Wednesday, October 31, 2012


Afro-Turks, African Turks, or Turkish Africans are people of African descent in Turkey. "Afro-Turk" is a neologism; they have been colloquially named as Arap (Arab) in Turkish, and are now also referred to as Afrika kökenli Türkler (Turks with African roots).
              Afro-Turks dancing their traditional African dance



Beginning several centuries ago, a number of Africans, usually via Zanzibar and from places like Niger, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kenya and Sudan. were brought to the Ottoman Empire by the Arab slave trade to plantations around Dalaman, Menderes and Gediz valleys, Manavgat, and Çukurova. Poor Black quarters of 19th century İzmir like Sabırtaşı, Dolapkuyu, Tamaşalık, İkiçeşmelik, and Ballıkuyu have mention in contemporary records. Some came from Crete following the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. They settled on the Aegean coast, mainly around İzmir. Afro-Turks in Ayvalık declare that their ancestors from Crete spoke Greek when they came to Turkey and learned Turkish later. 
   (Tuğçe Güder is a Afro-Turkish model who was chosen as the Best Model of Turkey, an international annual competition, in 2005 and represented Turkey at the Best Model of the World modelling pageant. Tuğçe was adopted as a baby by Turkish parents. She married restaurant owner Uğur Karas in 2008. Among the many charitable works, she is involved in raising awareness for helping neglected children.)

According to a German report published in 1860, "the black slaves, at that time, were recruited mainly by raiding and kidnapping from Sennaar, Kordofan, Darfur, Nubia, and other places in inner Africa; the white mostly through voluntary sale on the part of their relatives in the independent lands of the Caucasus (Lesghi, Daghestani, and Georgian women, rarely men). Those offered for sale were already previously of servile status or were slave children by birth."  Black slaves seem to have cost from two to three hundred dirhams; black eunuchs, at least two or three times as much. Female black slaves were sold at five hundred dirhams or so; trained singing girls or other performers, at ten or even twenty thousand."
                                                  Afro-Turkish old  woman with a photograph
Liberated black slaves were sometimes recruited into the armed forces, often as a means to prevent their re-enslavement. Some of these reached officer rank. A British naval report, dated January 25,1858, speaks of black marines serving with the Turkish navy:

"They are from the class of freed slaves or slaves abandoned by merchants unable to sell them. There are always many such at Tripoli. I believe the government acquainted the Porte with the embarrassment caused by their numbers and irregularities, and this mode of relief was adopted. Those brought by the Faizi Bari, about 70 in number, were on their arrival enrolled as a Black company in the marine corps. They are in exactly the same position with respect to pay, quarters, rations, and clothing as the Turkish marines, and will equally receive their discharge at the expiration of the allotted term of service. They are in short on the books of the navy. They have received very kind treatment here, lodged in warm rooms with charcoal burning in them day and night. A negro Mulazim [lieutenant] and some negro tchiaoushes [sergeants], already in the service have been appointed to look after and instruct them. They have drilled in the manual exercise in their warm quarters, and have not been set to do any duty on account of the weather. They should not have been sent here in winter. Those among them unwell on their arrival were sent at once to the naval hospital. Two only have died of the whole number. The men in the barracks are healthy and appear contented. No amount of ingenuity can conjure up any connection between their condition and the condition of slavery."

 Afro-Turk Mustafa Yıldız known as "Arap Mustafa", a famous wrestler

African eunuchs were noted in the Byzantine Empire and their roles continued under the Ottomans. The White European eunuchs were first in charge of the harem and the religious foundations, the vaqfs, and the Sultan himself. The Black African eunuchs had been planning to usurp the powers of the White eunuchs but had to wait until the death of the powerful Chief White Eunuch, Gazanfer Aga (d. 1587). Beginning in the late 1570s, the Black eunuchs made their move, taking over the power and roles of their European counterparts. Chief Black Eunuch Mehmed Aga (c. 1587-1590) consolidated the position to the extent that those African eunuch slaves following him in office became the third most powerful men in the Ottoman Empire after the Sultan and the Viziers.

( Afro-Turk Ahmet Ali Çelikten also known as Arap Ahmet Ali or İzmirli Ahmet Ali(born Izmirli Ali oghlu Ahmed, 1883 – 1969) may have been the first black military pilot in aviation history and the only black pilot in World War I along with Eugene Jacques Bullard. His grandmother came from Bornu (now in Nigeria) as a slave.
Ahmet born in 1883 in Smyrna (present day İzmir) his mother Zenciye Emine Hanım and to his father Ali Bey. He aimed to become a naval sailor and entered the Naval Technical School named Haddehâne Mektebi (literally School of Blooming Mill) in 1904. In 1908, he graduated from school as a First Lieutenant (Mülâzım-ı evvel). And then he went to aviation courses in the Naval Flight School (Deniz Tayyare Mektebi) that was formed on June 25, 1914 at Yeşilköy.
During the World War I, he married Hatice Hanım (1897–1991) who was an immigrant from Preveza. He became first black military pilot in aviation history when he started serving in November, 1916. On December 18, 1917, Captain (Yüzbaşı) Ahmed Ali was sent to Berlin to complete aviation courses.)

From 1587 until the end of the Empire, over 70 Africans advanced to the status of Chief Black Eunuch. Because he and the other 200 to 400 other Black eunuchs were the closest physically to the sultan and his family, and because they supervised the education of the Sultan’s sons as well as handling the Sultan’s and family’s personal treasury, the eunuchs exerted a lot of influence over the Empire. On a couple of occasions, they were involved in running the Empire. The amount of money the Chief Black Eunuchs controlled would run into the tens of millions of dollars today.
               Afro-Turkish Jazz maestro Melis Sokmen  chatting with the other Afro-Turks

During the 1800s the city of Athens was under the direct control and supervision of the Chief Black Eunuch. They were also responsible for the eunuchs working at the mosques at Mecca and Medina. Further, they were responsible for relics of the Prophet kept in the Topkapi Palace. Some built mosques in Istanbul and elsewhere and also, provided funds to convert churches into mosques. They also built fountains, many of them still in use today.

