- Narration. Robert (Bob) Astles arrived in Uganda in 1949 as an unimportant colonial soldier, but dramatically climbed the power ladder to assume an outsized role in the post-independence era by retailing his loyalty to the Kabaka and presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin. In Part VI of our serialisation of his memoir, Forty Tribes: A life in Uganda, he writes about the expulsion of British citizens over an anti-Kenya party and allegations that he was a spy.
“The trouble first started when members of one of these disaffected sections seized an Englishman, Charlie Buse. He was a ‘character’, no doubt of cockney origin, and a ‘man’s man’. He was greatly respected in the White community and he had supported Ugandan independence.
But most importantly, Buse was the managing director of the Uganda Argus, one of the Lonrho group of newspapers and an excellent paper whose editor, Charles Harrison, had certainly gone along with the ‘wind of change’. Why they picked on poor old Buse we never discovered, but we had the feeling that it was done to cause the maximum embarrassment to Dr Obote.
He was taken to the market at Katwe, a large African township just outside Kampala that was very politically orientated and occasionally violent, and there he was paraded down the main street carrying a large bunch of bananas on his head. However, their tormenting rebounded on them simply because Buse, who was a brave man, took it all in his stride and cracked a few choice cockney jokes.
The bystanders, who a few moments earlier had been applauding the youth wing, now took up the cudgels on his behalf and turned their attack on the tormentors. When Dr Obote heard of the incident, he was very angry and made it clear to us that something would have to be done to stop the attacks on expatriates.
I was sent to the party HQ (headquarters) with a camera crew to see what was going on there and what we found will be described in a following chapter.
In the meantime, shortly after the Buse affair, the minister for Finance, Kalule Settala, asked me to look into a report that youth wingers in Mbarara, which is about 200 miles west of Kampala, were harassing a European woman who lived on an island in the middle of the Kagera River.
Her name was Toni Nuti and she was famous, if not notorious, as a racist; so, I was not surprised that the youth wing had her in its sights. I had met Toni quite by chance some 10 years previously when she had been the main contractor for supplying labour to the giant sugar estates.
On that occasion, she was actively involved in trying to steal some of my men to fill her quota for a labour contract. She had drifted from that job back to her old profession of White hunter and gold prospector and had ended up on this island, which was a sacred one belonging to the kings of Ankole from time immemorial.
We were not friends following the labour incident and sometime later, when hunting in her district, which was a very lonely area, I happened to drive up in my old Volkswagen ambulance and camp beside the river close to her island.
Of course, as is usual in Africa, she soon learnt that a vehicle was camped nearby and sent one of her staff to investigate. When she heard who was in it, a message came back that I was to stay there and not attempt to cross her bridge. Now I was being asked to drive to her island to find out what the youth wing had been up to.
The situation was quite serious. The youth wing leader at Mbarara reminded me that the island was sacred but, nevertheless, Toni had built her house on it (a house that was also an exclusive safari lodge). The crossing to the island was by a foot bridge over thunderous rapids that surged between huge rocks jutting like gigantic stepping stones.
I was told that Toni had made it quite clear that apart from her staff, no Africans were to set foot on her property. On the face of it, the Mbarara youth wing had been quite restrained in their protest. The Kampala youth wing would have stormed the island and destroyed the house.
I motored down to the island and asked for permission to cross the bridge. This time it was a different story. Toni was really frightened by the dangerous situation she had created and must have realised that Dr Obote’s government was giving her an opportunity to explain why she had prevented Africans entering her premises to buy drinks.
She welcomed me across and I found her greatly changed without the old arrogance and bravado. She was by then a woman of about 70, tough as old boots, wearing an enormous bush hat and carrying, as always, a shotgun. She had an extraordinary history, having arrived in Africa from Italy at the age of 16 to be the bride of a gold prospector.
She had found herself in a field camp working with a pick and shovel beside her husband at a time when Britain had only recently begun to take an interest in Africa. She was still very young (and must have been a beautiful bride) when her husband failed to return from one of his prospecting trips. She had never discovered what had happened to him, but from then onwards she had been her own boss with rifle and pick axe, and was one of Africa’s great women adventurers.
Although we had been enemies until that moment, we were now to become firm friends. Toni pointed out to me that the house she had built on the island, partly with her own hands, was her livelihood and that her clients came from all over the world. Her guest book was indeed impressive.
