"Princess Elizabeth of Toro" is how she is known.

And as she sits on the pale brocade sofa in her residence here, the regalness, simplicity and emphatic brevity of her title rustles through her manner.

"To be in public life you have to be a symbol -- especially of the African monarchy," says Elizabeth Bagaaya-Nyabongo. She is now the ambassador to the United States from Uganda, and her public task is difficult. Her East African country has been torn by war and corruption throughout most of its 25 years of independence. Even the best informed people still think of Uganda in terms of the brutal dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Her own diplomatic career rose and plummeted under Amin and she, like her country, is still trying to shake that association.

A majestic six feet tall, Bagaaya-Nyabongo has long been considered one of the world's most beautiful women. She glides like a feather across a room, her chiseled face an unadorned landscape for her almond-shaped brown eyes. Her gaze is always direct. A famous fashion model in London, Paris and New York in the 1960s, she had already secured a historic footnote by earning a law degree from Cambridge University and becoming one of Africa's first women attorneys.

In the early 1970s she moved still further onto the world scene when Amin, then Uganda's president, appointed her his "roving ambassador." Then, in February 1974, when she was just 33, she became Amin's minister of foreign affairs, Africa's first female foreign minister. The spotlight rarely left her.

That chapter of her diplomatic career ended in a whirlpool of international gossip when the bizarre and mercurial Amin, who soon was littering Uganda's rivers with the bodies of his opponents, turned against her and she fled Uganda in fear for her life. He accused her of having sex with a white man in the lavatory at Orly Airport in Paris, and then circulated a photograph of a nude black woman he said was Bagaaya-Nyabongo. To support her denial, she successfully sued the European publications that published Amin's charges and the photograph.

"Throughout your life you get nuisances," she says, in stunning understatement, but they never divert her, she says, from what she thinks important.

Bagaaya-Nyabongo is now using her resources as an ambassador to wage a dual campaign: to tell the story of a country rebuilding itself under President Yoweri Museveni, who overthrew a military government in January 1986, and to remind people of the role of royalty in African history.

She had barely begun her mission in Washington when her husband of six years, who worked with her as a Museveni supporter in Europe, was killed in a plane crash in Morocco. After the December accident Bagaaya-Nyabongo spent three months away from Washington, absorbing the shock, tending the grave in Uganda and traveling with her husband's mother to his childhood places. She mourns for his lost dreams.

"He died just as the movement was succeeding," she says. "That really is most frightening. I could see it -- he was on top of the world."

Now, as her country rebuilds, she must reconstruct her own life as well, and in Washington she is plunging back into her public role.

Her life, she says, is divided into phases, and they are timeless. "I have never been emphatic about these ages," she says, acknowledging only that she is in her late 40s. "I just live my life. I have phases. I have never worked it out in terms of years."

But her life is more than simple passages. It matches the evolution of African politics from the rule of the ancient monarchies through colonialism to turbulent independence. It contains the drama of three-time exile and the lessons of an active resistance leader, and it mirrors the personal emergence of a few African women from traditional roles into a life of options.

However, the phase of Amin is the one Princess Elizabeth of Toro is continually asked about, the one she has to deal with to go forward.

The eight-year regime of Amin, a military officer with a grade-school education, was marked by massive death and destruction. Through his statements -- in praise of Hitler, for example -- and his policies -- he ordered the expulsion of all Jews and noncitizen Asians, nationalized British businesses and forced the emigration of hundreds of Britons -- Amin isolated Uganda from most of the world. Arrests and killings became an everyday occurrence. Hundreds of thousands of Ugandans fled the country. A torture chamber, called the State Research Bureau, was erected below the presidential mansion. Scores of political opponents were found floating in the Nile. Amnesty International, the human rights group, characterized Amin's rule with some understatement as "eight years of systematic violations of basic human rights."

But Obote, who preceded and succeeded Amin, was even worse, Bagaaya-Nyabongo says. Obote's record prompted many people to support Amin in the first place and was the reason she accepted his appointment as ambassador at large. Under the first Obote regime, she says, "state violence had started, torture had been practiced, the moral foundation had been shaken, corruption had started, robbery was rampant.

"Above all, the constitution had been overthrown," she says. "Anything that could have overthrown Obote rallied the people."

Though a member of his cabinet and foreign minister for 10 months, Bagaaya-Nyabongo insists, "I was never part of the inner circle. I wasn't a soldier ... and in mid-1974 when he appointed me, he had run out of foreign ministers. The educated people were turning against him."