After the creation of the Republic of Turkey, several of the last of the Black eunuchs purchased houses together around the city. Many people can still remember them in the coffee houses of Pera in the 1970s. The Ottoman Army also sent an estimated 30,000 Black African troops and cavalrymen to its expedition in Hungary during the Austro-Turkish War of 1716–18. Afro-Turks living in İzmir had celebrated the traditional spring festival Dana Bayramı ("Calf Festival") until the 1960s. Dana Bayramı is currently revived among the younger generation of Afro-Turks.
                               Black Bashi Bazouk (soldier in Ottoman Empire), by Gérôme (1869)

Areas with significant populations are in the Aegean Region, especially İzmir, Aydın, and Muğla. At the time of Barack Obama's inauguration, a group of Afro-Turks from the districts Ortaca, Dalaman, and Köyceğiz gathered in Ortaca for celebration. 
                                  Afro-Turk Girl
There are also people of African ancestry living in some villages and municipalities of Antalya and Adana provinces. Some of the descendants of African settlers remain, mixed with the rest of the population in these areas, and many migrated to larger cities. These factors make it difficult to guess the number of Turks of African ancestry.

Fate of the Afro-Turks: Nothing left but colour


The Afro-Turks, whose ancestors came to the Ottoman Empire as slaves in the nineteenth century, are still struggling for recognition. Now, though, their desire to assimilate into the wider society has become greater than their desire to maintain their own identity. By Ekrem Eddy Güzeldere

The Association of Afro-Turks was founded in 2006 by Mustafa Olpak in Ayvalik, in the North Aegean region. His family came to Turkey from Crete in 1924 as part of an exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. Because they were Muslims, they were categorised as Turks. Olpak himself suffered bullying at school and dropped out for a year as a result, but he finished his education in the end.

He had been married to a "white" Turk for 25 years when her family suddenly announced, "The Arab isn't going to get any of the inheritance." Black people are often called Arabs in Turkish. Olpak divorced his wife. It wasn't the only racist comment or example of discrimination which he'd experienced in his life.

  Photo of Afro-Turkish Ahmet Polat: Melik's father is wrapping the virginity belt on his daughters waist.

Alev Karakartal, is an Afro-Turk woman who now lives in Istanbul. Speaking at a conference there in early June 2012, she described the strategy with which many Afro-Turks confront discrimination. "By entering into mixed marriages," she said, "Afro-Turks try to have lighter-skinned children, so that eventually their colour will disappear altogether." But Olpak responds, "We have nothing else left aside from the colour. There's nothing left culturally any more."

When Karakartal, who is herself of mixed descent, asked her parents about her origins, the answer was always, "We are Turks and Muslims," and that roots weren't important.


"Our ancestors didn't come voluntarily to Anatolia," she notes. "They were sold as slaves, exploited, abused and excluded." But it's not just the families themselves who remain silent. Olpak points out. "Nobody speaks about us, otherwise, if they were to tell our story, they would find themselves in conflict with the official version of history. One would have to speak about slavery."  Read full story at Quantara 

Video of the Sixth Festival of the Calf in the Turkish city of Bayindir in 2012, with a special performance of a Congo and Sierra Leonean music group. The festival is the traditional celebration of the Afro-Turks.(

                     Tugce Guder Afro-Turkish model

Turkish descendants of African slaves begin to discover their identity

In 1961, Ertekin Azerturk, a Turkish businessman from Istanbul, placed a long-distance call. The voice of the switchboard operator who answered - a woman's voice, sweet and crisp, like a singer's - must have made his head spin. Must have, because from that day on, Azerturk insisted on speaking to the same operator each time he picked up the phone. During one call he found the gumption to ask his mystery girl out on a date. Her reply was as surprising to him as his request was to her. "No way," Tomris, the operator, told Azerturk. "You won't like me," she explained, "because I'm dark."

But Azerturk didn't back down and Tomris eventually gave in. When they met, he was dumbstruck. He had understood Tomris was dark, but had never figured she would be black. (He had never previously met or even heard of a Turk who was.) Tomris was, like her voice, striking, and Azerturk was smitten. Over the Azerturk family's objections, the pair married.

Azerturk and Tomris didn't live long enough to see their children grow up, says Muge, the couple's daughter, retelling the story half a century later.
Orphaned, Muge and her brother went to live with Azerturk's white parents in Istanbul. Theirs wasn't an easy childhood. "They wouldn't allow us to play in the street," Muge, now 49, says of her grandparents. "Because we were dark-skinned, they were afraid we'd have problems with the other kids."
As a child, Muge could not fully grasp why her skin was the colour it was - or why it should matter. She finally learnt, and understood, the truth in her teens. She and her brother were descendants, three generations removed, of black slaves.
                            Afro-Turkish jazz superstar Melis Sökmen

