For years, Charles Wesley Mumbere worked as a nurse’s aide in Maryland and Pennsylvania, caring for the elderly and sick. No one there suspected that he had inherited a royal title in his African homeland when he was just 13.
On Monday, after years of political upheaval and financial struggle, Mumbere, 56, was finally crowned king of his people to the sound of drumbeats and thousands of cheering supporters wearing cloth printed with his portraits.
At a public rally later in the day, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni officially recognized the 300,000-strong Rwenzururu Kingdom. Museveni restored the traditional kingdoms his predecessor banned in 1967, but has been adamant that kings restrict themselves to cultural duties and keep out of politics.
“It is a great moment to know that finally the central government has understood the demands of the Bakonzo people who have been seeking very hard for recognition of their identity,” Mumbere told The Associated Press in the whitewashed single-story building that serves as a palace.
The Rwenzururu parliament sits nearby, in a much larger structure made of reeds. It was here the traditional private rituals were held Sunday night and Monday morning to crown Mumbere king.
Thousands walked several miles to see Mumbere, dressed in flowing green robes and a colorful hat, be officially recognized.
Old men clutching canes shuffled up the hill beside women in colorful Ugandan dresses called “gomesi.” Among them was Masereka Tadai, 43, proudly overseeing practice for a march that retired scouts and girl guides would perform before the king.
“Everyone is very happy because the president has accepted to come here and officially recognize the Rwenzururu Kingdom,” Tadai said over a nearby drumbeat.
The new King of Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon has undergone many transformations from teenage leader of a rebel force to impoverished student to a nursing home assistant working two jobs in the U.S., where he lived for nearly 25 years.
Mumbere’s royal roots only became public in Pennsylvania this July, when he granted an interview to The Patriot-News of Harrisburg as he was preparing to return to Uganda.
He inherited the title when his father, Isaya Mukirania Kibanzanga, died while leading a secessionist group in the Rwenzori Mountains, otherwise known as the Mountains of the Moon. The rebels were protesting the oppression of their Bakonzo ethnic group by their then-rulers, the Toro Kingdom.
The Bakonzo demanded to be recognized as a separate entity and named Kibanzanga, a former primary school teacher, as their king in 1963.
“It was very difficult growing up in the bush,” remembered Mumbere, who was 9 years old when his father took the family into the mountains. Although he received military training, Mumbere did not fight.
“Our country has been independent for 40-something years but in Rwenzururu you may not find running water, there are no hospitals,” Mumbere said.
Shortly after Kibanzanga died, his son led the fighters down from the mountains to hand in their weapons. Mumbere went to the United States in 1984 on a Uganda government scholarship, attending a business school until Uganda’s leadership changed and the stipend was stopped. He gained political asylum in 1987, trained as a nurse’s aide and took a job in a suburban Washington nursing home to pay his bills, said The Patriot-News of Harrisburg in a July 2009 story.
In 1999, he moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital, where he worked for at least two health care facilities.
He was “very loyal, a very hard worker, a very private person,” said Johnna Marx, executive director of the Golden Living Center-Blue Ridge Mountain on the outskirts of Harrisburg.
Mumbere said he chose to train as a nurse’s aide because the work, “was more reliable. Other jobs you can be laid off easily.”
Living in the U.S., however, was “a very difficult experience,” he said. “Sometimes you have two jobs. You go to college in the morning, between 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. Then you go prepare to go to work at 3 p.m. and then return at 11 p.m.”
He is now a green card holder, and his son and daughter live in Harrisburg. But he never forgot the people he left behind. When the Ugandan government decided to reinstate the traditional kingdoms, Mumbere lobbied the Rwenzururu Kingdom to be among them.
After 10 years of negotiation, President Museveni announced in August the government would recognize the Rwenzururu Kingdom as Uganda’s seventh kingdom. Government recognition does not grant any executive power but allows the monarchs to determine cultural and social issues affecting their people.
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