How did an ordinary Englishwoman overcome powerful opposition to help transform an African nation? Susan Williams tells the story of the woman known as Botswana’s ‘mother’, Ruth Williams Khama…
This article first appeared in the February/March issue of BBC World Histories magazine
Raised in a south London suburb, Ruth Williams (1923–2002) had an ordinary childhood but showed unusual courage from an early age. When the Luftwaffe bombed London in 1940, the teenage Ruth undertook fire-watching duties. In 1942 she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, driving a crash ambulance at RAF Friston.
After the war, Ruth became a confidential clerk in an insurance firm. One evening in 1947 her sister invited her to a dance for students from Africa, organised by a missionary society. Ruth was reluctant but went along – a decision that transformed her life. There she met Seretse Khama, a law student and heir to the kingship of the Bangwato people in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Ruth and Seretse fell in love – but their relationship was met with hostility from her father and Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama, the tribe’s regent.
The British government also weighed in, under pressure from white-ruled South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, which opposed a prominent inter-racial marriage on their borders. To Ruth’s disappointment British officials, backed by the London Missionary Society and the Church of England, blocked a church wedding. However, the marriage went ahead, albeit in a register office.
Seretse and Ruth settled in Serowe in Bechuanaland, where the Bangwato took Ruth to their hearts as their Mohumagadi – ‘mother’ or ‘queen’. Most of the white women in Africa pitied her, “Yet in many ways,” observed journalist Margaret Bourke-White, “her life is fuller than theirs, with a much closer degree of companionship with her husband, identification of herself with his interests, and intelligent understanding of the broader problems he has to face.” A British official complained that Ruth was “a tougher proposition than we had hoped – she will never be bought off”.
In 1950 Seretse was brought under false pretences to London where he was told he was to be exiled for five years. Ruth, by that time pregnant, had remained in Bechuanaland because the Bangwato were (rightly) suspicious of Britain’s intentions. She gave birth to baby Jacqueline in the Serowe hospital.
Winston Churchill had condemned the treatment of the Khamas as “a very disreputable transaction”, yet made the exile permanent after he became prime minister in 1951. Despite denials by the British government, South Africa – whose supplies of uranium Britain hoped to access – had influenced the decision.
By then Seretse and Ruth were both living in exile in Britain, where she gave birth to their second child, Ian, in 1953. They were encouraged by a vigorous campaign by supporters including Tony Benn, and by others at home in Bechuanaland. “We still grieve that our mother is being kept away from us,” lamented a women’s association in Serowe.
In 1956 the exile was ended – on condition that Seretse was not installed as king. Once home, he and his uncle put aside their differences to work together for their people. Ruth had two more sons, twins Tshekedi and Anthony, and threw herself into voluntary work helping women and children, saying: “There is a big part for me, as a woman, to play.”
In 1961 Seretse Khama launched the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, and Ruth encouraged women to get involved. Eighteen months after the BDP won the nation’s first democratic elections in 1965, Botswana gained independence and Seretse became president; soon afterwards he was knighted and Ruth became Lady Khama. Never bitter about the past, their focus was the future of Botswana, then one of the world’s 10 poorest nations, having been badly neglected under colonial rule. As first lady, Ruth became president of the Botswana Red Cross, which assisted with relief programmes in the region, as well as the Girl Guides, the Botswana Council of Women, and the Child to Child Foundation.
Seretse died in 1980, but it never crossed Ruth’s mind to return to Britain. “I am completely happy here,” she said. “I travel to Britain and Switzerland as part of my charity work for the Red Cross, but I have no desire to go anywhere else… My home is here… When I came to this country I became a Motswana.”
Lady Khama died in 2002 at the age of 78, and was buried next to Seretse. Their legacy extends well beyond the borders of Botswana, in a model of harmony that exposed the evil of apartheid and the injustices of colonial rule.
Susan Williams is the author of Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation (Penguin, 2006). A United Kingdom, a film based on the book, was released in the UK in 2016 and is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.