I am not a film buff. What I watch is selective. So, it was a serendipitous moment when I stumbled on A United Kingdom on Netflix one leisurely evening earlier this year. The film portrays a true-life romance set in post-WWII England – the sort of love story in my view, that supersedes even the greatest Shakespearean drama or a modern-day Hollywood concoction of romance. It crosses racial barriers, is riddled with high level political manoeuvres, and culminates in love tested and refined, that which also protects the integrity of a nation in the beautiful continent of Africa. Never have I seen love that was sharper than a double-edged sword, yet gentle enough to make even a cynic cry.
But there was more, much more that gripped me to my TV screen. A sentiment, I had come to experience which I knew prevailed in history in the context of colonialism that continues even to this day, was a key phenomenon that pervaded this cinematic drama, albeit in real life. The practice of ‘divide and rule’.
Seretse Khama was heir to the throne in the then Bechuanaland, now Botswana. His uncle, Prince Regent was waiting for Seretse to return after his education in the UK, to marry a local princess and rule the land. However, a chance encounter with an office girl, Ruth Williams in a dance hall of the 1940’s, changed Seretse’s destiny. Ruth was equally smitten by this suave African lawyer, but there was trouble ahead….
Ruth Williams, to me was a heroine like no other. Leaving home with parental blessings that escaped her, she was happy to marry this young man despite the warnings imposed even by the British government! After betrothal they leave for Africa into the unknown, probably expecting a welcome from the Khama family. Being White and British was not easy for Ruth when faced with African aristocracy. This too would have been an eye opener where the opposite was true in the streets of London, where Seretse faced racial harassment. Hailing from a simple working-class family, this union was not akin for Ruth’s family to bear either.
The film and history show that the politics of neighbouring South Africa dictated the protocol of the surrounding smaller nations. Apartheid was the order of the day and the marriage of another African would-be-king to a White woman would just tip the scales of expected order by those in power.
I was reminded of the trail of societal damage that has been left behind in many former colonies due to this method of dividing communities to rule a land. Could there be a residue of this phenomenon in church communities in the UK where diaspora groups separate themselves and are not actively encouraged to join the larger community? Does this form of existence unwittingly perpetuate the divide and rule governance style thus creating a neo-colonialism that can be harmful to all concerned.
Back to the film. The British officials’ stance was that they were trying to keep peace between Seretse and his uncle who also did not agree to the mixed marriage. The uncle’s allegiance to them was a useful tool for them to stop the young couple from being in the public eye. This way of control was masterful, sophisticated and even appeared just! The fact that this young couple loved each other escaped everyone’s judgement. The highest priority was to keep the colonisation principles in place which yielded much benefit in the likes of natural resources, that the subjugated countries bestowed, channelled to the desired places of power. The human suffering that this caused, in this instance a couple’s desire to live their lives, did not matter an iota to anyone.
The British diplomatic corps, in an attempt to remove the couple away from Africa, offered them free travel back to London to sort out the differences with the foreign office in London. But Seretse knew that if they both left that he would never be able to return to his people who had unanimously voted to hail him as king. He travels to London leaving Ruth behind in the hope that he will return after negotiations. However, the story twists here and he is detained for 5 years.
Left alone in their marital bungalow which was the ‘palace’ for this young African queen, with her husband exiled in Britain, Ruth discovers she is expecting a child. Ruth gives birth to their firstborn, driving herself to a local hospital. This strong, young, adopted African royalty engages so beautifully with the local women who had grown to love her.
Ruth was well and truly committed to be part of the day-to-day life with the local people. She ventured out with baby in her arms to help the villagers build their tribal homes made of cow dung mixed with sticks and mud. She experienced the rugged savannahs of Africa laying down the comforts of the privileged life she enjoyed. The unexpected adoration and gratitude the local villagers displayed to Ruth with their tribal singing and dancing affirmed this young woman’s efforts, which seemed like a dance of the Trinity. It is a scene of true cultural unity and acceptance that will remain in my heart for many years to come.
The cultural recognition of another human being for who they are, is a powerful symbol of reconciliation. This was only possible because one person stepped out in faith to a place which was unfamiliar and embraced it for better or for worse.
How does this story of more than half a century ago impact us today? In most parts of the world, a marriage of two different cultures is commonplace. Yes, Nelson Mandela will go down in history as a hero to have challenged the evil of racial segregation, but the story of Seretse and Ruth, to me, fulfilled the work of the many unsung heroes and heroines that combat the evil of racism and live their lives with integrity, challenging even the highest powers fearlessly.
“No man is free who is not master of himself”.Seretse quotes Greek Philosopher Epictetus
God bless Botswana!