from verbal descriptions given by some of the old princesses who remembered the man.
It is said that the portrait took 15 years to complete, because the old ladies never stopped arguing over the shape of various features.
Since they must have been either dead or going senile by the time the portrait was finished, there could not have been anybody in a position to say how good a likeness it was.
Continues in Sunday Monitor tomorrow