What you need to know:
- On her return to Uganda, Sylvia Nagginda had caught the eye of Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi of Buganda. But the butterflies in her stomach were nothing compared to the voices in her head, as this extract from her just-published autobiography shows.
It had been six months since I returned home. “So, Sylvia, are you going back, or are you staying?” quizzed Mr Mulwana. ‘No sir, I am not staying. I am going back to New York,’ I responded.
“Why?” he pondered. “Look, you’ve done a very good job with our trade fair, the exhibition, and the magazine. You are remarkable. There are plenty of opportunities for you here in Uganda. You should reconsider.”
I was quiet. He was right. But I had been pondering this decision for months. Granted, my six months in Uganda had been blessed with good success, and clearly, my skills and training were needed in Uganda, but I just wasn’t ready for the question, much less its implications.
“I am not mentally ready to stay in Uganda,” I quipped.
He was quiet. His countenance showed clear disapproval and disappointment.
I vividly remember my last conversations with the Kabaka after he learnt about my imminent return home to New York.
“So, you’re going back to the US?”
‘Yes, I am.’
“When are you going to visit Uganda again?”
‘I am not sure when, but I feel that it is better for me to return to the United States for now.’
To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t see any open doors to effectively serve my nation with my training at the time. That was in January, 1994.
As I boarded my flight back to the USA, I knew that a new season was upon me. I was watching the clock. Five years in America had turned into 13. New York was getting a bit old for me, much as I loved the city with all its hustle and bustle.
I needed to move. It was time to make a move out of New York. That spring of 1994, I packed my bags and relocated to Silver Spring, Maryland.
Mum couldn’t understand why I was walking away from all those opportunities in New York to start afresh in a whole new city without a job. She truly believed that I belonged in New York. I remember her saying, “Sylvia, if you can’t make it in New York, you can’t make it anywhere.” I said, ‘No, mum, the correct saying is, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere!”
My life in Maryland was quieter.
I had to quickly get back into the job market, so I took on temporary consulting work. My first assignment was a communications job with the insurance giant, BlueCross BlueShield. Shortly after that, I accepted another consulting job with the Federal National Mortgage Association, commonly known as mortgage giant Fannie Mae.
As much as I didn’t want to get isolated, it took me a while to warm up to the Ugandan social circuit in the area. I felt like I had entered a different phase of my life. I didn’t have the energy to reach out and do the relationship dance like I had done in New York.
I was technically not a New Yorker anymore, although New Yorkers like to say ‘once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker’. In fact, my friends refused to accept my new ‘statehood’.
Even when I helped organise the Washington DC Uganda North American Association event, they still introduced me as Sylvia from New York, thanks to the 13-year history.
After about a year, I took on more permanent work with Gardiner, Kamya & Associates Accounting firm. Among other assignments, I worked on a World Bank project that took me to Uganda in 1997. I also coordinated a joint venture project with Maximus, a Virginia-based management and administration service company.
The Kabaka and I stayed in touch a few more times in 1994 after I returned to America, but the long-distance dynamic soon took its toll. We lost touch. I later heard that he was dating someone else. I honestly didn’t feel slighted or passed over. I genuinely wished the best for him. Besides, deep down, I really wasn’t sure if we were suitable for each other.
One spring day in 1998, Sam Kyewalabye, a cousin to the Kabaka, called me to say, ‘Ronnie is looking for your number, should I give it to him’? I tried to probe as to why but he just laughed and said, “Ndowoza kubuzaako” meaning ‘maybe just to say hello’. I said ‘yes’, although I later learnt that he had already passed it on to the Kabaka. As a Muganda, he couldn’t decline the king’s request. In fact, he didn’t need my permission to give him my number.
He called almost right away. He was quick to say he was passing through Washington DC, and thought he should call to say hello. It had been four years since we had last spoken. We had a cordial chat, and although we didn’t meet, a slow, curious fire was kindled.
He would call me again shortly thereafter while he was in London. We enjoyed our conversations. It seemed as though we were both ready to get serious with whatever was going on between us.
Over the next few months, we would email back and forth.
With every interaction, excitement was building. We decided it was time to meet again, so he flew me out to London to meet with him.
At the time, he, the Kabaka, was without a doubt Uganda’s most eligible bachelor. He was also arguably, the most fascinating single man, so any fraternisation with a woman was juicy tabloid material back in Uganda. Meeting in the UK seemed safer and allowed us to get to know one another outside of the public eye.
I honestly never thought about the ramifications of our budding love affair. And in my simple mind, I was in love with Ronnie, not the king of the great ancient Kingdom of Buganda. At 35 years old, I was ready to settle down, get married and start a family.
