A Kingdom Comes

A Kingdom Comes

Meanwhile, Bonnie Prince Isaya, ensconced uneasily in Congo, was spawning his own administration in the mountains. He had his fledgling army of young spearmen-patriots organized county-by-county, weapons hidden in the forest, and paid for out of county-collected taxes or not paid for at all; he had his administrative chiefs, at all four levels; he had his churches, schools, and courts. This governmental bricolage of the fledgling state not only endured the leader’s absence: it evolved spontaneously its own forms, procedures and disciplines, with Isaya personally approving senior Rwenzururu appointments. Yet his holing up among Bakonzo/Banande on the Congo side in the wild country by no means guaranteed his safety. It was never advisable for him to stay long in the same place. From his base at Ebulema he moved north to Matungu, beyond the valley of the Lhume river cascading out of the southerly high peaks into the upper Semliki. For a while thereafter he moved south to Eisale, to the home of Koroneri Maate, father-in-law of his henchman and chairman of Kambasa saza, Fanehasi Kisokeronio, who had taken a second wife across in Congo. Eisale was the Bakonzo’s seminal provenance in the hilly woodlands north-west of Lake Edward.

Somehow Isaya must have misjudged the factions competing for local supremacy in the chaotic Congo where central government had long ago imploded. In June 1964 he was seized and locked up in the prison of the regional centre of Beni. There was even a court hearing, on a charge of his causing dissension. Yet what else was there but dissension, with all the smuggling and armed gangs, and the Mulelist guerillas roaming and raiding in the name of the murdered Congolese President, Patrice Lumumba? It was these very Mulelists’ sympathies with Rwenzururu that told against Isaya. By some fluke, Kampala got no wind of the arrest of their quarry, and a month later Rwenzururu’s King was half-released into house arrest at Butembo, the next big village south – by twenty miles – of Beni, in the charge of one Kaligha Mulere, who had made his name giving trouble to the Belgians pre-independence. I may mention in passing that I had been in Butembo ten years earlier, searching for survivors of the clapper-lip people who inhabited that and surrounding villages in the earlier years of the century. The clapper-lip cult of facial mutilation was a response to the maraudings of Arab slaving gangs operating out of Zanzibar when that region of Western Congo became the furthest point of penetration by the slave-raiders. The local people, notably the women – almost certainly Konzo speakers – sought to make themselves unsaleable as slaves by grotesquely distending their lips with the insertion of wooden plates in childhood. The ploy largely worked.

Here at Butembo, Isaya now had his young son, Charles Wesley ‘Kisembo’, aged twelve, reunited with him. He was fixedly grooming Charles as his heir and successor. Did he sense his own days to be numbered? He was obsessively intent upon educating Charles, to acquaint him with the functioning of statecraft even of such a Cheshire Cat state as Rwenzururu still was, and to pass to him the ethos of the Kingdom. The ordeal of sustaining belief in its reality at this period must have been formidable. Charles’ mother Christine had remained behind in the mountains where, incidentally, she had given birth in February, 1965, at Bubumbania to Christopher Tabaan – with whom she had had to flee for both their lives the very next day. Times were not easy. At Kaligha’s house, Isaya and young Charles were assigned three guards of which two, I notice, bore Konzo names. That gives the clue, perhaps, as to how Isaya managed to slip the leash and make a dash with Charles for freedom. He was re-arrested with his Rwenzururu escorts while crossing the Kisalala river. His escape landed him briefly back in prison. But Masereka spirited young Charles away in a Land Rover put at Rwenzururu’s disposal by Congolese Bakonzo/Banande supporters. Soon to be released – perhaps as a greater source of disruption inside than out – Isaya was to be reunited with young Charles; and the two fugitives at last got to their former west-side mountain base of Matungu. The masterly hand behind these successive reprieves from extinction was that of Isaya’s chairman of the vast Kyatenga county (comprising all of Congo-side Ruwenzori), Yolamu Mulima.

At Matungu, Isaya at once gathered up his wife Christine and little Christopher and headed for Kiribata on the Congo flank of the upper Tako. That high borderland proved to be the best option while the royal group was being harried alike by both Obote’s Uganda and Mobutu’s Congo. Bukuke on the forest edge became the favoured base. After the August showdown in Kampala’s parliament, September and October 1964 were to prove dire for Rwenzururu. The military, now shed of its British officers, swept through the highland ridges burning, looting and shooting at anyone in flight and at any ordered male formations with or without spears. To Isaya, did all this not resemble the persecution of the early Christians under the tyranny of Nero? Did not it serve to harden faith? The Uganda Rifles came, killing, scattering the believing flock, pillaging, and went. Yet the surviving flock instantly re-assembled, in quiet determination. Isaya ordered no retaliation.

IP and © 2003 Tom Stacey