I knew Kabaka liked me after he sent second note

Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II and Nnaabagereka Sylvia Nagginda Luswata at Bulange, Mengo in Kampala. Photo | File

What you need to know:

  • After early education in Uganda, it was decided that Sylvia Nagginda would relocate to the United States to join her mother, in part two of our serialisation of her heartfelt autobiography.  

On March 22, 1981, I boarded the Sabena Airlines flight to Brussels via Rwanda and Burundi. I remember seeing my dad tearing up as he bid me farewell. I had never seen him like that.

I remember his warm embrace. The night before, he had handed me a twenty-dollar bill for trip pocket money. Everything was so new. It would be my first time to fly.

The European leg of the flight was excruciatingly long. I was seated next to a kind white man who was curious about the young passenger next to him. ‘Where are you going?’ he asked.

To join my mother in America! With every question, I had 10 answers. I must have talked his head off, but he seemed to take interest in everything I said; he must have noticed the excitement and anticipation in my eyes. I remember him handing me his pen to write with and keep. He must have felt badly for me after seeing me frantically trying to fruitlessly write with my old pen.

I wanted to make entries in my notepad that Uncle Lubowa had just given me. I could almost feel the future screaming at me.

Brussels was freezing. I had never felt that cold in my entire life.

Clearly, I was ill prepared for the chilly stopover. In those days, the airlines provided accommodations for overnight layovers. I remember being shuttled to the hotel. I felt like I was in a dream. The hotel was comfortable, but the night was very short. In the morning, the shuttle dropped me off at the terminal and what an overwhelming sight! There were signs everywhere. Los Angeles, New York, London, Cairo...New York. Finally, I got into what I thought was my check-in lane to

The line was so long. After what seemed like forever, I got to the ticketing desk, “You are in the wrong line. There is your line,” said an attendant as she pointed vigorously to a line in the distance. I promptly rushed over there and stood in another long line as I waited patiently for my turn. As soon as I got to the desk, the attendant announced, “It’s too late. You see your flight is now closed. You can’t get on. You will need to wait until the next flight tomorrow morning!”

Shock, trepidation, and extreme anxiety rushed through my cold body. Wait...I can’t stay. What do I do now? I froze, right there in the massive airport lobby tightly hugging my bags. I remember thinking about the matooke (green bananas) in the bag that I was taking to New York for my mother. Boy was that bag heavy!

Minutes turned into hours. I kept walking between gates, climbing escalators between terminals, and rambling to myself, What are you going to do now, Sylvia? You can’t go back to the hotel. You are stuck. I was helpless and totally clueless. No one was there to guide me. Perhaps a call to the Ugandan Embassy would have helped, but I didn’t think about it then.

When I asked for help at the information counter, they pointed me to the train and advised me to find a student hostel outside the airport. They spoke French and didn’t care that I could not understand what they were saying. They seemed completely heartless, brisk and discourteous. I kept thinking about my twenty dollars. Maybe that will help here. I was desperate.

I thought I should leave and look for a hostel outside the airport. As I stepped onto the escalator to the train terminal, I heard, “Hello, where are you going? I’ve been watching you all day as you walked up and down this whole terminal. What’s going on?” I was so relieved. There she was, my guardian ‘angel’ in the form of a kind Filipino woman named Audrea Aquino.

“I missed my flight, so now I am going to look for a place to stay. I have been told to catch a train to take me there,” I replied. “Well, I think I have a better idea. I have a friend from Rwanda here in Brussels who might be able to let us stay with him tonight.” Wow. God had totally made a way out for me. I don’t know what I would have done. I later learnt that the $20 was too little to cover my transportation, food and housing for the night.

Audrea knew exactly where to go. By the time we got there, the wind chill had cut through my little sweater. I was frozen to the bone. Her Rwandan friend, Andre Senga, did let us stay the night, and what a kind heart he was!

Gone to Amerika!

We lived on Roosevelt Island, a charming little island located between Manhattan and Long Island in New York City’s East River. Though small, Roosevelt Island has a distinguished architectural history. It was developed as a middle-class neighbourhood from the ruins of prisons and hospitals and has always offered nice riverside walks without crowds and unobstructed views of the city.

When the first apartments opened in 1975, my mum and dad Maxwell Codjoe were some of the first residents there.

