The King and I

This blog entry about the events of Friday, December 30, 2011 was originally posted on December 31, 2011.

NOTE: It should be known that I (like some of my friends) know most, if not all, of the lines from 1988’s Coming to America (starring Eddie Murphy) by heart.

DAY 2 (NEW YEAR’S): “Move! Move!” yelled the Ugandan man to me. He was motioning me to shift to the side of the road — and he wasn’t the only one.

Huh? What’s going on? I wondered. I was in the middle of the road that led up to Lubiri Palace, royal headquarters of the Kingom of Buganda (Uganda’s “largest and most recognized” tribe with a population of 9 million and counting), trying to get a symmetrical shot from the center.


I moved to the side and saw what the commotion was: police cars and military vehicles were escorting a white SUV — one with a hand waving out the window.

Oh crap, he’s here already, I realized as I had arrived to the palace grounds fashionably late. The royal motorcade. (Cue Coming to America motorcade theme now.) His Majesty King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, 36th King of Buganda, had arrived at the palace for the New Year’s party, fashionably late as well — at 3:45 pm in the afternoon. (The 12-hour celebration had started at 3 pm.) He was coming from his private home outside the city, where he opted to reside.

I went to the palace gate and handed a woman a letter written in the Lugandan language with an official embossed seal on it. The letter had been printed out, except for the greeting which was handwritten: “Dear Erik (American” [sic]. She didn’t question it and took it in exchange for a gold wristband — my golden ticket if you will — which gave me VIP access to the New Year’s party, with seats in the King’s section of the upcoming ceremony and concert, to take place on the huge outdoor grounds of the palace’s backyard.

SO THEN, HOW DID I GET THERE? I had only been in Uganda for less than 24 hours and already I was off to see the King with my Forrest Gump-esque dumb luck. Well, the day started rather slow. I had no plans just yet and just wanted to get my bearing in a new city. At the same time I wondered where I’d end up at the stroke of midnight; if you’ve followed this blog for years, you’ll know that I’ve had many memorable New Years on the road, from being at the bottom of one of the deepest canyon in the world (Peru), to being at a concert in Manila (Philippines) with my cousin who got on national television wearing a Spider-Man mask, to spending it in San Juan del Sur (Nicaragua) with my jumping friend Elaine where we met the mayor, to the most recent in 2010-2011 when I partied the night with new friends in front of Moai statues on Easter Island. I was not aiming to do anything as lofty; I had heard that Kampala had a fairly decent nightlife and figured I would just go with the flow of people at the hostel to see where the party would be at. But I had hours to kill before midnight so I went wandering.

There aren’t too many must-see sights in Kampala so I figured I’d knock them out. I walked about 20 minutes into the city center on a hot 80-something degree day (°F), following the dust and traffic of progress. I was alone and much to my surprise, I was not heckled or approached at all by anyone thinking I was Japanese or Chinese; in fact, the only people who approached me were motorcycle taxis offering rides, but when I declined they simply went away.

The first imposing site was on the way to downtown: the Gaddafi National Mosque, which represents only a 12% fraction of the religions in Uganda. (Most of the nation is Christian, although one town has a tiny collection of Ugandan Jews.) Built in 2007, the center of Islamic prayer was spacious, especially with only two women there praying. The guard let me take photos for a small fee and let me climb up the minaret for a view of the city. Afterwards I walked into the crowded, dusty center of downtown (see photo), which cleared up closer to the high end hotels and government buildings. I saw the clearly marked Independence Monument and the Parliament building (also clearly marked). There were marabou storks in Constitution Square, and some police gathering at police HQ across the street.

There was one must-see of Kampala on the other side of town — the royal Kasubi Tombs — so I took a lunch break before heading there via motorbike taxi, opting not for a knock off of Domino’s Pizza, but for the peri-peri chicken at the South Africa-based chicken chain Nando’s.