She did not have a drinks licence and her guests helped themselves with the cost included in the overall charge. This meant that she could not allow anyone other than house guests to use the lodge or she could be prosecuted. It was a feeble excuse but to some extent justified by her situation.
That night as we sat in her spacious colonial style sitting room with its heavy Victorian furniture and dozens of game trophies on walls blackened by the smoke of the great log fire, and with the roar of the water in the background, I listened to her story and found myself back in an Africa we had all dreamed about when we were young.
Here was a woman who had got closer to ‘King Solomon’s mines than anyone alive and who, half a century ago, had shot the lions and other dangerous beasts which were preventing progressive cattle herding amongst her neighbouring Bahima tribesmen.
Later, as she came to know me better and my own village life and love for Uganda and its people, she spread out over her carpet a very large map and showed me where the gold still lies in Uganda.
After listening to her adventures, it was not surprising that Toni won me over to her cause and after warning her that she could not afford to make enemies of Uganda’s new rulers, I left the next morning quite sure her problems could be solved.
In Mbarara, I saw the local Member of Parliament who knew me well for we had had a most memorable introduction when my aircraft, piloted by another of Uganda’s great characters, Paddy O’Reilly, had to leap-frog his car when he rashly tried to cross the Naguru airstrip while we were taking off.
We sliced through his roof, leaving him sitting in gallons of aviation fuel that had gushed into his car from the ruptured wing fuel tank. He thought his salvation was a miracle; what we thought of his stupidity is unprintable. Reminded of this incident he acknowledged that he owed somebody a favour.
We agreed that this should go to Toni and he gave very firm orders that she was never to be harassed again. I took this message back to Kalule Settala, who was a fine man, and he in turn took it to the prime minister.
Yet another crisis was over, but not for me. The Kampala youth wing were still looking for trouble and the next thing I knew was that my entire ham radio unit had to be removed, simply because one of the leaders of my boys’ clubs, Christopher Nyombi, had joined the youth wing and reported to them that I was a spy. Which if not victory is yet revenge, as an earlier Milton said.
It was also about this time that another crisis hit the country and became known as the ‘Tank Hill Affair’ after the mainly European residential area on the outskirts of Kampala, and once again it involved the youth wing. Kenya was about to become independent and the Kenyans were going to celebrate. As there was a shared currency and brisk trading with Uganda, which was then the wealthiest East African country, many Kenyan Europeans lived there and those in Kampala also decided to celebrate with a fancy dress party.
And what a party it was, with even dogs dressed up to play their part. No one in the Ugandan government knew it was being held and at that early period in their own independence I doubt if they would have cared.
But the theme for some of the guests seems to have been more ‘anti-independence’ than ‘independence’ and songs were sung making fun of Jomo Kenyatta, the new President of Kenya to which at least one of the guests objected.
He was an American named Curry who was working for the Milton Obote Trust, an organisation sponsored by an overseas socialist group. The capers were reported to Akena Adoko, head of the General Service Unit, and the matter was then passed to the [police] Criminal Investigations Department as General Service personnel had no power to arrest (nor, incidentally, were they authorised to carry weapons).
I heard about it later from someone who was working for the ‘Save the Children Fund’ in Uganda and who certainly could not have had any ill-feeling towards Kenya. There was anxiety about her position and when I went to see her, she was already being interviewed by a young English CID officer in the Uganda police who made it clear that the situation was serious.
The new Kenyan government had been in power only three days and they wanted to know what Uganda was doing about the insult. I went to see Akena Adoko, mainly on her behalf, and he showed me pictures of the party taken by one of the guests.
As far as Akena Adoko was concerned, it was a crisis and Dr Obote had to settle it, which he did very forcefully. About 40 Europeans were deported, some of whom had not even been at the party, but their children had. During the time of the deportations, no one was able to contact Obote, who was reported to be sick, which was a new way of handling a crisis.
I had not been at the party, but there were unexpected repercussions for me because I was blamed for reporting the incident. Curry had begun to be suspected of being the culprit because of his acquaintance with Obote and, not wishing to take the blame for the resulting furore, presumably he decided to cover his indiscretion by naming me.
The youth wing, now really out for blood, marched on the house in which the party had been held led by a man who later became a minister in the government of Museveni, and they burned it down, horrifying the local community by leaving the household pets inside.
The howls of agony left a permanent impression on the minds of listening expatriates and provided a foretaste of what was to come. The site remained oddly ill-fated and another European who built his house on the existing foundations was shot dead by Ugandans years later. The episode was a victory for the youth wing and we were sure they would have liked to force Dr Obote to deport all the Europeans but he was too clever.