According to Hakan Erdem, a Turkish historian, for the better part of the 19th century an average of 10,000 black slaves arrived in the Ottoman Empire every year, including 1,000 in what is now Turkey. Most were used as domestic workers, cooks or nannies, and although some worked on farms very few - if any - were forced into American-style gang labour.
Slavery did not disappear from Ottoman lands overnight. While an 1857 decree, issued by Sultan Abdulmecid I under pressure from the European powers, abolished the slave trade, it did not delegalise slavery as such. As a result some households, particularly in Istanbul and near the Aegean coast, were to retain black slaves until as late as the early 1900s.
The exact number of their descendants - sometimes called Afro-Turks - is anyone's guess. Erdem floats a figure of 10,000-20,000 but admits that the real number might be much higher. While emancipated slaves in villages near the Aegean and Mediterranean coast usually married within the community, he explains, their counterparts in cities like Istanbul often did not. Several generations and many mixed marriages down the line, many Turks descended from black slaves may not even realise they have African blood in their veins. This is known to have produced a few surprises. "Sometimes, all of a sudden, you have a black baby born into a Turkish family," says Erdem. "And only after intense questioning of the elders do they remember that a grandmother could have been black."
It goes to show, says Erdem, that dark-skinned Afro-Turks might be just "the tip of the iceberg". A few years ago Erdem made the same point during a conference on the subject - and immediately caught flak from a few Turkish nationalists in the audience. "And then this guy gets up," he recalls, "with curly blond hair and blue eyes and points to a [nearby] photograph of a black man, pitch-black, and says: 'That's my uncle.' I thought: 'Well, I rest my case.'
               Afro-Turk women at a village near Izmir. Piotr Zalewski for The National

For decades, Turkey's leaders, from the Young Turks to Ataturk to the early inheritors of his Republic, endeavoured to shape a homogeneous nation out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. The country's Armenian and Greek populations, though assigned minority status, were almost entirely driven out. Groups like the Laz, the Assyrians, the Kurds, and the Circassians were subjected to assimilation measures, the government going so far as to ban their languages or, as with the Kurds, deny their existence outright. Loyal citizens of the Republic - and too few to matter - Afro-Turks could hardly pose a challenge to Turkish identity. Even if they adopted all the vestiges of local culture, however, their skin colour doomed them to being different, with all the consequences this entailed. (According to a story related to me by Erdem, a black civil servant from Izmir was once handed his marching orders after Ataturk, in town for a visit, complained that "he was not what he expected from a Turk".)
            Afro-Turkish rapper Ceza standin whiles her mum sits.

In a country that was almost entirely white, matching the Turkish founding fathers' image of a model citizen was often as difficult as it was traumatic. Fitting in, for some, meant having to forget. When she was little, Alev Karakartal remembers, she would look around her family table and think, "My dad is black, my auntie's black, I'm black. Why are we different?" Knowing it would annoy her father, she rarely asked out loud. "Whenever I'd do so, he'd say, 'Forget it, we're Turkish, we're Muslim, there's nothing to talk about.'" Karakartal, now in her mid-40s, eventually found the answers to her questions, but had to do so entirely on her own. "We didn't have any photos, any souvenirs, any information," she says. "My father destroyed them all."
Whatever discrimination Afro-Turks faced wasn't a matter of state policy, however. The terms of republican Turkey's sacred covenant were clear - identify as a Turk, and you will be accepted as one. Flawed as the formula would turn out to be, it delivered some notable results, leaving no room for laws like "separate but equal." Many black Turks fought in the Turkish war of independence against Greece. In 1927, 20 years before Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Vahap Özaltay became the first black man to play for Turkey's national football team. A black Turk, Esmeray, was one of the country's most popular singers in the 1970s.
Whether they were forcefully assimilated (as Karakartal insists) or successfully integrated (as others say) into Turkish society, today next to nothing, aside from skin colour, remains of the black Turks' African past. None of the Afro-Turks I interviewed knew their ancestors' language. Most did not even know where their ancestors had come from, or how.
Lately, however, with Turkey slowly reconciling itself to its diversity and its past, and with other ethnic groups claiming a more visible place in society, some Afro-Turks have begun to reclaim part of their heritage. Many have drawn inspiration from Mustafa Olpak, a grandson of Kenyan slaves, who in 2005 published a memoir detailing his family's journey from the Horn of Africa to Turkey, via Crete.
Three years ago, Olpak, 58, tried to present a copy of his book to Barack Obama in Turkey. He made it to the airport in Istanbul by the time Air Force One touched down, he says, but never caught so much as a glimpse of the president. He is still counting on a few minutes of Obama's time, he says, "whenever the occasion presents itself."
Olpak will always remember spring 2007 as the Afro-Turks' coming out party. It was then that he and a handful of associates revived the Feast of the Calf, a holiday celebrated by black slaves in Ottoman times and subsequently banned by the Turkish authorities.

Slavery in the Ottoman Empire has been little researched although slavery extended over a long period – from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century – and affected hundreds of thousands of people. Pictured: Afro-Turks at the Sixth Festival of the Calf in Cirpi

"We were three buses full of black people going to Ayvalik, where the celebrations were taking place," Olpak recalls, chuckling. "We were passing a police checkpoint. The first bus passed and the police did a double take. The second bus passed and they did another double take. When the third started to pass, they stopped all of us. They thought we were refugees," he says. "They checked all our IDs, but they couldn't find even a single foreigner. All of us were Turks, all of us with names like Ayse, Fatma, Abdurrahman."
Earlier this year I travelled to Cirpi, a small village 30 miles south-east of Izmir, to attend Dana Bayrami, as the Feast of the Calf is known in Turkish. In Ottoman times, the holiday would have lasted several weeks and, true to its name, involved the sacrifice of a cow. The Feast's modern, blood-free edition, I was told, would feature a panel discussion and a concert. But Olpak, whom I met in the village's leafy central square - he was wearing a checked shirt, a wispy moustache, and the expression of a man who'd rather melt into a crowd than be picked out of one - had a surprise in store. In previous years, he told me, the festivities had featured a mix of local Turkish and Roma musicians. This time around, he had invited a group of Nigerian, Congolese and Sierra Leonean artists from Istanbul. It was to be the first Dana Bayrami to feature live African music. Hundreds of people from neighbouring villages turned up to watch.
  Afro-Turkish Kuzgun Acar, sculptor