THE KASUBI TOMBS, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, used to be a royal palace, but not a palace in the fairy tale sense. To the Western eye, it looks more like a big, round thatched hut (or an Ethiopian church), but that was a big deal back circa 1882 when King Mutessa I of Buganda resided there. However, when I arrived, it was not like the image I’d seen on the Internet; it looked more like this.

“Did you hear the news?” Richard, my tour guide asked me when we started walking after his little history lesson of kings in a room by the entrance. “In 2010 there was a fire…”

The fire burned my chances to see the worldly site, however, there was hope: with the help of the Kingdom of Buganda, the government of Uganda, and UNESCO, the main palace was to be rebuilt up to 1882 code — after a few practice runs of course, both inside and out. And fortunately the damage was only external; the bodies of four kings are still buried underneath.

Others in the royal family are buried in the nearby royal cemetery, with graves as recent as 2010. “Look at the Christian name on this one,” Richard showed me. It read “Abraham Lincoln.” Many of the kings over the past decades had been Christian ones, and their family members’ tombs were denoted with crosses. While that was informative and all, there were more pressing issues to deal with.

“Do you have any plans for New Year’s?” Richard asked me.

“Actually, I haven’t figured that out yet,” I answered. “Where’s the best place to go?”

Richard mentioned a couple of places, and the big Chaka Demus concert in town, but also mentioned the big party at the Mengo Palace which would have lot of local musicians and artists playing for the King. My eyes lit up.

“Are you interested in that?” he asked me.

“Yeah, I’d like something like that.”  Local musicians, Ugandan flavor… a perfect alternative New Year’s to the club scene, which from what I heard in the clubs near the hostel, played the same generic American dance standards. I’m in. King me.

However Richard wasn’t the point person; it was another guide at the royal tombs, a young man by the name of Joseph, who was guiding around an old Englishman. When they were done, Richard told Joseph of my interest.

“There is the regular entrance fee for 15,000 [Uganda schilling, about $6], or you can get a VIP ticket for 150 [about $60],” he told me. “With the VIP ticket you sit with the King and you can meet him.”

A little steep, but still cheap by New York standards, I thought. Plus when else am I going to meet a royalty (other than when I met the Maharaja of Jaipur)? This is going to be some Coming to America shit.

“Okay,” I answered warily. “Is anyone else going?”

“There will be many.”


“I am going with my friend,” he answered. “A French girl.”

He told me that I had to act fast because the ceremony began at three and the King would arrive before four. (It was close to 2 pm already.) I was a little concerned that I might be falling into a scam, especially when I gave Joseph the cash and he handed over the “VIP ticket,” which wasn’t a ticket in a conventional sense, but a letter on CBS-FM stationery, in a CBS-FM envelope. “This is the King’s radio station.”

The letter, which was printed out and embossed with a seal, had an empty space for the greeting. Joseph translated the words as if I could confirm what he was reading, although the times were universal. In the empty space for the greeting, he wrote “Erik (American” [sic], and “To: Erik/America” on the envelope. (If those are interchangeable, then phonetically I put the “eric” in “America.”)

“I am leaving now, but call me when you get to the palace gate and I will come get you.”

I turned on my iPhone, which connected to the local Orange cell network, with a warning of big fees. “Text me.”  We swapped phone numbers and confirmed they worked. In my phone he was simply stored as “Joseph,” and in his, I was simply stored as “American.”

Joseph was already dressed in a suit, with what looked like a galabiyya over his shirt and slacks. He wore the blazer over that. “I’m already dressed,” he told me.

“You can’t wear beachwear,” Richard chimed in.

“I am going now,” Joseph told me, holding another CBS-FM envelope. An SUV pulled up and a French-looking young woman was at the wheel, which made the whole transaction more believable.

I left the site, rushed back to my room, took a quick shower and shaved. I put on the only button down shirt I packed, and changed my sneakers to my cleaner hiking boots. I left on my dark conversion pants that can look like gray slacks if you have the imagination. I put my SLR in a small pack and hailed the first motorcycle taxi I found, but the driver couldn’t understand my directions to the “Mengo Palace,” i.e. the palace in the Mengo neighborhood. When we finally figured out that it’s locally known as the Lubiri Palace and arrived at the first gate, he was astounded.