Her duties, she says, were to "arouse confidence abroad, to soothe hostilities and to encourage state visits." Though she had to follow Amin's orders, she apparently kept her distance from his atrocities. "I don't remember even the slightest innuendo {linking her with the regime's horrors}. Not a rumor and I am sure I would have heard," says David Lamb, a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and author of "The Africans," who was in Uganda during Amin's regime. On occasion, she says, she openly defied Amin. Once he dictated a memo for her to send to Golda Meir, telling the then-prime minister of Israel to "pick up your knickers and go back to America where you came from." Bagaaya-Nyabongo refused to send it.

In fact, her troubles with Amin appeared to begin because of praise she received outside Uganda for her efforts when she headed a delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1974.

At a lunch hosted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, she offered a toast that, according to the press reports and her biography, chastised British and American policies in Africa. She made a dramatic impression as well when she addressed the General Assembly, wearing a gold Chinese dress and an elaborate crown of braids, quoting Shakespeare and speaking heatedly of the need for African self-empowerment. The speech, she recalls now, was heavily edited by Amin and included criticism of how he was treated by the media.

Her good notices apparently increased Amin's personal interest in her, and during the rest of her diplomatic mission throughout Europe he had her closely watched. Even though her friends warned her to defect, she returned home. "I felt I had no choice," she says.

When she arrived, an emissary from Amin asked her if she was interested in marrying the president. She said no, and immediately, she says, "It was quite clear, he meant to kill me."

Within days she was dismissed as foreign minister and Amin began telling the story of the alleged Orly tryst. She heard it on the 5 o'clock news and was "shocked but not outraged because it was too ridiculous."

"The press picked it up and improved on it. Very imaginative -- can you imagine a foreign minister, a princess, a sensation?" The tone is arch, stocked with sarcasm, and she skips the emotion by speaking as an outsider. The night of the accusation the police surrounded her home in Kampala, took her to jail for a day and a half and then placed her under house arrest for a week.

The events were indeed the talk of diplomatic circles and the high society of her fashion days. Most reports cast doubt on Amin's story. One quoted Orly Airport officials who said Bagaaya-Nyabongo made only two short stops at the airport during the period Amin cited, each time accompanied by at least 20 persons.

But Amin's accusations, she says "exposed me to danger. In Uganda at that time ... if the president set himself against you, that situation can be used by anyone to kill you. It had happened in many cases."

Now, with the perspective of time, Bagaaya-Nyabongo reviews the facts dryly, except when she discusses the mistakes of judgment she made and the prayers she offered those last weeks before she made her dramatic escape to Kenya disguised as a pregnant woman.

"I had sometimes misjudged Amin. To laugh at a dictator is the worst possible thing because he can just order your execution. I didn't feel like that. I felt, 'Oh, well, what can he do.' But that is a misjudgment. That is an underestimate of the crudeness of the character because you yourself were not brought up in such a crude way. You don't quite understand this sort of crudeness ... So I thought, 'What a stupid thing. Nobody is going to believe it.' "

And she stayed in his regime so long, she says now, out of that sense of royal duty. "At least you do the best you can for your people as long as you are above suspicion or guilt," she says. "The years he really begins to do those things I had left. The bad year was definitely 1976."

To get out of Uganda she hid with several families until two friends drove her to the Kenyan border, where they paid smugglers for transporting "elephant tusks." She walked the last four miles through the bush and across a river. Two Brazilian priests helped her travel to Nairobi, where her brother Prince Patrick Kaboyo lived. The president offered her asylum, but she decided to leave because "being so close would have strained their own securities."

In those hours, she says, she called on her beliefs -- Christian beliefs that her grandfather Dandi Kyebambe VI had introduced to the region of Toro in 1896. "I prayed, I really did pray. This time I was standing alone. There were hundreds of people who wanted to help, but they couldn't. I really felt if I am caught, it is finished."

She lived briefly in Vienna and Geneva and eventually settled in London.

Her family had ruled in Toro, a region the size of Holland with a population of 1 million, since the 14th century. Toro was part of the Kitara Empire, the regional empire of that time, which stretched from what is now Uganda into Zaire, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.

Her father George David Matthew Kamurasi Rukiidi III ruled from 1924 to 1965, as tribal monarchies continued to exist within independent Uganda until 1966.

It was a dynasty of simple means, Bagaaya-Nyabongo says. Her family lived in a two-story homestead that was the tallest building in town.