The outcome was a dance riot. While some of the more risqué parts of the African dance show elicited giggles and gasps, the performance as a whole went down a storm. Less than halfway into the show, the local villagers, most of whom had never previously heard African music, much less witnessed a black man wearing face paint, a dress and a feather-topped skullcap perform an elaborate tribal dance, flooded the stage. A few black Turkish women, one of them clad in a turquoise kaba and gele, joined in a conga line; a pair of local teenagers challenged the Africans to a dance-off; and a group of bubbly Roma girls began to bump and grind with Koko, the Congolese lead performer.
Mumin and Mumune Arapi, brother and sister (he 72, she 74), had arrived here from Haskoy, a nearby village. This was their first-ever Dana Bayrami, they told me. "It's very nice to see so many people of our colour in one place," Mumin said, taking in the scene. "It's like a family feeling." Mumin pointed to a group of Nigerian exchange students who had come from Izmir to attend the festivities. "They remind me of my father," he said. His father, he explained, had grown up a slave to a Muslim family in Thrace, in Ottoman-controlled Greece. He escaped (exactly when is not clear), married a white Turkish woman and, in 1941, crossed into Turkey, bringing along his wife and two small children. "My father always wanted his kids to know who they were and where they came from," said Mumin. "He told me, 'If anyone asks, tell them my story.'"
Mumin and Mumune seldom experienced any problems on account of race, they said. It echoed what I had heard from others. In villages where Afro-Turks have lived side-by-side with ethnic Turkish families for generations, reports of prejudice are remarkably rare. Few Turkish villagers seem to question that their black neighbours are anything other than what they claim to be - fellow Turks.
For their part, most black villagers - even if they take it for granted - don't see their African heritage as a significant part of their identity. "Afro-Turk, Mafro-Turk," a young girl from Haskoy told me, poking fun at a label that, as she rightly observed, only came into being during the last decade. "We're Turkish, and that's that."
A video about Afro-Turks

In the cities, however, and in inland Anatolia, where few people have ever come into contact with people of a different race, ignorance and prejudice are sometimes very pronounced. It isn't so much the exaggerated interest they arouse, ranging from benign curiosity to finger-pointing and name-calling, that bothers urban Afro-Turks. It's the incredulity that a black man or woman could be Turkish.
"I'm fed up having to explain where I come from," Kivanc Dogu, a 24-year-old from Istanbul, told me as we sat on a pair of plastic chairs on the edge of Cirpi's village square. Because he was so often taken for a foreigner, Dogu said, he felt "neither Turkish nor Afro-Turk," even if he welled up whenever he heard the Turkish national anthem.
Dogu, who works as a fashion model, has probably come as close as anyone to testing the boundaries of what it means to be - or at least to look - Turkish. Those boundaries may have become more flexible, Dogu said, but they are far from gone. "If I go to 10 job interviews, three times they'll take me, and seven times they won't," he said. "People say they would hire me, if not for my skin colour. Because I don't fit the image of an average Turk."
A video of Afro-Turkish Jazz singer Melis Sökmen where she refers to her African heritage

As dusk began to fall on the square, Kivanc was joined by a friend of his, Kerem. Among dozens of black men in woollen flat caps, black women in headscarves and baggy shalvars, Kerem decidedly - and, it seemed, deliberately - stood out, wearing dark sunglasses, a silver chain, and a black T-shirt emblazoned with images of American rappers from Lil Wayne to Chuck D. (The right sleeve had been pulled all the way up to reveal a Tupac tattoo.) "I'm not Turkish," Kerem told me, "because people don't see me as Turkish." He had never felt like he belonged, he said. "Even when I was born, the doctor told my mother I was a zenci, or n****r." Still, he insisted, "there is no racism in Turkey, only ignorance".
Dogu, I saw, was nodding in agreement. When he was little, he said, other kids would sometimes call him names. But, he said, "they didn't know any better." When a group of foreigners called him a "n****r", as once happened to him in Izmir, that was something else. "They actually knew what it meant."
                              Afro-Turkish İbrahim Şirinclassical Ottoman musician

Later that night, I caught up with Hayri Esenerli, a Turk whom I had met a day earlier, and a few others at a cafe in Bayindir, a short drive from Cirpi. "I had never heard of black Turks until I went to college," Esenerli, who is white, confessed when I brought up Kerem's remarks. "I saw black people speaking Turkish in Izmir, but I thought they were Turks who'd been working too much in the sun," he said. "I didn't make the connection."
It was fitting, perhaps, that the girl Esenerli would fall in love with and later marry, should turn out to be Muge, the phone operator's daughter. They met in college. "I never thought she could be of black origin until she told me," Esenerli said of Muge, who has dark, slightly greying hair, brown skin and caramel eyes. The news came as a shock to Esenerli - as did the realisation that Muge was descended from slaves. "I cried the first time she first told me about slavery," he said.
                                      Tugce Guder, Afro-Turkish supermodel

Esenerli also got all choked up earlier that day, he said, when he saw Stephan, one of the African performers, sing and dance at Dana Bayrami. "When the other Afro-Turk women began to dance with him," he said, "I felt so sorry that their culture, their heritage had been destroyed."
"We are a small community," said Alev Karakartal, who had been sitting beside him, obscured by clouds of cigarette smoke. "We don't want anything from the state: no territory, no special treatment." But, she said, "we want recognition of who we are, and where we came from".
Piotr Zalewski is a freelance writer based in Istanbul.

