In 1936 King (or Omukama) George Matthew Kamurasi Rukiidi and Queen Kezia Byanjeru of the Toro Kingdom welcomed a daughter to their family. They named her Elizabeth Christobel Edith Bagaaya Akiiki. It was the beginning of a life of adventure – full of fear, bravery, and accomplishment.
Toro (or Tooro) is one of the five ancient kingdoms on the border of Uganda. Elizabeth’s early life was stable, even serene. Her father had five wives, and she grew up with nineteen siblings. Elizabeth’s mother was the official wife, and as the first-born daughter, Elizabeth eventually would be the Batebe (Princess Royal).
Even though her family had official government vehicles, she walked daily to the local Kyebambe Girls School with neighborhood children. She attended the Gayaza High School in the highlands outside of the country’s capital, Kampala, where she pitched in with communal housekeeping. Officially, her father felt an international outlook – and connections – would be important to her life, so he sent her to the Sherborne School in England to finish her education. Elizabeth, however, felt she was sent out of the country because her father had seen her in the company of young men in her neighborhood. Regardless of which version is correct, that decision would influence her life in many ways.
At Sherborne, she was the only Black student. She continued on to Girton College at the University of Cambridge. Again, she was one of the first Black women at the institution. She later obtained a law degree from Cambridge, eventually becoming the first East African woman to qualify as a barrister and be admitted to the English bar in 1965.
Her accomplishments in Great Britain were amazing, more so when you consider that Uganda only gained independence in 1962. Elizabeth had learned the delicate balance of diplomacy. She enjoyed friendships with Europeans and learned the politics of their world, all while remaining determined to reinvigorate Uganda culturally and economically.
Her father’s ill health and eventual early death brought her back home to Uganda as the Batebe. Her brother, Rukirabasaija Patrick David Matthew Koboyo Olimi III, was now King of Toro. She keenly felt the loss of her father’s guidance, but she helped her brother navigate the tricky political circumstances that arose from her father’s death. She joined a law firm in Kampala, becoming the first woman called to the Ugandan bar in 1966.
Life in Uganda had become increasingly unstable. The president, Milton Obote, was outwardly hostile to the monarchy. He abolished Uganda’s traditional royalty, which removed her brother’s authority and made life dangerous for Elizabeth. The international connections her father had been keen to foster helped her out. Princess Margaret and her husband, Lord Snowdon, invited Elizabeth to participate in the Commonwealth fashion show at Marlborough House in London, and Princess Elizabeth felt it was a good opportunity to leave.
The Princess wore an outfit from a Ugandan Collection designed by Philipa Todd. This appearance launched her into a modeling career. The highly qualified lawyer would spend the next decade walking the catwalks for many international designers.
She became a familiar face in the late sixties modeling world, appearing in British and American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar (where she was the first Black woman to be on the cover). In the late sixties, she moved to New York and signed up with the Ford Agency. That connection was highly important, and the 1968 summer issue of Vogue was dedicated to her. In New York, she took acting lessons at the American Place Theatre, which led to a brief acting career and appearances in a couple of films. (See our second post for photos of her modeling career).
Modeling and acting were merely means to make money for the Princess. She was keen to serve her country and preserve her cultural heritage, which had suffered significantly from years of colonial rule. She felt that time had come when Idi Amin seized control of the Ugandan government in 1971. With her enemy, Obote, no longer in power, Elizabeth returned to Uganda.
Amin was eager to promote Uganda and felt the high-profile Princess with international connections was the way to do it. He appointed her as a Roving Ambassador and later Foreign Minister. She embarked on an extensive and exhausting schedule of visits to other countries to restore Uganda’s standing as an independent country. Her official roles were short-lived, though. By 1974 her relationship with Amin had fallen apart. Amin felt that the former princess had designs on leading the country herself.
Trapped in her own country, Elizabeth felt her life was in danger. Once again, her father’s directive to develop international contacts was invaluable. After a daring escape, she lived in Kenya and Austria before she was able to gain political asylum in Great Britain. She returned to Uganda briefly after Amin was overthrown, and left when Obote was again elected president. She married Wilberforce Nyabongo, who was an aviator and a distant cousin. In exile, the couple worked endlessly to publicize the atrocities that were occurring under Obote.
Finally, in the mid-eighties, she returned to live in Uganda under the new president, Museveni. She was appointed Uganda’s Ambassador to the United Nations in 1986, a position she held until 1988 when her beloved husband’s tragic death in an airplane crash prompted her to leave public service for the next few years.
Cultural leaders were restored in Uganda in 1993, including Elizabeth’s brother, King Patrick Kaboyo Olimi VII. After her brother’s death, she assumed the role of her nephew’s guardian. She also eventually served as both Uganda’s Ambassador to Germany and the Vatican, and as Uganda’s High Commissioner to Nigeria. She is a highly respected senior member of the royal family and the great-aunt of the current King of the Tooro, Rukidi IV of Toro.
I hope you enjoyed this is a ridiculously under-reported royal story. The Princess authored a fascinating autobiography, “Elizabeth of Toro, The Odyssey of an African Princess”, which was the source of most of this post. I have a copy if anyone is interested. The first one to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org is welcome to it. Unfortunately, I have to limit this to U.S. Baguettes. The book can be purchased from Amazon too!