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Out of Africa

updated 05/30/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1994 01:00AM

HIS MAJESTY KIGELI V DOES NOT ANSWER his own telephone. He has his loyal retainer Boniface Benzinge to do that. Benzinge, the only aide left to the king, also answers many of the questions addressed to His Majesty, because Kigeli, deposed king of war-ravaged Rwanda, speaks little English. And while the king vainly petitions for an audience with President Clinton, he must deal with another pressing problem: Suburban Montgomery County, outside Washington, has refused to give him food stamps.

Indeed, Kigeli, seven feet tall and every inch a king, though down-at-heel after more than three decades in exile, has little left but his dignity. "People have been very helpful," he says. "They have fed me and helped me, but I am not a beggar."

He is close to it, though. A hereditary" leader of the dominant Tutsi people who was deposed by the Hutu majority in 1960, Kigeli, 57, scion of a 500-year-old dynasty, has lived in Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya, coming to the U.S. in 1992 to visit a friend in Oklahoma. He and Benzinge, 59, share a one-bedroom apartment in Takoma Park, Md. Neither has a job, although Benzinge, who recently completed a computer training course, is looking for one. They scrape by on donations from friends and church groups. They have a TV set in the apartment but cannot afford cable, and the king travels only by public transportation.

"We did not come here to get rich," says the king. "We came here to save our community." That community—the 8.5 million people of their tiny, landlocked central African nation—is now consumed by the slaughter of more than 100,000, and Kigeli hopes the U.S. will step in and stop it. He is realistic about the odds against American intervention but continues to hope. "It's a little country. You can walk from one end to the other in a week. You would not need many soldiers to bring peace." As for himself, the king, a lifelong bachelor, says he will take a bride only when he is able to return to his homeland "just like other refugees." Until that day comes, he says, "I am here to talk for those who cannot talk for themselves. That is the role of a king."

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