Tales from Mutesa's palace: Fun and scandals in Mutesa II’s palace

Prince Henry kalema, Kabaka Mutesa II’s brother (2nd L), with friends at Kasubi. Courtesy photo

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Secrets revealed. 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 In the ninth part of our serialisation of her unpublished book, Tales from Mutesa’s Palace, Kimenye writes about some of the scandals that unfolded in the Kabaka’s court. The first part was published in Saturday Monitor of September 26

There were certain topics of conversation which were tacitly avoided by most people in Buganda. One was the citing of the Kabaka as co-respondent in a divorce case involving the wife of a prominent Muganda, who had subsequently borne the princess generally acknowledged as the Kabaka’s favourite child. Another was the position of the Nnabagereka.

As previously mentioned, Damali occupied a suite above the state apartments in the new Twekobe. Her household was quite separate from that of the Kabaka’s, and she could often be seen working at embroidery in the narrow alcove with a balcony set in the tower of the building. Sometimes, very early in the morning, she rode around Mengo on horseback, accompanied by a groom and elegant in beautifully-tailored jodpurs and silk shirt.

She was allowed visitors, and served on several charity committees, occasionally with her sister, Sarah, and to the casual observer, it appeared that the two of them got on very well. Otherwise, the Nnabagereka was dusted and put on public display, so to speak, only for very special ceremonies such as the official opening of the new Bulange, or state visits of members of the British royal family.

Her life probably held more meaning before the Kabaka was sent into exile, for she had a daughter, the Princess Dorothy, and when the child contracted polio both parents united and behaved like others in a similar situation – long consultations with specialists, prolonged stays at London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, and hoping against hope for a complete cure. Even so, the princess, or Nasole, as she was titled, limped badly and wore a calliper on one leg.

But while the Kabaka was in London as a reluctant guest of Her Majesty’s government, the news was leaked to Government House, Entebbe, that the Nnabagereka, still resident in Mengo palace and supposedly serving as a symbol of resistance, was pregnant.

The timing excluded the Kabaka from any responsibility for her condition. Nevertheless, with no thought to how this unfortunate development might affect relationships between the married couple, the Protectorate Government bundled her on a plane and packed her off to join her husband. There is a press photograph recording the moment of the Nnabagereka’s arrival at the place where the Kabaka was then housed. He is in the act of taking her hand luggage from her. His face is expressionless, while she simply looks embarrassed. It is not a picture typical of a happy family reunion.

The little boy resulting from the Nnabagereka’s fall from grace could often be seen staring wistfully through the gates of the new Twekobe where he lived with his mother and his half-sister, Princess Dorothy. He seemed a very lonely child as he watched others of his age going to the nursery school originally started for the royal children, but which many children belonging to senior civil servants in the Kabaka’s government also attended.

That nursery school had a story of its own. It was run by a certain Magdalene Prior, wife of a man who came to Uganda to work at Salama, the school for the blind. The Priors were a tremendously lively cockney couple with two children, a boy and a girl, Lynn, and the Kabaka had invited Magdalene to take on the school because young Lynn was also a polio victim. Unlike princess Dorothy, however, Lynn was hardly ever seen wearing a caliper and at the age of about eight, was the biggest tomboy in town. Her lame leg was no restriction to her climbing trees or wrestling with her long-suffering elder brother.

Prince Kimera with his British wife, Carol, whom he married secretly in London.

I think the Kabaka hoped that some of this lack of inhibition would rub off on his daughter. He went so far as to have a swimming pool built for Magdalene to take the two girls swimming every day, which was good therapy for their wasted leg muscles. It goes without saying that Lynn swam like a fish.

Princess Dorothy made her debut at the nursery school in a wheelchair pushed by one of the Kabaka’s askaris. Magdalene promptly sent her home and told her to come back when she was prepared to walk from the new Twekobe. Magdalene was appalled that in contrast to the wiry, energetic Lynn, the princess was grossly overweight and torpid, and she lost no time in letting the Kabaka know.

His faith in Mrs Prior was such that her word was law where his daughter was concerned. He issued her instructions on diet and exercise as though they were his own, but once Dorothy was back with her mother and the elderly women comprising Nnabagereka’s staff, she carried on as usual.

The full power of Magdalene’s position came into play over Nnabagereka’s little boy. One day, the Nnabagereka decided to send him to the nursery school, and he hardly settled in when Magdalene received a phone call from the Kabaka to the effect that unless she returned the child to his mother immediately, askaris would be sent to remove him. The Kabaka was so used to having people jump to carry out his orders that it is not difficult to imagine his shock at being defied by an independent, democratic cockney.

Magdalene told him that any askaris coming to remove a child from her school would first have to deal with her, and that she was repelled at the idea of anybody venting such spite on a harmless little boy. It was useless for the Kabaka to argue that the thought of that particular child upset him. Magdalene bluntly told him to confine his thoughts to other things, adding for good measure that if there was anymore nonsense she was walking off the job. Nnabagereka’s son was allowed to stay and continued as a pupil along with the rest.

It did not matter that all the children attending the nursery school eventually spoke cockney-flavoured English. Magdalene’s two assistants, former nannies to the Kabaka and his brothers, ensured that they spoke the classic Luganda of the court, and knew their Luganda history. More importantly, Magdalene turned learning into fun, so that by the time the children moved on to primary school they could already read and write.

Another more riveting scandal than anything to do with Nnabagereka was Prince Henry Kimera’s secret marriage to a London chambermaid.

The secret was blown after “Princess” Carol appeared in the pages of The People, a British Sunday tabloid, purporting to be starving since being abandoned by her blue-blooded African husband. To emphasise the point, she was pictured in full-length dinner gown, tiara and dangling earrings, dolefully cutting bread and cheese for her supper.

The British newspapers were regularly flown into Uganda in those days, and the story was soon picked up by our local press.

Prince Kimera had not long been back in the country, and he was knocked sideways by the distorted revelations concerning his private life. He who gladly took a job selling life insurance to keep body and soul together could not recognise himself in the rich heartless philanderer portrayed by The People nor could anybody who knew him. How he came to marry Carol was never made clear. It was enough that he had. Up at the palace, there was consternation especially when the next issue of The People announced that one of their reporters was accompanying Carol to Uganda to confront her husband and put her case before the Kabaka.

Continues in Sunday Monitor tomorrow