Confidants started talking to me about royalty, and what marrying the king of Buganda really meant. Mum, who didn’t like the idea, tried to caution me about a potentially turbulent entry into the monarchy. I listened, but never really took it in, on purpose. I was preparing to marry a man, and not his status. Had I fully comprehended the magnitude of our union, I would have been totally freaked out. In hindsight, they were fully justified to caution me. Indeed, I was naive and overly simplistic with the incredible responsibility that the king’s wife – the Nnaabagereka – carries.
You got mail!
One evening, an email popped into my inbox. It was Ronnie.
The body of the email was rather disarming. It said something like: ‘Dear, Sylvia, I think I am ready if you are! What? Is this a proposal? Yes, it was. Ronnie was asking to marry me...by email?
Definitely not the ideal proposal that this girl had waited for all her life. Perhaps a bit unromantic? Oh well. I don’t really remember everything I wrote back, but I said, ‘YES’!
When I shared the news with friends and family, reactions were mixed.
Reuben Codjoe, my brother, recalled: “I was shocked and a bit hurt when Sylvia told me this. I thought, why would you leave the US and move back to Uganda? Who does that? She just kept saying, ‘It’s time Reuben. This is my time to do this!’ I could see that look, and I knew that this was much deeper than a mere tryst. She was determined, although I could also see the uncertainty in her eyes. She was nervous. So, I said, “Whatever will make you happy sis, you go for it!”
Mum, on the other hand, was more cautious. For years, she had been pushing me to get married. And now, here she was all apprehensive: “Ebyekimbejja bino...ha naye onobisobola?” meaning, “Royalty is no small thing, Sylvia...are you sure about this?”
She had major reservations about the marriage; and if she could, she would have stopped me from going on with it. She took long to warm up to the idea.
As the weeks wore on, Ronnie proposed that I should come to visit Uganda, so we could move the ball forward. We were past emails and phone calls.
Travelling back to Uganda was no small feat for me. My job with Maximus allowed me no vacation time to spare. Regardless, I had to go figure out what my next step was going to be. I had to go! So, I requested Friday and Monday off from work.
My boss agreed. Soon after work that Thursday afternoon, I drove straight to the airport and boarded my British Airways flight to London, onward to Entebbe.
Aunt Joyce and Uncle Dan Sebugwawo picked me up and took me straight to their home in Mengo.
In the evening, Ronnie treated me to dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant in Kansanga, where he laid out my packed weekend schedule.
On Saturday, I was formally introduced to Ronnie’s sisters Dorothy Nassolo, Sarah Kagere, Alice Zalwango, and Diana Teyegala, at Banda. They were kind and gracious to me, although clearly, understandably apprehensive. They were checking me out. I could almost feel their piercing eyes. Their gazes seemed to say, ‘Who is this girl’?
On Sunday, February 14, 1999, my delegation – Dad, Taata, Aunt Sarah, Aunt Kolya, Uncle Dan – and I dressed up in busuutis and kanzus, our traditional formal wear, and drove out to Banda. When we arrived, Katikkiro Ssemwogerere and a few other Buganda officials were already seated in the garden. We joined them.
After the pleasantries, the Kabaka announced: “Tufunye Nnaabagereka,” (meaning ‘I have found a wife’) to the Katikkiro.
With that said, there was rapturous applause and a few speeches. It was done. How surreal! The day flew by as precipitously and fleetingly as it all came together. By Sunday night, I was officially engaged to be married to King Ronald Mutebi.
On Sunday late afternoon, I was taken straight to the airport to catch my flight back to Maryland. As I sat back to try and rest in flight, I marveled at the happenings in the whirlwind weekend, I could not put a finger on any predominant emotions. Was I happy, relieved or excited? Not sure. I was numb.
All the pomp and circumstance, the ceremonial festivities, the newspaper reports, the television specials completely overwhelmed me. Was it really me? Everything was much, much bigger than I ever imagined. It really felt like all this was happening to someone else, and I was just a spectator. It almost didn’t feel real. Perhaps it was my coping mechanism kicking in to protect me from the shock. I felt like if I had allowed myself to get swept up into the enormity of it all, I would be emotionally stressed.
Princess Katrina-Sarah Ssangalyambogo
Mum shines when she enters a room. Confident, imposing but graceful, nonetheless. Oh, and she can be fun too. A few years ago, I managed to trick her into riding a rollercoaster with me in Dubai. I will never forget the look on her face when we got down to the end of the ride. ‘Never again’, she vowed. She is determined to make a lady out of me. I can always hear her in my head: ‘Sit up straight!’ ‘Be careful who you hang out with.’ ‘Don’t say that!’ ‘Don’t do that!’ I couldn’t become the woman I am destined to be without her firm but gentle hand.
