It can be interesting when a centuries-old local idiom translated into English again has striking sonorities in the Queen’s language.
Ancient Baganda, for example, observed how the beard grows from the chin upwards, avoids the poor eyebrows until it connects to the rich hair atop the head. Linking this to human behaviour, they concluded in a simile that “abagagga nabagagga bagalana” which in English can be “the rich reach out for each other”.
Last week pictures circulated showing the Kabaka of Buganda meeting the Kenyan president and separately with opposition icon Raila Odinga. Since the Kabaka does not engage in ‘politics’, many Ugandans were surprised even though these were obviously private meetings. Some even suggested it was a photoshop image.
A statement reportedly from State House Nairobi that Kabaka Ronald Mutebi II and President Uhuru Kenyatta had discussed the promotion of East African cultural integration was also contested as a fabrication.
The surprise that the Kabaka can have a private meeting with the son of Kenya’s founding president is just another sign of our people’s aversion to reading, even matters that concern their own country. Moreover, there is little teaching of Uganda’s independence history in Ugandan schools.
Sir Edward Mutesa II, father of the present Kabaka, for example, had a Kenyan wife called Wangari Ngatho. Records indicate that her young brother George Githii worked as President Jomo Kenyatta’s private secretary. So from his pillow in Kampala, Kabaka Mutesa could whisper to President Kenyatta in Nairobi via his brother-in-law.
The seeds of instability sown in Uganda’s political belly during a hastily negotiated independence quickly germinated and in a full blown crisis, Mutesa was overthrown, just managing to escape with his life in 1966. He died in London in 1969, leaving his young son, Prince Ronald Mutebi under the care of his British friends from their army days.
Fifteen years later, Prince Mutebi was back in East Africa as the war to dislodge the party that overthrew his father raged. Besides backing the guerilla war, he led his personal life in Nairobi, where he begat his first son also in cultural integration style, with a Rwandese mother.
Nothing new here though. The people from Rwanda had migrated to Uganda for decades owing to problems in their country which earlier included famine, and later political instability.
Kabaka Mutesa (Mutebi’s father who reigned from 1939 to 1966) was so accommodative of them that ethnic Banyarwanda constitute the majority in one of Buganda’s 18 counties. And at independence in 1962, although Buganda does not immediately border Rwanda, the ‘pure’ Banyarwanda constituted 20 per cent of the kingdom’s key agricultural county of Buddu, now called Masaka — itself a Kinyarwanda word.
Back to Kenya — the royal links were not limited to Mutesa’s familial connections; there is well documented intense activism for Kenya’s independence struggle at Uganda’s Makerere University for most of the 1950s. An activist group, the Uganda-Kenya Solidarity sprang up, and its pioneer leader was a student economist called Mwai Kibaki. When Jomo Kenyatta was arrested, militant Ugandan students formed the ‘Kapenguria Club’ that kept issues of the Kenyan independence agitation on the agenda in Uganda.
The young Kenyan activists then enjoyed more than casual access to the Kabaka’s palace on Mengo hill in Kampala, even as the colonial police mounted the fierce ‘Control of Kikuyu in Uganda Operation’.
It is not about Kikuyu, but Kenya. If you check the history, when Kenya’s former President Daniel arap Moi made his first visit to Kampala in the Museveni era in 1994 (a whole nine years since he had committed six months of his time trying to broker peace between Uganda’s warring groups) he took time off to go and pay a courtesy call on the then newly installed Kabaka Mutebi.
When the Baganda say the rich reach for the rich, why wouldn’t Uganda’s biggest landowner meet a couple of fellow big landowners in Kenya? Raila Odinga for instance is a big economic player and it would be odd if an influential Ugandan cultural leader did not give him a call or pay him a visit.
As we speak, a group of property owners in Kisumu are fomenting a legal suit against the Uganda government over the flooding that damaged their houses recently, citing control of the Nile waters at Jinja.
Who knows if Kabaka did not ask Baba (Raila Odinga) to calm the Kisumu litigants?