From July 28 to August 1, 1975 Uganda hosted the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) summit; one that went down in the books as extraordinary, due to events that unfolded on the sidelines.
For starters, Nigerian president Gen Yakubu Gowon was overthrown in a bloodless coup as he attended the summit at Nile Conference Centre (now Serena Conference Centre).
Then on Friday August 1, President Idi Amin, who had just taken over as OAU chairperson, wedded Sarah Kyolaba Tatu Namutebi at Jajja Villas hotel, Munyonyo as heads of government and other dignitaries watched. Theopista Nanyonjo Wamala, who a few years ago retired from the US Mission in Uganda/CDC, was maid of honour at the wedding, and recently told Carolyne Nakazibwe how she ended up there.
Theopista Nanyonjo had returned to Uganda after studying in Nairobi, Kenya, and was working as a secretary in the dean’s office at Makerere University.
“The way the civil service worked then, sexual harassment was almost accepted. The boss wanted to dictate his notes with me seated on his lap and things like that!” she recalled, laughing. “I was young – barely out of my teens – so I went to my dad, Dr Paulino Kyeyune Wamala, and asked him if it was proper to be treated that way at the workplace.”
Bewildered, Dr Wamala, Uganda’s first chiropractor, told his daughter to resign at Makerere and appointed her his secretary. Based at his then-spacious and storied City Pharmacy on Kampala road, Nanyonjo started coordinating all her father’s businesses and appointments.
She was thus on duty in 1974 when someone referred Amin to Dr Wamala for private consultation.
“Amin had been in a fight with his wife Kay, and had broken his arm. He needed a doctor to fix him privately,” she said.
“They came looking for dad and he started treating Amin personally, using his facility at Lweza, then called City Recreation Centre.”
Now commonly called ‘ku bikonde’ because of the enduring statue of a man flexing his biceps, which stands at the gate, the only reminder of Dr Wamala’s dream, the recreation centre was Uganda’s first sauna/massage parlour and gym. Wamala would personally work on the president at the facility best equipped to rehabilitate his injuries, while offering him the privacy to hide his momentary weakness.
“I remember they used to say my dad was ‘cooking’ women and bleaching them at the sauna, because it was a novelty.”
Wamala and Amin developed a friendship from their meetings at Lweza. Enter the 1975 OAU meeting. Amin had taken Sarah Kyolaba from her boyfriend Jessy Gitta Kasirivu and caused him to disappear, never to be seen again.
“Daddy was an astute businessman. He owned a hotel, Jajja Villas in Munyonyo at the shores of Lake Victoria, as well as Jajja Marina sailing club, among many other businesses,” Nanyonjo, now 67, said. “Amin called him and said, ‘Wamala, I want to have my wedding during this OAU summit, but I want that wedding in three days’.”
The OAU meeting was already in high gear when the president decided he wanted to marry a fifth wife in the presence of his distinguished guests that included Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader, Yasser Arafat. He charged Wamala with putting the wedding together – Amin was to avail all the resources necessary.
Nanyonjo remembers her father protesting, saying a wedding needed more time to pull off, but the president said he did not care; he wanted his wedding in three days.
“My dad summoned me and briefed me, wondering where to start. I advised him to contact London design houses and see if we could secure a wedding gown,” Nanyonjo said.
They called a London company and gave them Kyolaba’s specifications, and “let me tell you, the gown got here by DHL within two days!”
Nanyonjo picked the dress from DHL offices and Wamala contacted Amin, who allowed Nanyonjo to deliver the gown to the bride-to-be at State Lodge, Nakasero.
“I found someone waiting for me and they took me straight to Kyolaba, who tried on the gown and looked perfect. She was so young; she didn’t look older than me [Nanyonjo was 22]. When I was ready to leave, she looked at me and asked: ‘so, who is my maid of honour?’”
“I told her, ‘you are asking me? Don’t you have friends?’ But she said she had no one, because she was not allowed to leave the state lodge. She asked me to be her matron, but I told her I couldn’t, because I had no dress.”
Kyolaba told Nanyonjo she would ask Amin for permission to go with her to the Wamala family home in Makindye Kizungu, to find a dress in Nanyonjo’s closet.
“We had two days left, so I went with her to Makindye and the dress you see in the photos was my own,” she said. “Then she asked me about the maids!”
When Nanyonjo returned to City Pharmacy, she updated her father about the maids predicament, and he suggested they use close friends’ children. That is how Liz Kabali-Kaggwa – the youngest daughter of Wamala’s friend and confidant Frobisher Kabali-Kaggwa – and Rita Musoke, another daughter of a close friend, joined the entourage.
One Mpagi, Wamala’s personal assistant, also had two young girls and offered them to complete the bridal entourage. The seamstress located on Acacia avenue stayed up all night making the maids’ dresses. As for the cake, Nanyonjo went to Wimpy’s on Kampala road and ordered for a wedding cake to be ready in two days.