  Tugce Guder

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Princess Elizabeth Christobel Edith Bagaaya Akiiki of Toro is the Batebe or princess of the Kingdom of Toro. She is a Ugandan lawyer, politician, diplomat, model and actress. She was the first female East African to be admitted to the English Bar. She is a paternal aunt of the current King of Toro, Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV. She briefly (February 1974 - November 1974) served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under Idi Amin.
Princess Elizabeth of Toro

The first Africans began to break into fashion in the USA in the late 1960s, on the back of the gains made by the civil rights movement, which had simultaneously ushered in the first famous African American supermodels, Donyale Luna and Naomi Sims. While the African American beauties were essentially working class girls made good, by contrast the first Africans were the well-to-do daughters of kings and diplomats, who were educated and well travelled. Yahne Sangare was a Liberian diplomat’s daughter, who combined modelling with a post as a news correspondent for the United Nations. She had studied at the Sorbonne in France, and attended finishing school in Switzerland.

                                Young princess Elizabeth Bagaya
Princess Elizabeth Christobel Edith Bagaaya is a living fairy tale princess. She was was born in 1936 to His Royal Highness Lieutenant Sir George David Matthew Kamurasi Rukidi III, the eleventh (11th) Omukama of Toro kingdom in Uganda, who reigned between 1928 and 1965. Her mother was Lady Kezia Byanjeru Abwooli, a daughter of Nikodemo Kakoro (a senior chief of the king). Her title from birth was Omubiitokati or Princess. Elizabeth of Toro was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. Born into the Toro Royal family at the height of its glory, she was raised in the typical, privileged fashion and style that we associate with fairy tale princesses.
                                  Young. Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro with her mother Lady
                                  Kezia Rukidi Abwooli 

Within and outside the kingdom, Princess Elizabeth's mesmerizing beauty was equaled only by her warmth of heart, and counterbalanced by her academic prowess. She excelled in her studies, which she started in Gayaza High School, a prestigious girls' boarding school in Buganda, continued at Sherborne School for Girls, a boarding school in England, where she was the only black student. "“A Princess of Toro is groomed, trained from childhood to be well educated, cultured and prepared for her ancestral regal role as the official sister (Batebe) of the future King”. The princess of  Toro,"

                                 Elizabeth of Toro in her youth

“So I stoically denied myself any sexual activity or emotional involvement with any man, leaving Cambridge a virgin...” ~Princess Elizabeth of Toro.

                 Princess Elizabeth of Toro in Vogue, 1967.

She wrote in her autobiography that "I felt that I was on trial and that my failure to excel would reflect badly on the entire black race."  After one year (1959), she was accepted to the prestigious Cambridge University. She earned her place in history as being the third African woman to graduate from Cambridge in 1962 with a law degree. Amongst her tutors were E.M. Forster and F.R. Leavis, and her classmates included Germaine Greer and David Frost.

When not studying hard, Ms Bagaaya, not unlike the typical undergraduate, was partying hard because, she says, she was “in great demand”. Amongst the many smitten by our princess was Prince William of Gloucester, nephew of King George VI, who roamed about in a private jet. Like most royals, Ms Bagaaya serves up some cockiness. Before the prince, she dated a “tall, handsome, wealthy, sophisticated, and amusing Scot” who “entertained lavishly the rich and the beautiful. I was not rich.” 
                                      Princess Elizabeth of Toro

Hallelujah to that. But even as Ms Bagaaya went from party to party adorned in the “model gowns of the great houses of Paris”, she was conflicted about going all the way. She chose not to in order to protect her image and what it represented: the best of her not-permissive culture in which a public role awaited. “So I stoically denied myself any sexual activity or emotional involvement with any man, leaving Cambridge a virgin...” she writes. 

 Three years later, in 1965, Elizabeth Bagaaya became a Barrister-at-Law, becoming the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar.
George Rukidi, the Omukama of the Toro Kingdom of Uganda, photographed with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, after he had been created a Knights Bachelor by H.M. Queen Eliizabeth II at the Investiture 

A pupilage followed in the chambers of Sir Dingle Foot – the UK solicitor-general and the man who would successfully represent Abu Mayanja, another Cambridge-trained lawyer, in Kampala in the famous sedition case of 1969. To celebrate her achievement, the princess hosted a gala party in London on December 20, 1965 “dressed in a pink silk Guy Larouche gown that contrasted with my dark skin and eyes...” In the morning, news came of her father’s death.
                              Fashion Model Princess Elizabeth of Toro February 1974.

Following the death of her father,King George Rukidi III and the accession to the Toro throne by her brother, Patrick David Matthew Koboyo Olimi III, the twelfth (12th) Omukama of Toro, who reigned from 1965 until 1995 King George Rukidi III, princess Elizabeth assumed her traditional role as Batebe (Princess Royal), which traditionally, made her the most powerful woman in Toro, and the most trusted adviser to her brother, King Patrick Olimi VII. Unfortunately, this was the beginning of the end of the glory days, a signal for tough times ahead.
                                           Elizabeth of Toro

The mid sixties were characterized by political upheaval in Uganda, and one of the victims were the kingdoms. King Fredrick Mutesa II of Buganda, another of Uganda's traditional kingdoms, was now the President, with his Prime Minister, Milton Obote. Barely one year after the coronation of the Omukama Olimi III, Obote attacked the Buganda Palace, sending Sir Edward Muteesa II in exile, and declared himself president. Soon he "abolished" all Ugandan traditional kingdoms including Toro. Elizabeth was afraid for her brother's life, but he escaped to London.

Elizabeth poses for fashion editorial

Elizabeth later completed an internship at a law firm, and became Uganda's first female lawyer. Elizabeth was a virtual prisoner in her own country, until in 1967 she was introduced to modelling by her friend Princess Margaret, who invited her to appear as a guest model at a Commonwealth runway show in London.