Typically, if you are not a doctor, lawyer, accountant, or architect here in Africa, you are pretty much stuck. Thankfully, I have a mom who has been incredibly supportive. As a result, I have found my lane in the creative arts. I am also a swimmer. Both she and dad have supported me and, in fact, pushed me to excel. Consequently, I have risen to win in the nationals to represent Uganda on a global stage. In a way, I wish this for other families. I would like for us as a nation to begin to value the creative arts and encourage our kids to pursue their passions, even when they are outside of the mainstream.”
Mother of the kingdom
After our wedding, I tried to do life as a normal citizen, but soon realised that I couldn’t. I remember trying to go incognito to the supermarket a few times. Didn’t work. As soon as someone realised who I was, they’d call their friends and before long, they would crowd the aisles with paparazzi in the wings.
I didn’t feel like I was in danger, but it felt awkward.
Banakazade, meaning “mothers”, was an organisation of distinguished ladies of high profile within the Buganda society. The group felt that as a young mother, still a newly-wed, with daunting responsibilities ahead of me in an environment that was just getting used to having a Nnaabagereka again after 33 years, I desperately needed all the support and encouragement I could get. Given their experience as mothers, wives and workers, they became my mentors and advisors, tirelessly offering the critical support system I so desperately needed.
The Kabaka and I have a blended family. This means that from day one, I was a mother to three amazing children, Junju, Joan and Victoria. They have been a blessing in my life.
Suffice to say, I thought Ronnie had one child, our son, Junju. He never mentioned the other kids until our last London visit a few months before the wedding. So, I asked, “Ronnie, how many children do you really have?”
‘Three’, he said.
“Three?” I quizzed.
‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but most people don’t know the other two; they’re girls’.
I was quiet for a few minutes, hoping he would say he was just kidding.
He didn’t. He wasn’t kidding. That rattled me for a bit, although I never mentioned it to him. I thought to myself, how am I going to raise three stepchildren, moreover from three different women? I ruminated on this over several months.
At some point, and I am not sure at exactly when the issue became inconsequential to my decision to proceed with our relationship.
My first order of business was to try as best as I could to connect with them. My strict upbringing and work ethic had made a rather strict disciplinarian out of me. So, with me came rules that the kids didn’t quite welcome.
Our baby girl
I remember when I found out that I was pregnant. This was another dream come true. Since I was a child, I dreamt of having my own kids. So yes, I was so thrilled, but also terrified.
What if I lose the baby? What if there are complications? What if I can’t do this? My mind was filled with all kinds of thoughts.
So, I didn’t tell Ronnie until after the first trimester. I didn’t want to start a frenzy, but most importantly, I really wanted to relish this time as a personal journey. I decided to work from our residence away from peering eyes, lest some inquisitive reporter noticed my bulging belly. I am so grateful to Dr Batwaala, who took the best care of me.
Once I broke the news to Ronnie, he immediately shared the news with his family. I flew to Nairobi, Kenya, for a full prenatal exam. I learnt that God had given us a daughter, something I kept to myself until the end. I didn’t want to create a fuss about it. I didn’t even tell Ronnie.
I made one public appearance at six months, and the following day all news outlets carried the announcement. A royal baby is to come’, they broadcasted. The media frenzy I had tried to avoid erupted.
Shortly after that, I decided to go to London, England, to prepare for our daughter’s arrival. Accompanying me was Jessica Bisaso, the Nnabikande, the ‘royal midwife’, a relative from the Kabaka’s mother’s side, traditionally responsible for the safe delivery of the royal child.
I also travelled with my cousin, my personal assistant Cate Bwete, and to act as nanny was Betty Nakijoba.
I enjoyed the quietude and solitude of Bayswater, an area in the city of Westminster in West London. I remember taking brisk walks in Hyde Park. I loved to shop for our baby girl.
It was then that my assistants started to get suspicious because even though I was buying too many neutral or white outfits, I was more curious about those pink dresses. I cherish those memories to this very day.
“Finding a suitable residence for HRH and her entourage was tricky given the need for privacy for this one of the most iconic figures in Uganda and Africa. We also had to decide on an appropriate hospital cognisant of the need to avoid local press in the UK and in Uganda,” Prince Daniel Kajumba, Venerable Archdeacon emeritus, recalled.
As the day approached, mum, Reuben and Ssenga Catherine Bamundaga flew in from the USA to stay with me.
They helped me walk through the final days of the journey.
I remember going through name books. Initially, I chose the name Esther, but I was outvoted. They thought it was an old name. We settled on Katrina, which also meant Catherine, my grandmother’s name. We decided to hyphenate her name to add Sarah after her paternal grandmother and my great grandmother Sarah, maama’s mother, a favoured name by both our families.
