Childhood & Early Life
Ruth Williams was born on December 9, 1923 in Meadowcourt Road, Eltham South London to George and Dorothy Williams. Her father served as the captain of the British Army in India. She had a sister, Muriel Williams-Sanderson.
She received her early education from Eltham Hill Grammar School. What made her different from her counterparts was her exemplary display of courage and valour from a young age.
In 1940, when Luftwaffe bombed London, Williams, who was in her teens, undertook fire watching duties. Two years later, during the Second World War, she served as a Women Auxiliary Air Force’s ambulance driver at various airfields of England.
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Marriage to Seretse Khama
Post war, Ruth Williams took up the position of a clerk for Cuthbert Heath, an insurance firm in London. A casual invitation from her sister in June 1947 to a dance for some students from Africa organized by the London Missionary Society changed Williams’ life completely. Little did she know before going to the performance that it would be a life-changing event for her!
It was on the fateful evening that Williams first met Prince Seretse Khama, a law student at Balliol College, Oxford. He was an heir to the kingship of the Bangwato people in the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana).
Immediately after meeting, Seretse and Williams found themselves attracted to each other. Despite being from different racial backgrounds, they couldn’t help but fall in love with each other. However, just as expected, the conservative society did not approve of their union and their relationship was met with hostility from both their families, especially her father and Seretse’s uncle, Tshekedi Khama.
Williams’ and Seretse’s relationship hit the headlines and gained political limelight. From tribal elders in Bechuanaland to the governments of South Africa and Britain, everybody opposed the marriage as it was against the newly established system of apartheid or racial segregation.
To discourage the marriage, governmental officials even blocked their church wedding with the help of London Missionary Society and the Church of England. Despite the ban, Williams and Seretse registered their marriage officially in 1948.
Post marriage, Williams and Seretse settled in Serowe in Bechuanaland. Williams was eventually accepted by the people of Bangwato as their mother or queen. In 1950, Seretse was called to London for discussions with British officials. As expected, he was banned from returning home and was told to remain in exile. Williams, not the one to back out in challenging times, joined Seretse in England. The couple lived in Croydon in exile from 1951.
When the news of Seretse and Williams being exiled did the rounds, there were protests all over in Bechuanaland. Bamangwato people came in support of the couple and pressed the government to lift the ban. They even sent a letter to Queen Elizabeth II. It was only in 1956 that the ban was lifted and Seretse and Williams were allowed to return to homeland.
Upon returning home, Seretse gave up on his tribal throne, and became a cattle farmer in Serowe instead. He then founded the nationalist Bechuanaland Democratic Party. During the 1965 general election, Seretse not just contested but also won the inaugural democratic election to become the Prime Minister of Bechuanaland.
When Seretse became the prime minister, he urged for independence and helped his country achieve it in 1966. With this, he became the first president of independent Botswana. He became a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Williams, dutifully, filled up the place of the First Lady of Botswana.
From 1966 to 1980, Seretse served as the President of Botswana for four terms consecutively. During these years, Williams, or Lady Khama as she was known then, was active politically and took part in all social and political affairs of the country. She urged women to leave the back seat and instead come to the forefront. She encouraged women to become active on all grounds.
As the First Lady, Lady Khama served as the president of the Botswana Red Cross. The organization supervised the relief programmes in the region. She also headed the Girl Guides, the Botswana Council of Women, and the Child to Child Foundation.
Post Seretse’s death in 1980, Lady Khama remained in Botswana. People recognized her as ‘Mohumagadi Mma Kgosi’ or Mother of the Chief. Some even called her the Queen Mother.
When Seretse was called to London, Ruth Williams was pregnant with their first child. The Bangwato people were suspicious of Britain’s intentions and thus kept Williams in Bechuanaland. William gave birth to their daughter Jacqueline in Seretse’s absence.
Soon after giving birth to their baby, Williams moved to London to live with her exiled husband. In 1953, their second child Ian was born. In 1958, twins Anthony and Tshekedi were born in Bechuanaland.
Their sons Ian and Tshekedi grew up to become politicians in Botswana. In 2008, Ian Khama was elected as the President of Botswana.