                   Elizabeth Princess of Toro, Charly Stember by Penn

                        “I will not do a nude. 

A princess is a princess." ~ Princess Toro of Uganda
 She was a big hit, and decided to ditch law for modelling. Her connections proved vital once more, as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom she’d met at a party, introduced her to the New York fashion scene, where her royal status catapulted her into the mainstream fashion titles. Her accidental hairstyle became the rage in black America as “the Elizabeth of Toro hairstyle.”  The June 1969 edition of Vogue featured her in a four-page spread, and in November of the same year she made history in becoming the first black model to be photographed for the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
                           First black model to be on the cover of Happer's Bazaar

 Alas, this historic first cover was marred by the fact that Nyabongo had her face obscured by the magazine title’s logo. Nevertheless, she was inundated with offers of work, shooting with major fashion photographers Bill King and Irving Penn. She was even offered a large sum to pose nude, but she considered this a step too far for a woman of her position. 

                                                           ELIZABETH OF TORO

                                               Elizabeth of Toro

“I embarked on a new career as an actress where I was asked by an American firm to play a role in a film titled “Bullfrog in the Sun”, which  was based on Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and “No Longer at Ease.” (a film based on igboland , a region of eastern Nigeria, meant to expose the impact of Western civilization on Africa)

She also starred in several motion pictures, including "Sheena" and Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease" in which she acted the leading female role. 'I was also featured in the film “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” and “Sheena”.While recently in Nigeria, I watched some Nollywood  films and I was quite impressed with the story lines and good acting.'

                      Elizabeth of Toro

In the end, Nyabongo had bigger ambitions than modelling, and so her career was short. She returned to Uganda in 1971, taking up a career in politics.
             Elizabeth of Toro as Shaman in Sheena movie

Following the military coup of 1971, Princess Elizabeth was extended a special invitation to return and serve as Uganda's roving ambassador, in the government of Idi Amin. Later, she was appointed Uganda's ambassador to the United Nations. Her stint at the U.N. was short lived as she fell out of Amin's grace. What followed is a heart rending, sad story of humiliation and real danger to the princess and those close to her. She barely escaped with her life and went into exile in neighboring Kenya.
     Elizabeth of Toro,1974, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA --- United Nations: Former New York model Princess Elizabeth Bagaya, Foreign Minister of Uganda.

Princess Elizabeth returned to Uganda following the overthrow of Idi Amin's regime. The return of Milton Obote to Uganda, and his eventual assumption of power as president started yet another reign of terror in the newly liberated nation. The political and security situation proved too hostile for Princess Elizabeth and her lover, Prince Wilberforce Nyabongo, son of Prince Leo Sharp Ochaki, escaped to London in 1980, and married secretly in 1981. Our princess was happy. “I brushed his hair daily, washed his feet with warm water, and massaged his body,” she writes. When he said he would give anything to fly, the princess summoned her vast network of highly connected friends and had him learning to fly in no time. When Ms Bagaaya was being considered for a role in the film Sheena and Wilbur said he wanted the pilot’s bit, she made sure. And together they would rally support for the NRM in Africa and Europe.
               Elizabeth at the hotel Plaza in NY

In 1986 Elizabeth was appointed ambassador to the United States, a job she held until 1988. Later that year Nyabongo, an aviation engineer/co-pilot, was killed in a plane crash in Casablanca at age 32 years. Following the death of her husband, Elizabeth opted to leave public service and get involved in charity work
              Elizabeth Toro,1974 --- Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger chats with attractive Elizabeth Bagaaya, Foreign Minister of Uganda, during a luncheon hosted by Kissinger at the U.S.

The restoration of cultural leaders by President Museveni's government in 1993 beckoned Princess Bagaya to return and serve her people as Princess Royale to her brother, King Patrick Kaboyo Olimi VII. She was one of the key players in restarting the kingdom as most of the elders who knew all the rituals and protocol were dead or scattered all over the world. Upon the untimely death of King Olimi VII, she was named as one of the guardians to her nephew, the  three-and-one half years old infant king, His Royal Highness Omukama Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV. 
                                        Elizabeth of Toro

She is, today, one of the key players in the kingdom reconstruction activities of The Batebe of Toro Foundation, to which she devotes most of her time. Following a period of service as Uganda's Ambassador to Germany and the Vatican, Princess Elizabeth accepted an appointment as Uganda's High Commissioner to Nigeria, based in Abuja, that country's capital.
                                Portrait of Elizabeth of Toro in her full regalia

The story of Princess Elizabeth of Toro relates the highs and lows in the life of a living legend, a fairy tale princess. You may read it for yourself in her autobiography "Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess", published by Simon and Shuster.

The Princess Who Stole The Heart Of The West

Meet the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar, who went on to become the first black model to grace the front cover of the American VogueMagazine in 1968, and before then Harper's Bazaar magazine. She later became the foreign minister of Uganda in the 1970s, and addressed the UN General Assembly in 1974 as chairman of the OAU group. She is none other than Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro, now 75, a woman who turned heads in her heyday. Curtis Abraham went to meet her.

                                    Elizabeth Princess of Toro by Penati
In late 1974, Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro, as Uganda’s minister for foreign affairs, led a colourful delegation to the 29th session of the United Nations General Assembly. The occasion was to be one of her finest hours as a diplomat and a pan-Africanist.
Bagaya and her delegation travelled to New York aboard Idi Amin’s presidential jet, which had been a gift to the Ugandan president from the Israelis. In New York, the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, gave a luncheon for all the African foreign ministers who were attending the UN session. Bagaya, as the elected chairman of the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) group, thanked Kissinger for his hospitality and for his peace building 
efforts in the Middle East and Indo-China, and then emphasised Africa’s agenda to Kissinger.
She explained to him and the other dignitaries that a radical new economic order, which would encompass fair trade among other issues, was needed if Africa was to achieve economic independence and poverty alleviation. Turning to South Africa, Bagaya told the gathering that “apartheid was a policy that was completely contrary to any civilised and humanitarian principles, and continued to make a mockery of African dignity and independence. So long as colonialism and imperialism continued, the world would continue to have human rights problems.”