"The king possesses nothing; everything he possesses is a trust," she says. "When the monarchy was abolished, my brother {who succeeded her father} had nothing. The strength of this position is not the wealth, it is the love. You are held as a spiritual leader. It is the rituals that are the source of your authority."

Bagaaya-Nyabongo believes that western colonialism corrupted some of those spiritual values.

"That is why since the advent of colonialism, and the leaders that followed who are products of colonialism, they looted and took money and wealth. That is something alien to us," she says. Amin, a goatherd on his father's farm until he joined the British Army at 21, learned his approach to ruling from the British, she says.

When she was a child, she learned humility, she says. "You were taught first and foremost the importance of people. You were rebuked if you thought you were grand." But she did have a special place in the family, holding the title "princess royal," a position at the right hand of the oldest brother that entitled her to the best formal education. When she was 14 she was sent to Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset, England, and then qualified for Cambridge.

Believed to be only the third African woman to have attended Cambridge, she became the first black woman barrister from Africa to practice at the British bar. In her 1983 biography "Princess Elizabeth of Toro -- African Princess," she sounds infatuated with the privilege of that education: "I felt that I walked with the shades of great Cambridge men such as Cromwell of Sidney Sussex, Pepys of Magdalene, the dashing, irresistibly eloquent younger Pitt of Pembroke, Milton, Wordsworth and Tennyson, and William Wilberforce who had emancipated the black slave, and initiated the process which brought me to Cambridge."

When her brother Patrick was crowned king, Bagaaya-Nyabongo returned home to join a law firm in Kampala. The next year, Obote took power and within months abolished the ancient kingdoms. In 1967 Elizabeth of Toro went into exile for the first time.

Her chance to leave came when Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon invited her to model in a London charity fashion show, the appearance that triggered her short but splashy career in fashion.

Choosing modeling over law was a way of making a point.

"My sole consideration was which of the two careers would be the most effective way of symbolizing, projecting and thereby preserving the torch of my black culture," she says.

"Modeling is part of an image. I was able to keep the torch burning, and both modeling and the stage did that. My attitude is very much cultural," she says.

"Beauty is a means to do something, it is not your own. It is the beauty of your people, it is the beauty of our family ... It would be the height of extremely bad manners if I behaved in any way proud or vain. That would be taken as extremely low. It is not your own. It is an asset you hold in trust."

Even today, few black women have broken into the rarefied world of top fashion magazine covers and layouts; 20 years ago, a black model appearing on those pages was almost unheard of. Bagaaya-Nyabongo's career, which included a two-page layout in Vogue in July 1967 and the cover of Harper's Bazaar in November 1969, had the impact she was seeking. She was one of the women who influenced black American women to revive hair plaiting as a fashionable style.

So celebrated was her beauty that Patrick Lichfield, a British earl, cousin to Queen Elizabeth and official photographer at the wedding of the prince and princess of Wales, included her in his 1981 book on the world's most beautiful women. Besides modeling, she had parts in the American film "Cotton Comes to Harlem" and in "Sheena."

During her second exile, from 1975 to 1979, she worked as a lawyer again. Then Amin was overthrown and she returned home, but in 1980 went into exile for the third time when Obote returned to power.

During that brief stay in Uganda she fell in love with Wilbur Nyabongo, an engineer and a cousin of hers. They married in April 1981 and spent most of their time representing Museveni's National Resistance Movement in discussions with governments and the press.

"That bound us together," she says. Meanwhile, she was writing her autobiography, and they raised money to send Nyabongo to pilot school. "We were always together," she says, a quiet smile dancing around her mouth.

Their message was that Uganda was being destroyed. The years of Amin, who now lives in Saudi Arabia, had left the country with few allies, little infrastructure and a weak economy. And Obote, who now lives in Zambia, continued the terror. "For the first time in the history of Africa we were trying to overthrow an indigenous tyranny," she says. "Obote killed far more people than Amin. At least Amin was ignorant."

In 1984 U.S. officials estimated that between 100,000 and 200,000 had been killed since 1981. The Ugandan government said the number was only 15,000. Amnesty International's report in 1985 said the group did not know exactly how many people had been killed, but that killings of civilians were taking place on a scale so large as to cause the gravest concern.

For five years Museveni waged a war against the successive governments. "He started off with 27 guns ... {Even I thought} it wouldn't be done in five years." In 1985 a military government removed Obote; in January 1986 the Museveni army ousted that government. The country, once one of the most productive in Africa and called by Winston Churchill "the pearl of East Africa," was by then one of the poorest.

