“Everything that happens in our life is because you meet someone who gives you the road. Because we need each other. You give me hands, tomorrow I give those hands to someone else.”Esther Kamatari
Princess Esther Kamatari has lived a life far different from most royals. Born in Burundi in 1951 as part of the reigning royal family, she would eventually flee the country for Paris, where she successfully established a career in fashion.
Her father, Prince Ignace Kamatari, was the brother of the reigning Burundi king. He taught his children the values of service, and most importantly, humility. To instill the lesson of what ordinary people’s lives were like, he told his children that they would walk to school with the children whose parents didn’t own a car even though the royal family had many cars at their disposal.
Sadly, Esther was just 13 years old when her father died under murky circumstances. Many believe he was assassinated by extremists. Burundi had been released from colonial rule in 1962 and subsequently experienced several coups until the monarchy was deposed.
Reeling from her father’s death and the ensuing instability in her country, in 1970 Esther re-purposed her university tuition to purchase a ticket to Paris, France, a city about which she knew nothing. It didn’t take her long to establish a career there, and she spent many years modeling for Pucci, Paco Rabanne, and Jean-Paul Gaultier, among others. The modeling world was at the time overwhelmingly white, and she attributes getting her foot in the door to both the changes occurring in society at the time, and to being a princess – “The princess could be black or blue or a crocodile.” she says.
That said, the Burundi monarchy was not well known outside of the country, and Esther had to work constantly throughout the seventies and eighties to keep her fashion career alive. She persevered even though she often could not find makeup for her skin tone – often having to resort to mixing her own.
Her country and its issues were always with her. She established several methods to help back home, including setting up an association to help students obtain the school supplies they needed.
In 2004, she announced her candidacy for president of Burundi, with the stated intention of re-establishing a monarchy – a system she said would unite the warring factions of her homeland. She did not succeed, but she felt the effort was worth it, if just to show women and children anything is possible. She no longer believes a monarchy is workable in her homeland. Too many things have changed and too much has happened.
She’s well established in Paris these days, and she runs several initiatives to benefit women and children in her continent of birth. She has a foundation for the Royal Drummers of Burundi and a foundation which champions environmental causes.
She still keeps on her fashion toes, and has been involved with several fashion shows, including selecting models from Mali’s gold mines to walk the catwalk during the International Gold Fair – with spectacular results!