Sheena queen of Jungle Movie

he concluded her speech by asking “Kissinger to support the African liberation movements, and to visit Africa instead of depending on distorted reports about the African people and their societies”. A photograph of Bagaya at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly shows her wearing a stylishly long, narrow dress of gold Chinese brocade, a gift from the Chinese government, and her hair plaited into a crown.
The photograph also depicts a very beautiful African woman whose posture communicated a certain defiance of the Malcolm X variety; a defiance in line with the “black power” ideology. Her speech was critical of the West in every facet.
She pointed out the hypocrisy and vindictiveness of Britain and Israel – both countries undoubtedly helped Amin in the overthrow of former President Milton Obote – in blackening Uganda’s image abroad. Both countries, Bagaya pointed out, had convinced the IMF and the World Bank to stop financial relations with Uganda.

                                   Elizabeth of Toro and a friend

When I first met the now 75-year-old Princess in early 2011, international politics was not on her mind – but culture. What is the role of traditional African culture in today’s society? Bagaya was pondering when we held an impromptu meeting in the colonial-esque lobby of the aptly named Grand Imperial Hotel in Kampala, the Ugandan capital.
BaToro culture has always been a source of strength and pride for Princess Bagaya – who holds the title of Batebe or “Princess Royal”, which traditionally makes her the most powerful woman in Toro (one of Uganda’s five kingdoms), and the most trusted adviser of the Omukama or BaToro King.
As a princess of the Toro Kingdom, duty to the monarchy was uncompromising and simply non-negotiable. This held true even during her brief career as an international fashion model and actress. During the late 1960s, the renowned Ford Modelling Agency in New York asked her to pose nude for a substantial sum of money. Bagaya staunchly refused.

            Elizabeth of toro, when she was Ugandan Ambassador to UN

Are you a model or are you not,” a Ford Agency representative quizzed her over the telephone.“Yes, I am a model. But one day I will go back home,” Bagaya replied.
Growing up in the Toro Kingdom during the 1940s and 50s, Princess Bagaya had no illusions about the devastating impact the British colonial administration had on the monarchy and on its traditional cultural practices and beliefs.
“When Christian missionaries later banned the institution of blood brotherhood as cannibalistic and barbaric, they sliced through the moral fibre of our society,” Bagaya wrote in her 1988 autobiography “Elizabeth of Toro: The Odyssey of an African Princess”. “In pre-colonial times, betrayal of one’s country, clan, tribe, or neighbourhood was anathema. In the aftermath, betrayal became rampant.”

                            Elizabeth of Toro dances for the King

In spite of the near-cultural genocide in Toro by the British, Bagaya held no such bitterness when it came to individuals from the British Isles. During the early years there were a number of English expatriates who would have a profound influence during her formative years.
After finishing elementary school, she was sent to Gayaza High School, a prestigious female boarding school in Buganda, central Uganda. At school she was good at basketball mainly because of her height. She also excelled at singing and acting – she played Julius Caesar. She later attended Sherborne School for Girls in England where she was the only black student.
Bagaya was later admitted to Cambridge University (Girton College) as only the third African woman to go there – Olu Abisogom of Nigeria and Lulu Coker from Sierra Leone were the other two pioneers.
At Cambridge, she studied law, politics and history. She had a tight circle of notable friends there: Broadcast journalist Sir David Frost; Australian author, journalist and feminist Germaine Greer; Leon Brittan, home secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government.

     Elizabeth of Toro was United Nations ambassador from 1986 to 1988

This was the time of African independence, and London was a beehive of diplomatic activity. Bagaya met some of the architects of Africa’s liberation struggles. Always the socialite, Bagaya gave a cocktail party and dinner in honour of the visiting Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya of Kenya.
Years later, during Bagaya’s brief imprisonment and later detention by Idi Amin, Jomo Kenyatta would come to her aid by personally telephoning Amin and telling him that no harm should come to someone whom he considered his daughter, and reminded the Ugandan president that one of Bagaya’s most successful missions as her country’s roving ambassador was to Kenya.
At the end of the conversation, Kenyatta threatened to break off diplomatic relations with Uganda if Bagaya was harmed in any way.

                                               Beautiful Elizabeth as Sheena

Princess Bagaya graduated from Cambridge University in 1962 and in November 1965, she became a barrister-at-law, becoming the first woman from East Africa to be admitted to the English Bar. However, due to the untimely death of her father and the ascension to the throne of her brother, Rukirabasaija Patrick David Matthew Koboyo Olimi III, the 12th Omukama of Toro, Princess Bagaya returned home and joined Kazzora and Co, a law firm in Kampala where she completed a six-month internship before she was called to the Ugandan bar.
“I became the first African woman to do so, and to mark the occasion the then attorney general, Godfrey Binaisa, who later briefly became president, came to court unexpectedly and introduced me himself to the bar,” says Bagaya.
This was 1966 and the then Ugandan president, Milton Obote, had violently (at least in the case of the Kabaka or king of Buganda) abolished Uganda’s traditional monarchies. An unfair twist of fate as her brother Patrick had just assumed the Toro throne following the death of their father – Lieutenant Sir George David Matthew Kamurasi Rukidi III, the 11th Omukama of Toro.