“That is my kingdom,” the motorcyclist told me. “You’re going in there?”


And then, the motorcade arrived.

AMERICAN: I’m inside the gate

Joseph: Come in the vip tent and show them ur tag

American: Ok

I followed the crowds and walked around the palace to the grounds in the back where it was soon becoming not like the scene I’d imagined — I conjured up something more low key, like a formal banquet of dignitaries you seen in the movies — but of a huge outdoor concert attended by tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. The motorcade entered the fenced off royal VIP area just when I had, and Joseph was there waiting for me. I flashed my royal golden wristband and got in without a hitch.

We sat in the VIP section, which sat about 100 or so people, on the left side of the King’s throne. With Joseph was his friend Faisal(sp?) and Nermine, a French-Egyptian young woman who was an engineer, working for an oil company in Uganda as an ex-pat. How she became friends with Joseph I don’t know, but they seemed genuinely friendly with each other. She was wearing a traditional Uganda dress (with the pointy shoulder pads) and was with a friend that wasn’t much for conversation with me — we sat on opposite ends of our small group though.

“See that woman over there?” Joseph said to me, pointing to a woman sitting directly to the left of the throne. “That is my auntie.”


“She is the sister of the King.”

I tried to process a family tree chart in my head. “So you’re the King’s nephew?”


Just then, I had a Coming To America moment in my head, quoting Cleo MacDowell in my inner monologue. A prince… A PRINCE! Oh [Erik], you really did it this time. You hit the jackpot! But I didn’t let it go to my head and just attended the ceremony with everyone — everyone royal that is, on the elevated viewing platform above the masses.

“It would be hard for you to get here without me,” Jospeph noted. He pointed to the mosh pit below. “That is for the commoners.”

The New Year’s ceremony, which began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, was a huge concert with the biggest musical artists in the Kingdom of Buganda (plus guests as far as Jamaica) all performing quite proudly for the King; he only makes a public appearance about 2-3 times a year according to Joseph, New Year’s being the biggest one. The King sat in his throne amongst his adoring people, sometimes interested in what was going on, sometimes looking a little bored. He didn’t wear a sash made of a lion’s fur like King Jaffe Joffer of Coming to America — he just wore a suit — but his royal guards had ones made of leopard skins. They stood mostly as guards of tradition — some where old and questionably fit — while real guards in military gear stood behind.

Much to Nermine’s and my surprise, taking pictures of the King from about 12 feet away (like the one of him smiling at top) was no problem — in fact, Joseph encouraged it. However, after a while we were more keen on getting photos of the old guards in traditional garb and the leopards skins.

The music concert continued with African reggae and calypso artists like Tete Tabela, Afrigo, Dr. T, Dr. Hildeman, and crowd favorite Bobi Wine, all of them with songs involving social issues and positive messages. Joseph interpreted lyrics to me and Nermine. There were also speeches in between that he translated as well, words to honor the King, and so forth. About two hours in, there was an intermission from the music, when the finalists of a kingdom-wide trivia contest were brought to the forefront to compete in the final battle of wits in front of the King; it had been a contest that lasted months prior on the radio. Moderators asked questions to the contestants of the knowledge bee — questions all with a spin leading to Bugandan pride — and in the end, the winner was given his prize by the King himself, amidst a crowd of press.

The Prime Minister did a speech afterwards, honoring the King, after of which the King went to the platform just above the mosh pit of “commoners” to ring in the New Year — at 7 pm. He held a big giant key to the cheering crowd, representing the key to the new year, which he used to metaphorically “open” 2012. The crowd went wild and confetti was shot into the air. The King briefly went back to his throne for final remarks by the emcee, before his royalness was whisked away; his security force deemed it unsafe for him to be out in public after nightfall, which is why they did the ceremony five hours early. However, that didn’t stop the crowds from getting more amped after the setting of the sun because more superstars were about to perform.

