Ruth, Lady Khama, wife of the first president of Botswana, whose love story defied two governments and rocked a world wearied by war in 1948, was like a mother to me.
So it was with a sense of surrealism that I saw her depicted on the big screen in the new film, A United Kingdom.
When my sister was dying of cancer in London in 2000, Ruth, who was having treatment for cancer too, comforted me as she stayed with us in our Joburg family home.
I didn’t realise how ill she was, subsumed as I was in Annie, my sister’s, dying days. She would chat to Annie in London and to my stroke-affected mother in Cape Town.
We had all lived in Serowe, the Bamangwato tribal home, at the time the British were trying to trick the couple into leaving Seretse’s country.
Ruth, though I did not know it at the time, had been part of my life since I was a toddler, in Serowe.
My father was the Assistant District Commissioner there when the Khama couple returned to Seretse’s home after their London marriage. He had studied law at Balliol College, Oxford University, a move his worldly-wise uncle, Tshekedi Khama, had welcomed.
Seretse was four years old when his father died and his uncle became the tribal regent and his “father”. Neither of them could have dreamt that the chief-to-be would fall in love with the particularly pale-skinned, auburn-haired, attractive Londoner Ruth.
I don’t have the space to tell the full story here beyond mentioning that the enraged Tshekedi tried to prevent the marriage by appealing to the London Missionary Society and the British Administration in the then Bechuanaland Protectorate.
Soon the British government, bowing to pressure from newly apartheid-governed South Africa, was fully – and fruitlessly – involved in trying to stop the married Ruth and Seretse from going home to Serowe.
That’s where my family, in a tiny way, became involved in the affair for my father, Peter Cardross Grant, refused to bow to the administration’s order that Ruth be frozen out of (white) society.
“Invite Ruth to tea,” he said to my mother, Mary. “And so she did,” Ruth told me, on one of the many weekends I spent with her on her farm, outside Gaborone, when I was writing a book about her, in the early 1980s.
“But our tea date never happened.” Ruth paused. “Because that is the day I gave birth to Jackie. But I never forgot your parents’ kindness.”
Seretse was not in London, where the film, A United Kingdom, places him, but in Lobatse, Bechuanaland – my birthplace – when Ruth went into labour. He had been exiled there.
He and his friends drove like the furies back to Serowe.
Ruth had refused to sleep after Jackie’s arrival, fighting off the effects of the doctor’s sedative, until Seretse reached her bedside, her arms, and their infant.
I tell this story now because it so powerfully illustrates Ruth’s iron will and determination. Her father, as furious as Tshekedi at the interracial marriage, had turned her out of their Blackheath, London home.
Her missionary sister Muriel and her mother were in England, and so at a time when pregnant women feel vulnerable and want family close by, Ruth was “alone”.
She had used her advanced pregnancy and the “danger” of driving long distances on winding sandy roads, to keep her in Serowe, hoping the British would relent and allow Seretse to join her there.
But weeks after Jackie’s birth, the couple was forced to go to Lobatse from where they flew into exile back to Britain, thus ensuring South Africa kept supplying Britain with uranium.
During their five years of cold and miserable exile, the Bamangwato, the largest and most powerful tribe in Bechuanaland, became restless and unmanageable, as they demanded the return of their chief and his wife.
For, contrary to Tshekedi’s predictions, thousands of them had roared their acceptance of the couple in the kgotla – their tribal parliament – where everyone had a voice, even if a meeting went on for days.
“We ask for bread and you give us stones,” they berated the British who had assumed direct rule in the absence of the “wicked” uncle who had gone into self-imposed exile, away from Serowe.
Riots ensued, stones were thrown and the police were called in as the increasingly unruly tribe made its feelings known. A worried Seretse told his uncle he was prepared to renounce his chieftainship if the British would let him go home.
The British were embarrassed by the worldwide opprobrium that their cruel treatment of the couple attracted, and a deal was struck.
In 1956 the couple was allowed to return home with Jackie and little Ian. He had been born in London, and is today the president of Botswana.
As the winds of change howled through Africa, so the British began readying the BP (Bechuanaland Protectorate) as we called it back then, for independence.
Seretse went into politics by forming the Botswana Democratic Party. He, with Ruth by his side, travelled widely through a sparsely populated country the size of France, as they educated voters.
Gaborone, a railway siding, was chosen to be the capital – for the BP was administered from outside its borders in Mafikeng. My father was the District Commissioner there at the time, and tasked with overseeing the building of a town in virgin bush.
Queen Elizabeth II later recognised his services with an OBE (Order of the British Empire).
The Khama family moved with their four children to Gaborone. Twins Tshekedi and Tony had been born in Serowe after exile ended and my three siblings and I became friendly with the four Khama children.
Seretse won the elections with an overwhelming majority and Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1965, before Independence on 30 September 1966.
The love of Ruth, the slim, lively Englishwoman who had been cast out by her family, and attacked by her government for being unpatriotic, had triumphed.
At Botswana’s Independence ball in September 1966, which I attended, she was stunningly dressed in a red gown with one elegant shoulder bare.
A teenager, I had been let out of boarding school in Joburg, not only for the celebrations but because there were not enough women to go around at the ball.
I rushed home at midnight, jumped on my sister’s bed and told her I had danced with Seretse.
His death at the young age of 59 in 1980 from liver cancer hit Ruth particularly hard. Not only had a great love affair come to an end but so too had her busy and fulfilling life as the country’s first lady.
She moved from the large and elegant double-storey State House into a simple bungalow on a family farm outside Gaborone where she lived “alone” with domestic staff.
That is where she took me so I could begin our interviews for a book on her that I had suggested.
Seretse had been dead for well over a year and I soon sensed the struggle she was having to adapt to her vastly changed circumstances.
Once the book interviews were complete in 1983, we saw each other less often but she came to stay with us on several occasions.
One day in September 1999 she rang me to suggest we have tea at Joburg’s Hyde Park Corner, where we spent hours chatting as I caught up on her children’s lives.
Thereafter we met often as she came to Joburg for treatment for her throat cancer. She stayed with us, making my family chuckle when she asked if she needed to “dress for dinner”.
When we were out together nobody, except for a few waiters, recognised the slender woman with one pale blue eye and one green.
She’d pat the back of her head, in a gesture that became familiar to me, and clear her throat, touching her lips with her fingertips.
“It’s catarrh, I must keep off sugar,” she’d say.
She never lost her English way of speaking and although she did try to learn Setswana, she gave up, telling me she was always too busy to do so.
It was typical understatement from the former First Lady of Botswana, a stable country whose discovery of diamonds soon after Independence (not before as the movie depicts) was so wisely managed by Sir Seretse and his government.
Busy with my mother, who had lost the power of speech, it was a few days before I returned her call.
By then she had been hospitalised before being allowed to go to her son Tony Khama and his family’s home. He allowed me to speak to Ruth on condition I did the talking, which I did, trying hard not to weep when we said goodbye. She died on 22 May 2002.
Her funeral in Gaborone’s cathedral was a huge one. I drove with members of the Khama family behind her cortege through the capital, its streets lined with sad crowds.
That evening after a violent hailstorm, unusual for winter, the sky was a surreal and fiery red. Just like the young Ruth’s hair, I thought. As the light faded I felt her direct gaze, heard her soft musical laugh and the clearing of her throat.
Days later she was laid to rest beside Seretse in the Khama family graveyard, on a hilltop overlooking Serowe, united for eternity. DM
Photo: Ruth and Seretse Khama with now President of Botswana Ian Khama and his elder sister Jackie.
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