Meet the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar, who went on to become the first black model to grace the front cover of the American Vogue Magazine in 1968, and before then Harper’s Bazaar magazine. She later became the foreign minister of Uganda in the 1970s, and addressed the UN General Assembly in 1974 as chairman of the OAU group. She is none other than Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro, now 75, a woman who turned heads in her heyday. Curtis Abraham went to meet her.
In late 1974, Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro, as Uganda’s minister for foreign affairs, led a colourful delegation to the 29th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The occasion was to be one of her finest hours as a diplomat and a pan-Africanist.
Bagaya and her delegation travelled to New York aboard Idi Amin’s presidential jet, which had been a gift to the Ugandan president from the Israelis. In New York, the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, gave a luncheon for all the African foreign ministers who were attending the UN session. Bagaya, as the elected chairman of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) group, thanked Kissinger for his hospitality and for his peace building efforts in the Middle East and Indo-China, and then emphasised Africa’s agenda to Kissinger.
She explained to him and the other dignitaries that a radical new economic order, which would encompass fair trade among other issues, was needed if Africa was to achieve economic independence and poverty alleviation. Turning to South Africa, Bagaya told the gathering that “apartheid was a policy that was completely contrary to any civilised and humanitarian principles, and continued to make a mockery of African dignity and independence. So long as colonialism and imperialism continued, the world would continue to have human rights problems.”
She concluded her speech by asking “Kissinger to support the African liberation movements, and to visit Africa instead of depending on distorted reports about the African people and their societies”. A photograph of Bagaya at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly shows her wearing a stylishly long, narrow dress of gold Chinese brocade, a gift from the Chinese government, and her hair plaited into a crown.
The photograph also depicts a very beautiful African woman whose posture communicated a certain defiance of the Malcolm X variety; a defiance in line with the “black power” ideology. Her speech was critical of the West in every facet.
She pointed out the hypocrisy and vindictiveness of Britain and Israel – both countries undoubtedly helped Amin in the overthrow of former President Milton Obote – in blackening Uganda’s image abroad. Both countries, Bagaya pointed out, had convinced the IMF and the World Bank to stop financial relations with Uganda.
When I first met the now 75-year-old Princess in early 2011, international politics was not on her mind – but culture. What is the role of traditional African culture in today’s society? Bagaya was pondering when we held an impromptu meeting in the colonial-esque lobby of the aptly named Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
BaToro culture has always been a source of strength and pride for Princess Bagaya – who holds the title of Batebe or “Princess Royal”, which traditionally makes her the most powerful woman in Toro (one of Uganda’s five kingdoms), and the most trusted adviser of the Omukama or BaToro King.
As a princess of the Toro Kingdom, duty to the monarchy was uncompromising and simply non-negotiable. This held true even during her brief career as an international fashion model and actress. During the late 1960s, the renowned Ford Modelling Agency in New York asked her to pose nude for a substantial sum of money. Bagaya staunchly refused.
“Are you a model or are you not,” a Ford Agency representative quizzed her over the telephone. “Yes, I am a model. But one day I will go back home,” Bagaya replied.
Growing up in the Toro Kingdom during the 1940s and 50s, Princess Bagaya had no illusions about the devastating impact the British colonial administration had on the monarchy and on its traditional cultural practices and beliefs.
“When Christian missionaries later banned the institution of blood brotherhood as cannibalistic and barbaric, they sliced through the moral fibre of our society,” Bagaya wrote in her 1988 autobiography “Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess”. “In pre-colonial times, betrayal of one’s country, clan, tribe, or neighbourhood was anathema. In the aftermath, betrayal became rampant.”
In spite of the near-cultural genocide in Toro by the British, Bagaya held no such bitterness when it came to individuals from the British Isles. During the early years there were a number of English expatriates who would have a profound influence during her formative years.
After finishing elementary school, she was sent to Gayaza High School, a prestigious female boarding school in Buganda, central Uganda. At school she was good at basketball mainly because of her height. She also excelled at singing and acting – she played Julius Caesar. She later attended Sherborne School for Girls in England where she was the only black student.
Bagaya was later admitted to Cambridge University (Girton College) as only the third African woman to go there – Olu Abisogom of Nigeria and Lulu Coker from Sierra Leone were the other two pioneers.
At Cambridge, she studied law, politics and history. She had a tight circle of notable friends there: Broadcast journalist Sir David Frost; Australian author, journalist and feminist Germaine Greer; Leon Brittan, home secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government.
This was the time of African independence, and London was a beehive of diplomatic activity. Bagaya met some of the architects of Africa’s liberation struggles. Always the socialite, Bagaya gave a cocktail party and dinner in honour of the visiting Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya of Kenya.
Years later, during Bagaya’s brief imprisonment and later detention by Idi Amin, Jomo Kenyatta would come to her aid by personally telephoning Amin and telling him that no harm should come to someone whom he considered his daughter, and reminded the Ugandan president that one of Bagaya’s most successful missions as her country’s roving ambassador was to Kenya.
At the end of the conversation, Kenyatta threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Uganda if Bagaya was harmed in any way.
Princess Bagaya graduated from Cambridge University in 1962 and in November 1965, she became a barrister-at-law, becoming the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar. However, due to the untimely death of her father and the ascension to the throne of her brother, Rukirabasaija Patrick David Matthew Koboyo Olimi III, the 12th Omukama of Toro, Princess Bagaya returned home and joined Kazzora and Co, a law firm in Kampala where she completed a six-month internship before she was called to the Ugandan bar.
“I became the first African woman to do so, and to mark the occasion the then attorney general, Godfrey Binaisa, who later briefly became president, came to court unexpectedly and introduced me himself to the bar,” says Bagaya.
This was 1966 and the then Ugandan president, Milton Obote, had violently (at least in the case of the Kabaka or king of Buganda) abolished Uganda’s traditional monarchies. An unfair twist of fate as her brother Patrick had just assumed the Toro throne following the death of their father – Lieutenant Sir George David Matthew Kamurasi Rukidi III, the 11th Omukama of Toro.
Bagaya’s own life was in serious jeopardy. So it was fortuitous that a personal invitation came from HRH Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon to participate in a widely publicised Commonwealth fashion show at Marlborough House in London. Princess Bagaya walked out on the stage with an outfit from a Uganda collection designed by Philippa Todd, a prominent member of the Makerere University’s Art Department.
“Princess Margaret looked pleased and led the applause as I strode on the stage, feeling proud and animated by the spirits of my ancestors.”
Bagaya was a fashion hit.
“A major consideration in making this decision was which career would be the most effective way of symbolising, projecting, and preserving the torch of my black culture,” says Bagaya. “Modelling was considered a rather frivolous thing to do, and I had a hard time convincing my friends and advisers that it would help me achieve my goals. Modelling was a means to an end for me, enabling me to make an important point regarding my beloved country.