The model princess who swapped glitz for culture

MISSING PERSONS NO. 25 Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro

''You can be an actress or a Vogue model in Paris,'' says the former actress and Vogue model Princess Elizabeth Bagaaya of Toro, ''but not an African princess. Being a princess can only be meaningful when you're amongst your people. That's why I live in Toro.''

Elizabeth Bagaaya-Nyabongo gives no hint of missing her international renown of the late Sixties and Seventies, but then she knows that fame is a fickle companion. Twenty years ago her name was splattered over newspapers around the world, the subject of lurid gossip which refused to die away even after she successfully sued 15 publications in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. It was her dismissal from government by Idi Amin (whose marriage proposal she had rebuffed) for alleged misconduct in a public lavatory at Paris's Orly airport which gave birth to Private Eye's sniggering euphemism "discussing Ugandan affairs".

Such was her build-up that I was in a state of some agitation before our dinner engagement in Kampala at the weekend. Her cuttings file dealt in nothing short of superlatives: ''Once considered one of the most beautiful women in the world''; ''one of the first three African women to be admitted to Cambridge University and the first to be admitted to the English Bar Association''; ''the first black woman to have been given a spread in Vogue, the first to appear on the cover of Harper's Bazaar''; ''the first woman to have served as Uganda's minister of foreign affairs and the first to be its ambassador to the United States''.

The blurb on the back of her 1989 autobiography, Elizabeth of Toro: Odyssey of an African Princess - which was thoughtfully delivered to my hotel - was no less breathless. All hyperbole spent, it settled for describing her as ''one of the most extraordinary women of our time''.

Could the hotel's gourmet restaurant (''Candlelight dinner with sophisticated food and wines'') possibly satisfy the exacting tastes of such a goddess? In the end, I need not have worried. The Princess suggested meeting in a local Chinese restaurant. She arrived wearing a sort of short-sleeved red pinafore. She wore no jewels or make-up, her hair was scraped back into two pigtails and she carried a plastic British Airways bag. She would be quite happy if we ordered nothing but spring rolls, she said.

These days the Princess spends most of her time in the western kingdom of Toro, one of the most fertile areas of Uganda and the only part to have been heavily settled by British farmers during the colonial period. Abolished by President Milton Obote in 1967, the ancient monarchy of Toro was restored by President Yoweri Museveni two years ago.

''I'd really like to put Toro on the international map,'' says the Princess, a 50-something widow whose husband died in a plane crash in 1986. ''I want to see tourists coming there.''

Princess Elizabeth, who has already refurbished the shrine of the first king of Toro, is now putting the finishing touches to a cultural centre for the preservation of the kingdom's heritage. Another project is the rebuilding of Toro's royal palace, which was destroyed during the Obote regime.

She also travels regularly: Paris, Frankfurt, LA. Last year she spent five months in London while her niece - the King's daughter - was being treated for leukaemia. "England is a natural home for me," she said. "I receive many invitations to go there. Earlier this year I visited Princess Anne, my royal counterpart in Britain, and we had a lot to discuss."

At present she is living in a house in Kampala which, she says, has been "lent" to her by the government. Another diplomatic posting might well be on the cards. But it is to Toro and its culture that she always returns. If she can inculcate some sense of history in Toro youth, she says, then she feels she will have achieved something with her life.

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