Kabalega was born in about 1850 of Mukama Kyebambe IV Kamurasi. His mother, a Muhuma lady of the Abayonza clan from Mwenge was called Kanyange Nyamutahingurwa. Kabalega spent his early days in Bulega where he and his mother had taken refugee when some rebellious Bito princes had temporarily chased his father from the throne. It is probable that this incident left a strong impression on the mind of the boy. It is believed that when he was brought back to the palace he was given the name “Akana Kabalega”, meaning a child of the Balega and this was shortened to Kabalega.

Kabalega grew up in the palace with his brother, prince Kabigumire. They played together and like all younger boys discussed their ambitions and aspirations with each other. Kabigumire’s ambition was to slaughter all his father’s servants when he became king and replace them with those of his own choice. Kabalega’s ambition was to turn these servants into soldiers. There was no point in killing them he argued. As soldiers, they could be profitably used in maintaining internal stability and in raiding neighbouring kingdoms. Moreover, successful raids would make them rich and contented.

During this period, Kabigumire and Kabalega were placed under the care of Kamihanda Omudaya, the brother of Kamurasi. He was instructed to study them and note who exhibited kingly characteristics. At the same time, he taught them court etiquette and the history of the kings of Kitara. It soon became apparent that Omudaya was impressed with Kabigumire. He found him more royal and refined in behaviour. Kabalega, on the other hand, was impulsive, headstrong, proud, opinionated and short tempered. He devoted a lot of attention to the royal cattle and the court pages. Despite the views of Kamihanda, Kamurasi named Kabalega as his successor in his will, because of his younger son’s single-mindedness, aggressive qualities and obvious interest in the people – the common people Kabalega used to chat with them and give them gifts. They adored him. But the majority of the royal family hated him. They appear to have been apprehensive of him and to have made their minds that he would never be their king.

As a young man, Kabalega was slim like his father but slightly shorter. He was about 5 feet 10 inches in height and very light in complexion. With age, however, he added a lot of weight to the extent that he is generally described as a stout man. He had sharp, big, bright eyes, a large mouth, prominent but very white teeth, the upper of which became missing in the later life. He spoke with a deep, refined voice but occasionally roared like a lion.

He had the curious mannerism of speaking with a stem countenance when in good humour and a smile when in a rage. He was extremely neat and clean and his hands were neatly kept. He was a very cheerful man and as a soldier demanded explicit obedience, strict discipline and efficiency. He was merciless towards those of his royal guards who showed no dedication of duty. He spoke these languages – Runyoro, Swahili and Arabic – and he may have also spoken Luo.