One of the greatest love stories of our century, the story of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams is an epic study of how deep inter racial prejudice can stretch true love.
“I have met a girl and I think you should meet her! Somebody I should like to be my wife.” This is what Prince Seretse Khama, then a law student in London, told his closest friend Charles Njonjo after having set eyes on Ruth Williams.
It was the start of one of the greatest love stories of the twentieth century, one that would be made into a movie, A United Kingdom.
In June 1947, Ruth accompanied her younger sister Muriel to a London Missionary Society hospitality evening at Nutford House, a hostel associated with the Congregational Church that Muriel attended.
Muriel introduced Seretse to her elder sister, but no one mentioned Seretse was heir to the throne of chief to the Bamwangato people of Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
All Ruth knew was that this man was studying law at Inner Temple. Ruth later recalled: “I saw a tall, well built smiling African with wonderful teeth, broad shoulders and perfect manners.”
They also found they shared a common interest in jazz.
Three months after meeting, Seretse gathered up enough courage to ask Ruth out. To be on a safe side, Seretse called Ruth at her office and said, “I have two tickets for The Ink Spots ( a popular jazz group)…I’ll get three if you’d like your sister to come along with us.”
Ruth sassily replied: “I’d love to come – without my sister.”
Despite Seretse’s strong feelings for Ruth, their relationship developed slowly. “We enjoyed being together, of course, but our relations, though friendly enough were quite platonic…I learnt that she a daughter of a London salesman and that she worked as a typist at the famous insurance firm of Lloyd’s in London.”
After their first date, they gradually spent more time together. Ruth watched Seretse play football, but not boxing as she found that too brutal.
They went ice skating but Seretse was impossible on ice. Whenever Seretse had some news-if he’d passed an exam-Ruth was the first person he told.
Interracial dating in 1940s London was fraught with difficulties. Friends of Ruth’s parents would cross the street to avoid meeting her and she was often called a “tart” when she was out with Seretse.
The attitude was that if a white girl was out with a black man, she couldn’t be respectable.
Still despite the challenges they felt, Seretse felt certain he wanted Ruth as his wife and nearly a year after they started dating asked her: “Ruth, do you think you could love me?” She didn’t need to say yes, Seretse recalled later.
“The light in her sky-blue eyes and the smile on her face told me what I wanted to know.” They went to a tiny restaurant in Soho to celebrate and it was there that Seretse kissed Ruth for the first time, after almost a year of secret meetings and dates.
Seretse recalled how angry he felt when people saw them together and cast aspersions upon their relationship. The fact that he was royalty made it worse.
“Perhaps the most humiliating of my experiences has been the attempt (by the press) to cheapen my romance with Ruth, to prejudice the public against us by making it look like a shocking scandal. Ours was no dance-hall ‘pick-up’ meeting as some people have claimed,” he told Ebony Magazine in 1951.
Seretse like any dating couple didn’t know they were falling in love at the time. “But now that I think back on it,” Seretse said in Ebony.
“We both must have had subconscious fears of what the future held for us if we allowed ourselves become serious. There was a feeling in my land – strong feelings about what was white and black- and I suppose both of us wondered secretly what future could be there for us: an African prince and a white English secretary.”
“But in matters of love, the heart is seldom ruled by skin colouring,” Seretse said.
“She did love me and I knew this is the woman I wanted for my wife-the woman I wanted to be my help mate in bringing guidance and knowledge to my people in Bechuanaland.
Others, however, saw things differently, and challenges continued for the couple. When planning their wedding, they were hampered by religious officials who kept saying they needed approval from the local bishop.
Once wed, they even had to overcome more obstacles. Telling her father the news of her marriage in 1948, Ruth found she was thrown out of the family home.
In London, they couldn’t find housing as few landlords wanted a mixed couple in their property.
Seretse’s uncle, who was ruling in Seretse’s stead while he was being educated said: “If he brings his white wife here, I will fight him to the death.”
Then there was the British Government hugely concerned what an interracial marriage would do to international relations between the UK and South Africa – Botswana’s neighbouring country that had just passed a law against mixed marriage.
Ultimately, though, their love triumphed over all this adversity. Together, Seretse and Ruth had one daughter, Jacqueline, in 1950 and three sons, Ian in 1953, and twins Anthony Paul (named Anthony after Tonny Ben who led the campaign to end Seretse’s exile) and Tshekedi Khama in 1958, and the couple remained happily married until Seretse’s death in 1980.
As a personal friend and later president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere once said, “it was one of the greatest love stories of the world!”