The Kikuyu village girl who became a queen in Buganda

Saturday May 30 2015

Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa II (right) who married Zibiah Ngatho in the 1950s. Centre: A young Zibiah Ngatho and one of her brothers. PHOTOS | FILE

Kabaka Sir Edward Muteesa II (right) who married Zibiah Ngatho in the 1950s. Centre: A young Zibiah Ngatho and one of her brothers. PHOTOS | FILE 

By CIUGU MWAGIRU

Thursday, November 19, 1942 was an important day in the history of the Baganda and their kingdom. Despite the fact that Second World War was raging, it was a day characterised by pomp, marking as it did both the birthday and coronation of Kabaka Edward Muteesa II of Buganda.

Officially named Edward William Frederick David Walugembe Mutebi Luwangula, Muteesa II, he was popularly known simply as King Freddie. He ascended the throne at the age of 18.

When his father Ssekabaka Sir Daudi Chwa II died on November 22, 1939, King Freddie was proclaimed the next ruler of the Baganda. He was to reign under a Council of Regency until he came of age and assumed full powers.

As the celebrations unfolded in Buddo, there was a beautiful Kenyan girl who was at the time studying nursing and midwifery at the nearby Mengo Hospital.

Zibiah Wangari Ngatho was born in Thogoto, in the central region of then Kenya Colony, in September 1920. She had reported to Mengo earlier in the year. At age 20, she was two years older than the man being coronated Kabaka of Buganda. It is however not clear if the soft-spoken young woman attended the coronation.

As fate would have it, the young woman would in her thirtieth year, in 1950, become known as the 10th wife of the Buganda monarch. In effect, she would be referred to, in the annals of the Baganda Kingdom, as Her Highness Lady Ngatho of Buganda, with the distinctive specification, “a Kikuyu from Kenya.”

Whereas making her entrance into the Buganda royal family was no doubt a remarkable feat, it was equally remarkable that by becoming the Kabaka’s 10th wife, Ngatho joined a long list of royal spouses — all Ugandan. Three more came after her.

Earlier in Kenya, Ms Ngatho had made a name for herself for being among the first girls to attend the famous Alliance Boys’ High School, long before the eponymous Alliance Girls’ School was founded. The daughter of a renowned Church of Scotland Mission pastor, the late Ishmael Wango, Ms Ngatho was the first born child of a well-educated family.

Among her brothers was the late Zakayo Mwangi, who was also educated in Alliance and later Makerere University College. He was a pioneer educator and a published academic writer. The last born brother George Githii became the private secretary of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta. Later he was a leading if controversial figure in Kenyan journalism.

Ngatho had briefly returned home to Kenya in 1946 but later travelled back to Mengo before joining Makerere, in 1947/48, where she studied for a certificate in teaching.

After leaving Makerere, she again returned to Mengo, and worked in the Nursing department for over 10 years. It was while there that she got into a liaison with Kabaka Muteesa in 1951, and had a daughter – her sole offspring.

The Kabaka and his Kikuyu Queen

King Freddie was not always on good terms with the British colonial authorities in Uganda. By the early 1950s, for instance, the British government was floating the idea of uniting the then British East Africa — Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika — into a federation.

The Baganda were naturally wary of the plan, afraid they would end up under the control of Kenya’s white settler community, as had happened in Rhodesia. Muteesa too opposed the proposal and came into conflict with the British governor Sir Andrew Cohen who sent the youthful Kabaka into exile in London on November 30, 1953.

By then, the Buganda regent had already had already married and had a daughter with Ngatho. Given that disruptive development, it is not clear how his relationship with his Kenyan bride fared and for years she passed herself off as a spinster.

Eventually however, the colonial governor’s plan for a federation did not work and after two years of unrelenting Baganda hostility, the governor was forced to reinstate the king and the Kabaka returned to Kampala in October 1955 and resumed his position as the de jure king.

The marriage of Ms Ngatho and the Kabaka was not a bed of roses, and the queen at best kept it a secret, especially from her parents, who had reportedly rejected a Ghanaian suitor years earlier. Given the Kabaka’s tumultuous political career, none of his wives enjoyed continuous companionship with him. Ms Ngatho was no exception.

Tragically, a series of dramatic events in his private and political life resulted in an attack on the palace at Mengo by troops loyal to Milton Obote, the executive president, and the Kabaka fled into a second exile (this time self imposed) in London on May 24, 1966. He died in exile in Britain at the age of only 45 on November 19, 1969.

As for Ms Ngatho, despite her position in the famously crowded polygamous royal Buganda household, she was no less a queen. That notwithstanding, she was apparently a highly professional woman, and not one to remain in the Kabaka’s palace being doted on by courtiers.

She had left Mengo hospital in the 1950s and served in the Ugandan civil service by joining the community development department, from where she finally retired in April 1973, having worked in different towns in Uganda, from Tororo, Soroti, Lira, Moyo and even Kampala.

She returned to Kenya after retirement and worked as a matron at the Limuru Girls School near Nairobi, between 1973 and 1980.

Princess Stella

Ms Ngatho’s daughter with the Kabaka was reportedly born in Nairobi in 1951 and named Catherine Stella Alexandra Ngatho, a name that incorporated her maternal origins but did not in any way indicate that she had Baganda royal blood.

While it is not generally known how Princess Stella’s first two names were chosen, it is clear that the last two were a reflection of her mother’s Kenyan origins.

Alexandra was the baptismal name of her maternal grandmother, Njeri Wango, while Ngatho was the alternate name of her maternal grandfather, Rev Ishmael Wango.

That notwithstanding, at birth the child automatically became a Baganda princess who would later feature prominently among the royal progeny of King Freddie, who is recorded to have fathered at least 11 sons, all of them officially princes and heir apparent, individually referred to as Omulangira.

Among them is the current Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, the 36th Kabaka of Buganda, who was installed in 1993.

King Freddie also sired at least nine daughters, all of them officially princesses of the Buganda kingdom and individually referred to as Omumbejja, with the half-Kenyan Princess Stella chronologically coming in at position six. Raised in both Kampala and Nairobi, she is today a medical doctor based in Atlanta, Georgia, and has the royal title of Princess Stella Alexandra Ndagire.

Apart from being a sibling of the reigning Kabaka, Princess Stella counts among her stepsisters among others Princess Dina Kigga Mukarukidi, who currently works at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Another sister, Princess Nabaloga, is married to a Dane, Peter Bjornsen and is currently the Patron of Buganda Heritage Association in Denmark, which was founded in 1998.

Princes Stella’s recognition as a bona fide Baganda princess was in tandem with the fact that her mother was and is still recognised as one among the Baganda First Ladies. Referred to as queens, they were individually entitled to the title of “Lady,” in keeping with their acquired royal status.

Princess Stella was Ms Ngatho’s only child by the time of her death in Kenya at the age of 88 in 2008.

As if to officially take her royal identity as a Baganda princess, Catherine Stella Alexandra Ngatho would while in her late 50s officially change her name to Princess Nalinya Stella Alexandra Serwamutanda Ndagire.

Princess Stella had connections with Kenya, having been educated at the Kenya High School in Nairobi between 1966 and 1971 together with her stepsister Princess Christine Agnes Nabaloga.

Today, Princess Stella is a speech and language therapist practising in Atlanta, Georgia, US.

Ms Ngatho the Kabaka’s Kikuyu bride, lives on in Baganda lore, and has pride of place as a queen among many others.

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