Seretse and Ruth: Botswana's love story

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In the post script of Seretse and Ruth, authors Wilf and Trish Mbanga quote Julius Nyerere, who described Seretse and Ruth Khama’s marriage as “one of the greatest love stories the world has ever known”. Their fascination with this extraordinary couple is evident throughout their beautifully crafted book. A poignant romance and political thriller, this timeless tale is an inspiration both to those who remember the international scandal surrounding Seretse Khama’s marriage, and a new more cynical generation who need, now more than ever, real heroes to admire.

Many will be familiar with the details of Seretse Khama’s life; sent by his royal uncles to study in England, he is expected to return to Bechuanaland and claim his birthright as Chief of the Bamangwato. Eager to return home to lead his people, he could not have predicted that he would fall in love with an English woman, Ruth Williams or that their marriage in 1948 would set into motion a chain of events that would have a profound effect on their personal lives and the history, of what would become – under Seretse’s leadership – the independent country of Botswana. Despite extraordinary pressure from their families and the international community Seretse and Ruth refused to give up on one other.

A formidable team

They faced separation, exile, extreme prejudice and were pawns in a game of diabolical political manoeuvring by both the British government and apartheid South Africa. All this only made their relationship stronger, forging them into “a formidable team, united by their devotion to each other and their commitment to the Khama legacy which the passage of time could do nothing to dispel.”

In writing Seretse and Ruth, the Mbangas extensively researched the couple’s life through personal interviews as well as utilising newly released official documentation and newspaper articles. The facts interspersed with imagined scenes and dialogue give the reader a much deeper understanding of the central characters. The legend of Seretse Khama becomes more accessible, the reader becomes familiar with his intelligence, determination, kindness and nobility of spirit, as well as his more human failings.

He often becomes disheartened with the constant struggle for what he believes in and, diagnosed with diabetes in 1960, he has to struggle with illness throughout the rest of his life. In turn it is easy to empathise with and admire Ruth, spirited and courageous she constantly supports and encourages Seretse. Despite the fact that she is from a completely different culture, her indomitable spirit ensures her place in the hearts of the Bamangwato people.

A noble example

What makes this particular story of Seretse and Ruth’s relationship so compelling is the unique viewpoint from which it was written. Wilf and Trish Mbanga clearly empathise with the royal pair. As a black-white couple who married in Rhodesia in 1978 their experiences with similar adversity, add a depth and richness to the emotionally charged prose of the book. While it was unfolding, the story of Seretse and Ruth caught the imagination of people around the world. In a time when overt racism was the accepted norm in countries like South Africa, Rhodesia and the Southern states of America, they were a noble example of acceptance and tolerance.

The mark of a truly great book is the lessons that you learn from it. As a generation obsessed with celebrity we are bombarded with great love stories and even more spectacular divorces every day. In a time when we are searching for heroes and statesmen of conviction to look up to, we mostly find corrupt, power hungry politicians with duplicitous policies. As a people facing persecution within and exile from our own country, perhaps we should be looking to heroes of the past for leadership and inspiration. Seretse and Ruth’s devotion to each other and to their people, their determination in the face of adversity and their remarkable lack of bitterness, despite all that they had been through, is a lesson to us all in commitment, tolerance and fortitude.

Post published in: Arts

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