                                                 Elizabeth the model

Bagaya’s own life was in serious jeopardy. So it was fortuitous that a personal invitation came from HRH Princess Margaret and her husband Lord Snowdon to participate in a widely publicised Commonwealth fashion show at Marlborough House in London. Princess Bagaya walked out on the stage with an outfit from a Uganda collection designed by Philippa Todd, a prominent member of the Makerere University’s Art Department. 
“Princess Margaret looked pleased and led the applause as I strode on the stage, feeling proud and animated by the spirits of my ancestors.”
Bagaya was a fashion hit.
“A major consideration in making this decision was which career would be the most effective way of symbolising, projecting, and preserving the torch of my black culture,” says Bagaya. “Modelling was considered a rather frivolous thing to do, and I had a hard time convincing my friends and advisers that it would help me achieve my goals. Modelling was a means to an end for me, enabling me to make an important point regarding my beloved country. Beauty is not one’s own but rather a reflection of one’s people, one’s country. It is an asset one holds in trust. At that time, a black model appearing in top magazines was rare. I wanted to destroy the myth of white superiority in terms of beauty and sophistication.” Almost immediately British modelling agencies and fashion magazines were making overtures to her. Bagaya signed up with the Peter Lumley Agency – at the time the top agency in London. She started high on the pay scale.

                                                        Elizabeth in London

According to her, black models were unusual in those heady days of the 1960s. And so with her new career came a host of influential friends – these included the Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser. A noted enthusiast of African affairs, Fraser was married to the historian/author Lady Antonia Fraser.
It was Fraser who introduced Bagaya to William David Ormsby-Gore (Lord Harlech), a prominent Tory politician and diplomat, who served as British ambassador to the United States during the early to mid-1960s and was close friends with the Kennedy political clan.
During her years in London, she was photographed by David Bailey as the Queen of Sheba for the British edition of Vogue magazine. Patrick Lichfield, a British earl and cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, also photographed Bagaya for the American version of Vogue. Bagaya also featured on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar and Queen magazines.
“If I had chosen the path of law, I never would have been exposed to the people I met through modelling,” Bagaya reflected.

             The legendary Princess Elizabeth of Toro, and Charlene Dash,1969 Harper’s BAZAAR.

Perhaps her most important friendship during this period was with Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, whom Bagaya had met at Covent Garden with Rudolf Nureyev. It was Dame Fonteyn who introduced Bagaya to Jacqueline Kennedy, the wife of the then US president, John F. Kennedy. According to Bagaya it was Jacqueline Kennedy and Lord Harlech who got her onto the New York fashion scene.
“One morning, Lord Harlech had walked into the Lexington Avenue offices of American Vogue, much to the astonishment of its editor in chief, Diana Vreeland. Harlech’s standing in America was second only to [Winston] Churchill’s... It was Jacqueline who had arranged the interview between Lord Harlech and Diana Vreeland. He told her, ‘America loves beauty and the princess cannot fail,’ remembered Bagaya.
Not long after, Diana Vreeland issued a formal invitation to Bagaya to come to the US and model for Vogue. Vreeland, who “discovered” actress Lauren Bacall in the 1940s, was advisor to Jacqueline Kennedy in matters of style. The money was not the best but the magazine offered the ultimate exposure that any high fashion model on either side of the Atlantic would crave. It was a watershed in Bagaya’s modelling career.

                                   Glamtastic Flashback of Princess Elizabeth of Toro for Vogue 1970.

Her first photoshoot with Vogue was with an Italian photographer named Penati, who according to Bagaya was one of the premiere fashion photographers of his day in the USA. Not long after, the Elizabeth of Toro hairstyle, which was born during the Penati photoshoot, became the vogue among the African-American community. Vogue magazine would devote an entire layout to Bagaya in their 1968 summer issue – the first time a black model would be accorded such an honour.
Princess Bagaya eventually signed with the Ford Modelling Agency – the leading agency in America – and did photoshoots with Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look and Ebony magazines. On one occasion, Bill King, a noted English photographer based in New York, photographed Bagaya but neglected to mention to her that she would be on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar. Bagaya would see the magazine at a Fifth Avenue newspaper stall when she went to buy the latest issues of Vogueand Harper’s Bazaar.
“My heart missed a beat as I stared down at the magazine in my hand and my face stared back up at me. Dumbfoundedly, I handed the vendor some money, and as he handed me change, he said, ‘congratulations!’ Dazed, I headed home. My phone had begun to ring incessantly with friends and colleagues who had seen the issue.”

                  Princess Elizabeth of Toro. VOGUE 1969

It was the first time a top fashion magazine had featured a black model on its cover. The Ford Agency advised her to enrol in acting classes and so she did, with the American Place Theatre, and was taught by Wynn Handman, who is credited with the training of many outstanding US actors including Denzel Washington, Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, and others.
Bagaya eventually went on to act in a number of films, including the female lead in “Bullfrog in the Sun” based on Chinua Achebe’s two books: “Things Fall Apart” and “No Longer at Ease.”

                                                Princess Elizabeth

Bagaya, however, is perhaps best remembered for her role in Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, a 1984 Columbia Pictures film shot on location in Kenya. It was far from a box office hit (Bagaya herself thought little of the script and says that it was badly written).
“But for me, Sheena expressed a certain truth, a certain reality, namely, that an indigenous culture, a way of life of a people, had suffered an assault at the hands of an alien one,” Bagaya says in her autobiography. “The role of the Shaman, the defender of the indigenous culture in Sheena, had parallels with my own life and what had come to pass for Africa and our people.”

                Princess Elizabeth of Toro for VOGUE circa 1969

Sheena, Elizabeth starred in the movie, his character was a Shaman

Princess  Elizabeth of Toro


                 Princess Elizabeth

Golden Triangle developer Craig Nassi with Princess Elizabeth of Toro in Uganda, in Denver on a short mission

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