On July 4, 2001, at 10.40am, Katrina-Sarah was born at Queen Charlotte’s & Chelsea Hospital in Hammersmith, London.
“Finally, our joy was complete,” Prince Kajumba recalled. “I was privileged to lead the prayers when Ssanga was born and, therefore, hold the attendance record of all present.
It was so surreal when years later, I was involved in identifying a suitable university. Who would look after her? They had to learn to love Manchester United, her favourite football team.”
Traditionally, the Kabaka names his children in a special ceremony. But being in London, we had to give Katrina-Sarah a last name for her birth certificate. Consequently, her original birth certificate reads Katrina-Sarah Mirembe Kirabo.
“We stayed in London for another three months to enable the Nnaabagereka to fully recover,” my cousin Cate Bwete, said. “Meanwhile, the press was going crazy. There were stories of babies being switched around, of her giving birth to an albino, and so on. It was comical.”
After the baby was vaccinated and was strong enough to fly home, we were ready to travel back to Uganda in September. The 9/11 attacks, a series of four coordinated suicide terrorist attacks carried out by the militant Islamic extremist network al-Qaeda against the United States, happened just a few days before our planned departure.
I was shocked and heartbroken as I witnessed the tragic events unfold in real time on television, around New York. I was sitting in the living room with Namasole Rebecca Musoke, who had come to see the baby. Namasole was the heir to Kabaka’s mother and hence took on the role of Namasole, which means mother to the Kabaka or king. After we returned home, I had to continue with the recommended vaccination and general medical care regimen. I needed a doctor. My friend Barbara recommended her family paediatrician, Dr Kasirye. Dr Kasirye was an excellent doctor, whom I have also recommended to many other mothers.
Later in September, our daughter was officially named by her father: Ssangalyambogo. When I asked Ronnie what it meant, he said ‘maanyi’, meaning ‘strength’. Incidentally, sometime the previous year, as Cate and I were looking through a list of names for Baganda royalty, we came across several names which we thought were ‘strange’-and Ssangalyambogo was one of them.
We even laughed about it. Little did I know that my daughter would carry the same name. True to her name, Ssanga, as we normally call her, is a strong and independent young lady. In fact, most of the time she knows exactly what she wants and is not easily swayed.
On December 6, 2010, I was blessed with two more girls Jade Nakato and Jasmine Babirye born in Kampala Women’s International Hospital, twins with completely different personalities.
They’re two amazing kids, who are mostly happy and are passionate about people which, at their age, I find astounding. Let me tell you a little bit about them.
Jade Nakato is indifferent, cuddly and extremely loving. With open-wide hands, she greets and hugs just about everybody she meets, including complete strangers, which we thought was dangerous. While walking in the garden one day, Jade saw the garden man, Kalibala, working. His clothes and hands soiled.
With open hands, she quickly went up to hug him in her loving way. I was repulsed by her gesture. Her nanny Josey shouted, “Jade, you’re going to catch diseases!” I quickly added, ‘Jade, it’s not good to go around hugging everybody. You really need to stop doing that,’ I reprimanded her. She ran away upset. I later found her in a corner crying. When I asked, she sobbed, “I don’t know why I do it, I just find myself doing it...it is God who tells me. God says you should love people.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from this little four-year-old child. I stepped back and asked God to forgive me. God, protect these little children, I thought.
Jasmine Babirye, on the other hand, is extremely cautious yet equally loving and confident. She has so many questions to ask and countless stories to tell. I remember when she exclaimed to my shock that she didn’t want to go to heaven: “Because one has to die to get there, and I don’t want to die!” she explained.
Richard Semakokiro is my other stepchild born on July 9, 2009. He is growing up alongside his cousin Grace Nsubuga. The two are smart and inseparable, with lots of energy as boys will always be boys. They love cartoons, gadgets and cars.
Prince Junju Kiweewa.
I had heard the rumours of a budding love relationship between my dad and mum. Eventually, he sat me down and made it official. Naturally, I was excited for him and for our family too. I was only 14 years old. Mum and I set off on the right foot, and she sought friendship and connection. Eventually, we became the best of friends.”
Princess Joan Nassolo.
I was nine years old when she came into our lives. She was stunning both outside and inside…She was funny too. I remember her telling us that Shaggy, the reggae superstar, was a distant cousin. “Hey, I will call him if you like,” she said. She picked up her cell phone and dialed. She then had this long casual back-and-forth conversation, until my brother decided to call her phone. Needless to say, she was busted!”
Princess Victoria Nkinzi.
I was nine years old when she came into our lives. My birth mother passed away five years later. I struggled with her boundaries and her rules. I was a teenager trying to grapple with deep loss; but hard as I was, she never gave up on me…I wish this is something other mothers could do.”