Forty suffered, it is true, but he saved the rest. As for the Europeans, they also were learning that things were not the same. They had to accept that Ugandans were now in-charge of their own affairs and they could no longer behave with impunity. Later, when the commotion quietened down, Dr Obote rescinded some of the deportation orders, including that of my ‘Save the Children Fund’ acquaintance, but she did not return.
Uganda had lost a fine worker who had set up a Children’s Reception Centre and had courageously tramped the villages month after month providing clothing for the orphans in their community. One excellent and dedicated civil servant in the prisons’ service had to leave simply because his daughter was at the party and this was a tragedy. My personal view was that Ugandans saw the chance of Africanising his job, but Uganda was the loser.
The Tank Hill crisis taught the government a great deal and from then on, Europeans in the private sector, who had been slow to comprehend the new situation, were encouraged to bring their problems to civil servants so that they could be solved for the benefit of everyone.
This was very successful and it was surprising to find how much could go on in the country about which a head of state was unaware [of]; the information sometimes deliberately kept secret from him. For example, the Verona Fathers, a group of missionaries from the prime minister’s constituency, were told to leave Uganda. They came to me to see if anything could be done to get their case reconsidered and it was discovered that the head of state knew nothing about the instruction for them to leave, although it was said to have come from him.
There had been too many such incidents to Whites and blacks and once it became known that there was a channel to prevent injustice, it was well used. It was controlled by Akena Adoko, a man of sense and compassion, who was not only head of the General Service Unit, but a barrister and chairman of the Uganda Law Society.”
Background. The circumstances of his arrival did not script a future influential role for him in Uganda’s polity. Yet World War II veteran Robert Astles, better known as Bob Astles, turned to string a dramatic life and career that catapulted him to orbit in the highest echelons of government. Astles, described by fellow British citizens as a “white rat” for his treacherous behaviour, notes in his memoir chest-thumbs that his links with Buganda Kingdom enabled him to play a part in the future events that led to the Kabaka’s return as a hero in 1955 after his two-year of unhappy exile in England.
Toni nuti in trouble again
“We had just got through this Tank Hill crisis when Toni Nuti came on the scene again. This time, the same youth wing that had harassed her sent one of their young members by bus into Kampala with the news that her bridge had been washed away by floods and she was cut off on her island.
I drove through the night and reached her boundary at dawn to find that the Kagera had gone wild. Great trees thundered by and the rushing water was red with mountain soil and looked as though countless sacrifices were being made along its banks. As the Kagera feeds Lake Victoria, which is the source of the Nile, I could see why the Bible once described the Nile as the river of blood.
The bridge was nowhere to be seen and the gigantic stepping stones had vanished under the rising waters. Toni Nuti was indeed well and truly cut off. Further downstream at the lower end of her island were two enormous buttress trees, one on her island and one on our bank.
The only possible thing I could do was to use the trees for an overhead cable and chair, but she had little money and was not a member of the government, so the cost was beyond her. It was the Mbarara youth wing, the very ones who had given her such a shock some months previously and had wanted to deport her, who came to her rescue. They were ready to provide the labour if I did the rest.
I went back to Kampala and collected two skilled men. One was Bikram, affectionately called Singh, who was one of those indispensable Sikh mechanics who were later to be expelled from Uganda by Amin, and the other was Paulo Kana whom I had used on the Kafu Bridge.
I also collected lengths of cable and trifell winches. Looking back, I can see the dangers of that project, but at the time, I was concentrating entirely on solving the problem. First, we had to get someone across to the island through flood waters so turbulent that they could kill a hippopotamus, and who was going to try that!
Yet nearly every one of the Mbarara youth wing, who belonged to the same tribe as those who years later formed Museveni’s guerrilla force, volunteered to cross carrying a nylon rope. I asked for the best swimmers and found to my horror that none of the volunteers could swim at all.
In the end, we wrapped a large motor grader inner tube around one of them and launched him about a mile upstream holding him by the attached rope while he struggled to get into midstream, cheered on by his friends.
All we could see were parts of the black inner tube appearing every now and again: God knows how he breathed. At long last he managed to be spilled into the flotsam held by an inlet of Toni’s island and a few minutes later we saw him jumping for joy on her well-kept lawns. It was a great day for her and for us.
Extracted by Sarah Aanyu