“Come with me,” Joseph instructed me and Nermine towards the throne. This was it: a small window of opportunity to meet and shake hands with the King. Security was tighter than ever at this point, and I mean by his real military guards, not just the ones in the leopard skins. Originally I thought there would be “free time” to mingle and just make a casual introduction with him, but it wasn’t going to be that easy; in fact, out of all the people in the VIP section, only Nermine and I — two obvious-looking foreigners — were going to break protocol with the help of the King’s nephew and his aunt.

“What are you doing here?!!” yelled a security guard at me. “You have to go back!” But then the King’s sister stepped in and explained that we were going to do a quick photo opp as a favor to her nephew.

“We have to be quick,” Joseph said to us, only using Nermine’s camera for both of our photos.

Nermine went first; she was instructed to kneel before the King’s throne and take his hand. Then it was my turn. It went by fast, amidst all the crowd noise; a guard rolled back the royal carpet so as not for me to soil it, and I kneeled before His Majesty King Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II, and shook his hand. “I’m honored to meet you,” was the only thing I could think of, but I was whisked away fast.

Unfortunately, Joseph missed the photo opp in the chaos, but at least we were allowed to do it all over again really quickly; the King didn’t seem to mind. Nermine kneeled down again, followed by me. I genuflected and shook his royal hand a second time.

“You got it?” I asked Joseph. He did.

The King and his royal entourage left after that, and there went my time with an African monarch. Nermine and her friend left as well as they were heading to some New Year’s party — but not before we swapped email addresses to exchange photos.

“I want to stay and see the fireworks,” Joseph said to me — there would be some at midnight. “Do you want to stay?”

“Yeah, I’ll stay,” I said. I hadn’t anything better planned than sitting with royalty and watching a big concert of the kingdom’s biggest musical stars. Wouldn’t you stay too?

And so the night continued. The New Year’s Eve concert got livelier and the crowd got wilder. One musician had these crazy backup dancers dressed as Incredible Hulks, with green skin and purple pants. The crowd went crazy when one artist brought volunteers to the stage. And crowd pleaser Bobi Wine even came back for another much-anticipated set.

The King had opened his gates to his people after his departure, so the VIP section became crowded with “commoners,” ruining the view from our lawn chairs. Joseph wasn’t having any of that and basically yelled at everyone in his way, and for some reason, they just did as he wanted, with no argument. I don’t know if it was because that was just a non-confrontational cultural thing, or if they knew who he was, or if his traditional galabiyya-looking garment was a symbol of royalty. (Another guy behind us wore one too, and he also had the audacity and power to shift people out of his vantage point of the stage.)

However, more than a good vantage point was a fed stomach. “Is there food in the VIP section?” I asked Joseph.

He picked up his phone and made a call. “They will come in here.”

It wasn’t anything regal, but at least the concession guys had authentic food. One guy was selling fried chicken off a big tray, and I bought some for me and my new friend. At first I thought, Whoa, fried chicken in the middle of Uganda? I thought that was supposed to be an African-American stereotype, not an African-African one, but that was soon replaced with the thought, Wow, I just bought the King’s royal nephew… fried chicken. He thanked me, but paid for everything else beyond that: drinks and bags of greasy fried grasshoppers. (Delish.)

It was just the two of us that evening amidst what seemed to be hundreds of thousands. Why a guy in Joseph’s position wanted to spend New Year’s with me, a total stranger, was lost on me. Perhaps he was just trying to do a good deed for a client of his; I did pay him after all. Perhaps he was trying to sell me on something else from his tour company. (In fact, he did try to sell me on a safari tour, but backed off when I told him I already had reserved one at the hostel.) More than that, I thought, This guy WORKS?! in James Earl Jones’ voice from Coming to America. Does he even have to?

“You remember the royal cemetery?” Joseph asked me as the concert continued in full force. It was one of the first things he said that didn’t have to do with translating a lyric.


“You know the one with the flowers?” he continued solemnly. “That’s my dad.”