At the time, the only people I knew in New York were my mum and her family. I used to write letters to my friends back home. I missed Uganda. I longed to be in the company of other Ugandans, but for months, I didn’t see anyone else.

In January 1983, mum enrolled me at City University of New York at La Guardia Community College in a liberal arts programme. I was able to complete the two-year associate degree within one year.

I applied to study journalism and public relations at New York University (NYU). Thankfully, I was accepted and was awarded an academic scholarship for my bachelor’s programme. To cover my other academic load, I applied for grants and a student loan.

In the middle of my programme at LaGuardia College, I moved to live with my Auntie Susan Musoke on 135th West 24th Street.

The house was neat and quaint. It was owned and operated by Catholic nuns. Aunt Susan and I shared a room. Eventually, she moved out and I took it over. I was finally independent. With rent, bills, and upkeep, I needed to get a job.

A dear friend, Namata Katongole, whom I had met at a Ugandan function at the United Nations, helped introduce me to a local telemarketing company. Granted it wasn’t great money, it was better than nothing. I enjoyed getting a paycheque.

Before I graduated from LaGuardia College, I procured an internship at W magazine, a women’s wear daily. That was huge for me. There I was, working with reporters and editors. Granted I was not being paid for this, but I loved the behind-the-scenes buzz of the fashion industry in one of the world’s largest cities. Yeah, I really could do this. I enjoyed telling stories and used every opportunity to share my own journey as an African emigrant. Maybe journalism was my cup of tea after all!

Back to Uganda

My first trip back home to Uganda was in the summer of 1986. The nation was still in chaos. However, I couldn’t extinguish the fire inside. The prospect of permanently returning to Uganda was still high on my list.

I made short trips home in 1988, and 1991. I knew deep down in my heart that I would one day return for good, but just didn’t know when. I loved my country and wanted to be part of Uganda’s next chapter.

I first met James and Sarah Mulwana in 1987 at my friend Barbara’s graduation at Northwestern University in Chicago. I was also a friend of their daughter Primrose, and eventually Geoffrey their brother. Over the years, we became very close. Through our conversations, Mr Mulwana noticed that I was very keen to return home to work, which sparked his interest. He wanted to help me figure out how. He was a great man. I looked up to him as a father and a mentor. I would bounce ideas off him, and he was always willing to listen and ready to advise.

In 1990, he had invited me to attend a business conference at the John D. Rockefeller Estates in New York.

As I started to really struggle with my options, I thought about Mr Mulwana. I knew he would be a real resource for sound advice, so I called him to share. He was encouraging. He proposed, “Why don’t you come try it out and test the waters first? Come and help me coordinate our annual Uganda Manufacturers Association event.”

Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II and Nnaabagereka Sylvia Nagginda Luswata at the king’s 57th birthday.  Photo | File

I was excited at the prospect, I thought, “Look Sylvia, you are not making some huge, impulsive leap into a totally new field with no direction. You are going to spy the land first, so why not?”

Meanwhile, I was also getting tired of New York’s fast life, even though I was somewhat addicted to it. I had even considered moving out of the city to another state, but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around doing life at a slower pace anywhere else.

In July 1993, I boarded a British Airways flight with final destination to Entebbe, Uganda. My resolution: If I could find a plausible path to return to meaningfully contribute to the country in the next six months, I would seriously consider a permanent move.

Mr Mulwana impressed on me to work for the Uganda Manufacturers Association as a consultant for what would be Uganda’s first major international trade fair.

I hit the ground running, doing what I did best: public relations.

I produced a magazine for the show which put me right in the throes of logistics and production for the show itself. It was a resounding success!

My friend Barbara Mulwana was also in town. She had relocated back to Uganda after working for Good Year, the tyre manufacturer, in Ohio, USA.

Royal meetings

During the consultancy at UMA, I stayed at the Mulwana’s residence. It so happened that Mr Mulwana was involved in organising the coronation of King Ronald Mutebi.

My mind raced back to an interesting conversation I had with an old friend, Dr William Kalema, earlier in 1991.

He had approached me with an interesting proposition: “Sylvia, there is somebody I would like you to meet.”

‘Who is this?’ I questioned.

“Well, he is a prince. He lives in London.”