“They started quarrelling about the short notice and how they couldn’t bake it, but I had dad call them and explain that it was an order from Amin; that is all they needed to start baking through the night,” she laughed. “In fact, we were so anxious throughout the wedding because the cake was not firm enough.”
They delivered everything and everyone, including the makeup people she now does not recall, to State Lodge, Nakasero. She only got to meet Amin in person at the wedding, which was held in an intimate smaller house near Jajja Villas, at the lakeside.
Yasser Arafat officiated the Islamic wedding, before the party moved to Jajja Villas for the iconic photo moments where Amin drew his sword to cut the cake.
“That was it. We were taken back home. I did not get anything from that wedding; not even a handkerchief. People started saying Amin had bought me a car as a thank you gift, but it is my dad who had bought me a Datsun 100Y. The wedding orders came before I could pick up my car; so, when I picked it later, rumours started that I had ‘eaten big’.”
But she recalls that the wedding went without a glitch and everything happened in a classy, elegant way. Nanyonjo also said she remembers a courteous Amin when he addressed them, and contrary to what people believed, he was never inappropriate to her and treated her as a daughter at his wedding.
Nanyonjo and Kyolaba did not meet again, until years later when they met in London, where the former first lady lived in exile.
“We met at a party and I was introduced to her as her matron and she was so happy to see me, she even gave me a gift,” she said. Kyolaba died of cancer in 2015.
Ironically, a year after the wedding, Wamala was on Amin’s hit list.
What went wrong?
Amin had his eyes and heart set on Jajja Villas, a place he loved and frequented. He was often photographed in its swimming pool. With Bob Astles, Amin’s fixer and associate, Nanyonjo said, there was an elaborate plot to take over Jajja Villas without buying it from Wamala.
In 1976, Nanyonjo, who had just divorced the father of her son, was having her own drama on the side.
“The new man I was dating was picked up by men paid by my ex-husband – or so I believe – and they picked me up too and took us to State Research Bureau, where they made me listen as they tortured him and ordered us to stay away from each other. I even fainted. It was traumatising,” she said.
When she left, that night she plotted her escape to Kenya fearing for her life, to the chagrin of Wamala, who was enraged by her running away and even stopped talking to her.
“My very good friend Joseph Mulwanyammuli Ssemwogerere [with whom she shares a daughter] drove me to the airport,” she recalled.
A couple of months after settling in Nairobi and getting a secretarial job at a clinic, she was seated in her office and saw her father walk past. The former very close father-daughter tag team were no longer on speaking terms, yet here he was in Nairobi.
Nanyonjo found out he was staying at the New Stanley hotel, and went to beg his forgiveness. Once they had reconciled, he informed her he was ironically joining her in exile, because his life was in danger.
“He told me, a lady who worked for Bob Astles had sent him a chit one morning, telling him his hotel was to be taken over by Amin, a process that could only be complete if Wamala was dead. The lady told him the murder was to happen a day later, so he had hours to get out of Uganda,” Nanyonjo said.
Wamala flew to Kenya the following day. With Nanyonjo’s connections in Nairobi, he secured an apartment and started Thorntree Pharmacy at the New Stanley hotel. But Nairobi was teeming with spies for the Amin government.
Using one of his close friends in Kampala, a Nubian called Hassan, the state lured Wamala to the border at Malaba, with promises of a lucrative coffee deal only he could execute. On August 9, 1977, Wamala threw a birthday party for Nanyonjo in her South C, Nairobi neighbourhood, where he bought her an original Rado watch as a gift.
“He left the party, but then returned shortly and asked me to ‘pour me another whiskey, my daughter’. Afterwards he left, telling me: ‘now I’m not coming back’.”
Little did Nanyonjo know that was indeed the last time she would see her father. On August 10, he drove his Mercedes Benz to Malaba, where his assailants bundled him at gunpoint into a waiting car and drove him to Kampala.
While Nanyonjo never saw him again, Wamala was not immediately executed. He was driven around Kampala for several days to bid farewell to his family and friends, some of whom he told the details of his trip from Malaba.
Even his parents were brought from Masaka to see him, in a bizarre form of torture. He narrated that on his way from Malaba, his tormentors, tempted by the coffee cash he had, stopped at Namanve forest and ordered him out.
He told of the countless bodies – many decomposed – that littered the forest, which he had to jump over as his assailants tried to find a spot to kill him from. But they started arguing, saying this particular captive was needed alive; so, they instead took some of the money and bundled him back into the car and delivered him to a room near the SRB.
After allowing his family to see him and even deliver medicine and personal effects to him daily for a while, one day his doctor friend turned up with more of the same, but only found his shoes in the room. His body has never been found.