A Life of Service – Lady Ruth Khama

20 Aug 2012

We have been exploring the lives and legacies of some of the figures who mentored and supported Sir Seretse Khama. Our series would certainly be incomplete if it failed to appreciate the contribution of his principal life partner, Lady Ruth Khama.

It has now been a decade since Lady Khama left us. In life she was an inspiration to countless people around the world as well as in Botswana.

Something of the quality of her character is reflected in the core Red Cross principles she epitomised and espoused: humanity, impartiality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. Her dedication to these ideals was a source of personal strength that predates the time of her famous marriage, an event that elevated her as a global symbol of the triumph of the love of family and community over racial ignorance and hate.

Botswana’s first Lady was born as Ruth Williams on the 9th of December 1923. She was the second of two children, her sister Muriel having been born a year earlier.

Ruth grew up in the south-east London suburb of Blackheath. While the Williams family lived in relative comfort, they were by no means well to do. George Williams, the father, had been a junior officer with the British army in India, before settling down to civilian life and marriage after the First World War. Thereafter, he earned a living as a commercial traveller engaged in the wholesale marketing of coffee and tea. Mother Dorothy – known to the family as “Dot” - was a devoted housewife.

Brought up to as a devout Anglican, in 1929 Ruth began her schooling at Northbrook Primary School, which was run by the Church. In 1935 she went on for further studies at Elton Hill, a government secondary school with a reputation for graduating well-rounded students.

As part of their school’s character moulding programme, Elton Hill scholars were expected to engage in community service work. Ruth thus spent Saturdays doing chores at a local Council Social Services Department, in the process gaining a deeper empathy for those less fortunate than herself.

For many the 1930s was a period of persecution as well as economic depression. The racism of Hitler’s Third Reich was brought home after her class “adopted” a German Jewish refugee family.

As a young girl Ruth was also active in sports, being an avid hockey player and ice-skater. She also developed a lifelong passion for horse riding.

In September 1939 what had until then been a fairly unremarkable childhood was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Like many young people at the time, Ruth and her sister Muriel were evacuated when the war began, as their area of London was considered a prime target for bombardment. While Muriel was sent to a village in Wales, where she became active in the Congregational Church, Ruth joined others on a country estate in Sussex.

Several months later Ruth returned home for convalescence. Thereafter, she chose to remain and to take up nutrition studies at a technical institute. As part of this programme she did on-the-job vocational training at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, an episode that marks the beginning of her life-long association with health and rehabilitation work.

On the 15th of September 1940, several bombs struck the block where the Williams’ house stood. Their home was rendered structurally unsound and had to be demolished. At least one neighbour was less fortunate, being killed in the assault.

Having turned the minimum enlistment age of seventeen, in 1941 Ruth joined the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF). Already possessing a license, she was employed as a driver after passing three months of basic training that included an intensive course in auto-mechanics. This experience would prove of later benefit when she found herself attending breakdowns along the dirt roads of Botswana, to the occasional amazement of onlookers.

Lady Khama would subsequently credit the WAAF as a toughening experience that inculcated a sense of discipline and purpose, observing: “There is nothing like the Service to knock the ego out of a girl.”

As a WAAF driver, Ruth was initially assigned to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Headquarters, a relatively comfortable posting.

But, after a few months she was redeployed to Friston Airfield, where she was exposed to “the stark realities of war” driving crash ambulances along the Sussex coast emergency landing strips. This work often involved rescuing badly wounded aircrews, which left painful memories – “it took all the glamour of war out of me.”

While in the WAAF, Ruth also reportedly encountered white racial prejudice directed against blacks when she took exception to the attitudes expressed by some of her colleagues towards West Indian ground crews. To her this was inconsistent with fighting the repugnant racial beliefs of the Nazis.

At the end of the war Ruth was shifted back to chauffer duties, driving senior staff officers and other VIPs for several months before her demobilisation at the end of 1946.

Asked in 1991 if there was anything that she would wish to change in her life, Lady Khama replied: “Not that I can think of. Maybe the war, I would have liked to have had a proper childhood.”

The conflict had, however, certainly helped instil a private self-confidence that would help see her through the public controversy that followed her courtship with a Motswana law student, Seretse Khama.