Princess Elizabeth of Toro went home again. Her return to the public spotlight and to diplomacy seemed fated.

"I was born into political responsibility," she says. "If I am required by my country to come here and do a job {I must} ... Unless we do it ourselves, who is going to do it for us? You end up in that cycle of exiles. Now I know I can do this job for whatever time I am required to do it. I have a country to go back to."

In the Museveni government's first year, says the ambassador, people have been resettled in war-ravaged areas, facilities such as hospitals have been rebuilt, roads have been constructed, and the economy is being restructured. The country is trying to pay off a $240 million debt to the International Monetary Fund. To move toward democracy and national elections in 1990, Museveni has created a network of village-level councils that are intended to encourage participatory government.

However the country has not settled into a continuous peace. The government has been fighting partisans from the last two governments in the north and east regions. Some of today's political battles can be traced to tribal conflicts. Museveni is Banyankole; the ambassador is Batoro; Obote is Langi and Amin is Kakwa and Nubian.

Museveni's army crushed an attempted coup in October 1986, arrested 19 people and charged them with treason. At the end of February, 11 detainees were released and eight remain in custody.

A former cabinet minister, who was among those released, was murdered in March, and the Museveni government is looking into the situation. Both Amnesty International and the U.S. government are following the incident closely.

"We enjoy friendly relations with Uganda," says Ambassador David Fischer, director of East African affairs at the State Department, who visited Uganda in March. The humanitarian needs of the country, the rate of inflation, the civil war in the north and relations with Libya are all concerns to the U.S. government, says Fischer.

"We are encouraged by the progress of human rights," he says, adding that the government is also "watching" the investigation of the death of the former cabinet officer. "We are encouraged that five people have been arrested and charged by the government. As of right now the death doesn't seem to be politically motivated."

In Washington, Bagaaya-Nyabongo's task also has been reconstruction. First, she had to reorganize the embassy, which the past administration had left in a physical shambles, saddled with unpaid bills. She also had to build a relationship with the approximately 2,000 Ugandans living in the area.

Secondly, she has continued to mend bilateral relationships. Washington broke relations with Uganda in 1973, but restored them in 1979. The landlocked country is not considered a strategic ally for the United States, though American officials are concerned that Moammar Gadhafi might gain a foothold in Central Africa. Consequently, its assistance level is much lower than that of neighboring Sudan and Kenya. But from 1981 to 1987 the United States did give $56.2 million to Uganda, $55.8 million of which was in economic aid.

Her husband's death in December put her diplomatic campaign on hold.

She hadn't seen him since October. Over Christmas they had planned to "review our future" and decide whether he would move to Washington.

Nyabongo, 30, was employed by a Nigerian aircraft company, and the couple kept apartments in London and Lagos. She used to call him on the days he was flying. "I used to wake him up. I used to put in my alarm," she says, smiling.

She had already begun her trip home when an executive jet he was copiloting from London to Dakar crashed at a small airfield outside Casablanca. Because she was traveling and missed messages, Bagaaya-Nyabongo didn't get the news about his death until Christmas Day, 10 days after the accident.

After she got to Uganda, she observed tradition. For two nights the men stayed awake around a fire outside the house and the women remained inside, gathered around the casket singing hymns. She has had time to reconcile his death.

"I went to Nigeria and packed his things. So I spent a few days in our flat in Lagos. It helped me very much being there, I was with him in spirit," she says. "In Uganda I stayed in the room where he had grown up, slept in that room -- even saw the trees where he used to sit and study. I took all that in so it is part of me."

On his tombstone, she engraved a message in their first language, Orutoro.

"Forever, I will always be grateful for your love, your beauty," she says and then stops, looking at the Orutoro she has written on the back of a gray envelope. "This last word, obuntu, means the totality of being human. It takes in everything, it is what distinguishes. It is a very important word. Here you might call it being civilized. Then I signed it 'Your servant,' " she says.

Now it is the movement -- not the government, she corrects -- that "will engage me totally." Her fervor never diminished, but certainly refocused in the shadows of her personal tragedy. She wants to talk about how people will use Uganda's past to discredit its present.

Her new beginning is signaled in small things. Since December she has cut her long, straightened black hair into a short natural.

"My whole look, my whole emphasis -- the way you look is very important for your husband. He is the most important person in your life. You have to look your best for him. Now the most important thing is really the work I have to do. It is the only thing that is keeping me going."