‘Does he have a name?’ I quipped.

‘Prince Ronnie Mutebi’.

‘Are you kidding me’? I replied emphatically.

Reluctantly however, I agreed to check out the proposition, although my mind had great reservations about it. I was 29 years and had no ties yet, so I suppose I didn’t have anything to lose by keeping the opportunity open, just in case.

William happened to be Prince Ronnie’s good friend. He really believed I was the girl for the prince, so he refused to accept my reluctant response.

A couple of weeks later, he called back. ‘You should come and meet the prince in Uganda,’ he said excitedly. “I will fly you here. Meanwhile, please send some pictures for him to see you!”

“I don’t like the idea,” I replied. ‘And NO...I am not sending any photographs to anyone,” I quipped. Honestly, I really didn’t think that sending photos of me for that purpose to, or anyone else for that matter, was appropriate.

Several months later, my aunt Joyce Sebugwawo was visiting New York and the topic somehow came up. “We are looking for a suitable wife for the Crown Prince,” she revealed. She then added, “We should take you to see him. You’d be perfect. You’d make a good queen. You should give me one of your nice pictures to show him.”

It was an interesting coincidence because my aunt and William hadn’t discussed this.

‘As a matter of fact, someone else has told me about this,’ I replied. ‘But I just don’t think so. That is not me!’

While I am certain that such a proposal would thrill most young women in my position, particularly Baganda women, I was reluctant about the whole idea. I was aware of my body clock. I knew it was time to settle down and start a family, but not like that. Besides, I wasn’t so impressed by some of the stories that I heard about Buganda royalty. History is replete with unflattering stories about royal families in general around the world.

Nnaabagereka Nagginda at a function in 1999.

The Mulwanas invited me to hop along with them to Naggalabi for the coronation ceremony. Taata and Maama were also planning to attend and were super excited, in fact, I remember running into them as we climbed the hill to attend the ceremony. There was mass jubilation across the country, particularly throughout Buganda.

There was a sea of people, literally hundreds of thousands. We had to park a good distance away from the main grounds.

Fortunately, my hosts were notable dignitaries with special seating privileges, so I was able to enjoy the auspicious ceremony up-close. That 31st day of July 1993, King Mutebi was officially installed in a glowing coronation ceremony.

A few days later, there was a private dinner party hosted by Mr Gordon Wavamunno in honour of the Kabaka’s coronation. Only 50 guests were invited, and the Mulwanas were among them. Barbara couldn’t leave me behind and the parents were more than happy to have me tag along, so I joined them.

Mr Wavamunno is a business mogul and a close friend of the royal family. He has an exquisite mansion in Munyonyo overlooking Lake Victoria. Before moving inside for dinner, we chatted over cocktails in the garden. Just then, we were told that His Majesty King Ronald Mutebi had arrived. We formed a greeting tunnel with men on one side and women on the other.

Down came the Kabaka greeting his guests as he made his way into the house. Women were either curtseying or kneeling as he approached. He shook hands with everyone in the line. He said hello to me in the same manner as he did with everybody else, rather uneventfully; not that I was expecting anything different.

I would later learn that the King had actually noticed me that night. In fact, he sent a note to our mutual friend William Kalema with these words, “Oh, I saw Sylvia last night.”

Soon after the coronation, it seems, the Kabaka had a series of invitations for other private functions, and one other such event was hosted by his longtime friend Betty Kajubi. I had friends among the Ssenteza Kajubi family whom I had known for a while back in the United States. So, I received an invitation from them to an even more intimate barbeque get together at Betty’s place in Mpererwe.

Tom Kajubi offered to pick me up, and on the way, we stopped by the Kabaka’s residence in Kololo; after exchanging pleasantries, we joined his convoy and headed out to Betty’s residence in Mpererwe.

Aside from the occasional glance across the room, we really didn’t have much more interaction that evening. I could feel his intrigue, my mind wondered as the night wore on.

Early the following morning, my friend William reached out to me. He had received another note from the Kabaka: I saw Sylvia last night at Betty’s place, but we couldn’t talk’!

I was charmed, and excited. ‘I think he likes me. I think he really likes me,’ I thought.

William would eventually pass on my number to him. Over the next few months, we spoke several times.