If I recalled correctly, when I asked my guide Richard about the latest grave in the royal cemetery, he showed me the 2010 one — December 2010 if I remember correctly — and that one had the flowers on it.

“We put it there on Christmas Day,” Joseph told me.

A week before New Year’s; six days prior. Perhaps that was what he was going through. But I didn’t push it and let the night continue. And ultimately, a happier moment arrived: the countdown in Lugandan started in the last moments of 2011 (GMT +3). “[Four… three… two… one…]”

“HAPPY NEW YEAR!” (It was spoken in English.)

Fireworks lit the sky above our heads and in every direction of the kingdom. I’d seen fireworks before and these were okay, but most of the excitement came from the crowd. I swear I never heard a crowd so amped up about fireworks before. Big streamers were launched from our area and towards the stage.

“Happy New Year!” Joseph’s friend Faisal greeted me with an African handshake.

“Happy New Year!”

The sentiment went around the guys nearby. “Happy New Year!” I greeted Joseph.

“Happy New Year!”

A young Ugandan woman carrying a baby tapped me on the shoulder. “Happy New Year!”

“Happy New Year!”

I am very happy to be here! I thought in my inner monologue in the voice Coming to America’sPrince Akeem.

The Afro-reggae/calypso concert continued and we stayed for a while longer before calling it quits when some less-exciting amateur acts took to the stage.

“How are you going to get home?” Joseph asked me, walking aside Faisal as we made way for the palace gates.

“I can just walk,” I answered. “It’s only about twenty minutes.”

But he advised against it. “It’s not safe to walk at night, especially tonight.”

“I can get a motorbike taxi then.”

“Yeah, you better get one.” He flagged one down and argued for me to get a fair price. And then we parted ways.

“If you need anything, you just call me,” he said, shaking my hand.

“Okay,” I said. “Happy New Year.”

He went off with his friend while I rode on the back of a motorcycle that night — the first night of 2012. Everything was perfectly safe on the way home, but I knew if anything had come up, I’d think in the voice of Coming to America‘s Cleo MacDowell and be okay with my… “African connection.”


There were seven winners in the big Bugandan trivia contest, including one special award to a woman.

The fifth runner up had a prize pack that included:

  • a matress
  • a six pack of 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola
  • a kettle

Fourth runner up got all that plus a bed; third got the above, plus a bicycle; second got the above, plus a motorcycle. The first runner up and the special female winner (a 20-year-old university student) got everything above, plus some goats, a 21” Sony WEGA TV, and a plot of land. And the big winner got it all, plus a piece of land as big as twenty plots.


Next entry: Wild On The Nile

Previous entry: Scumbags in Transit

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Comments for “The King and I”

  • I spent most of DAY 3 writing this. You’re welcome wink

    Off to go raft the Nile…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  12/31  at  09:44 PM

  • Hey Erik, looks like an amazing adventure!  Looking forward to daily updates.

    Oh, and Juju wanted me to remind you to be very safe.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/01  at  01:21 AM

  • casaba melons

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/01  at  02:31 AM

  • That was amazing!! Well done Erik!
    Can you describe “...African handshake?” What’s unique about it?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/01  at  01:26 PM

  • coolest EVER!! def beats the whale & the galapagos island map! (i’m jealous)

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/01  at  03:56 PM

  • Wow, royalty! Nice beginning to 2012, American. Happy New Year!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/01  at  11:10 PM

  • Trying to get the next entry up before I’m possibly in the NIZ for the rest of the week. If it doesn’t happen, my apologies.

    SCOTT/JUJU: Will do! Welcome back to the blog.

    JOHNNY: Slap, clench.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/02  at  08:37 PM

  • Yay - happy to be in vicarious travel heaven again :D Sounds like your trip is off to a great start!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/02  at  10:38 PM

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This blog post is one of eighteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Monkeying Around," which chronicled an eighteen-day journey through Uganda and Rwanda in eastern central Africa.

Next entry:
Wild On The Nile

Previous entry:
Scumbags in Transit


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