When Prince Harry introduced Meghan Markle this week as his fiancee, he talked about their romantic trip to Botswana, where they camped under the stars, away from prying eyes.
Like his brother, Prince William, who proposed to Kate Middleton during a getaway at a log cabin in the shadow of Mount Kenya, Prince Harry made another African nation — this time Botswana — a big part of his love story.
So much so, the couple’s time in Botswana is represented on Markle’s finger, which features an engagement ring with a primary stone from the southern African nation.
The royal family’s relationship with Africa is long, complicated and dates back to decades. It’s intertwined with a history of British colonial rule in several African nations, one that changed world politics and left behind a legacy of segregation, economic ruin and disenfranchised citizens.
Kenya and Botswana gained independence from Britain in 1963 and 1966, respectively, but like several other countries, their ties to the monarchy still remain.
Harry and Markle’s trip to Botswana played a pivotal role in their courtship. There, they escaped the media glare and got to know each other.
Markle described her ring as the perfect representation of their time there.
“It’s incredibly special to be able to have this, which sort of links where you come from and Botswana, which is important to us,” she said.
Harry is a familiar face in the continent, where he’s made several trips, including to South Africa and Lesotho. In the latter nation, he runs Sentebale, a charity he co-founded to help AIDS orphans in the nation and neighboring Botswana.
William and Harry are also passionate about animal conservation, and work with several organizations that focus on saving wildlife. Markle has also visited Rwanda to advocate for clean water as part of World Vision.
“Princess Di seems to have instilled in her sons compassion toward animals and fellow human beings in plight,” said Louise Nyamu-Steinbeck, a political scientist in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
That may explain why they’re drawn to certain parts of the continent, where Harry and William have said they feel most at home, she said.
“They have a passion for wildlife conservationism and humanitarian projects, coupled with the serenity of the vast savannah with its mountains, valleys, lakes, flora and fauna, as well as Africa’s friendly folk and vibrant cultures,” she said.
But Eliza Anyangwe, the founder of The Nzinga Effect, a platform that tells African women’s stories, said the royals appear to be drawn to a certain image of the continent.
“The Africa they see — and I believe love — is the Africa of a National Geographic: stunning landscapes and peculiar cultures,” she said.
“The great travesty about Africa for a lot of white people is that it happens to be populated by Africans. So they seek after the wilderness or the parts most reminiscent of Europe — such as Cape Town (South Africa) for example,” she said.
Anyangwe said while a lot of African nations maintained their economic, social and political ties to Britain long after independence, interest for the royal family started waning with the 1997 death of Princess Diana.
“There is a generation across the continent that really couldn’t care less what happens in the UK, much less Prince Harry,” she said.
Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton at a secluded cabin getaway in the sprawling Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, where rhinos and giraffes peek at vacationers from behind the bushes.
“Kenya has always been very close to Prince William’s heart. He’s been coming here for many years. He loves it,” said Ian Craig, founder of Lewa and owner of the cabin.
William first went to Kenya during his gap year at age 17, and has returned several times. Kenya, he has said, provides a respite from real life.
“It’s escaping to a kind of different world where I am just who I normally am anyway, and I can let that side, that sort of slightly immature, silly person come out a bit more than I normally do,” he said.
While visiting Lewa and other animal conservation areas, their charities are a major focal point.
“This is a royal family that wants to engage with Africa, understands its challenges but recognizes that it’s a beautiful place and wants to show the world,” said Ayo Johnson, director of Viewpoint Africa, which sells content about Africa to media outlets internationally.
Johnson said the two come from a different time, and any animosity over British colonial rule is misdirected.
“Princes William and Harry’s generation is willing to turn a new chapter, open a new page, rewrite history as best as they possibly can by saying the old is the old, the wrongs of the past are in the past,” he said. “They are embracing Africa for what it is … they are a reflection of that forward thinking.”
Others, like Janet Nyawera, would like to see Harry and William visit what she describes as the “real” parts of the communities they go to.
“Why do they always go to the luxurious camps and the children’s homes? Even in good faith, that comes off as stereotypical especially in the context of history. I want them to go to cities as well, engage with the youth in those communities,” said Nyawera, who lives in the northwestern Kenyan town of Nakuru.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip
In 1952, when William and Harry’s grandparents visited Kenya, the nation was considered a social playground for European elites. At the time, Kenya was still under British rule and had not gained independence.
In February of that year, then- Princess Elizabeth had left her ailing father, King George VI, in London and flown to Kenya.
The princess and her husband were visiting the Treetop, a popular spot back then for looking at animals from a high vantage point. It was there in the slopes of Mount Kenya that her husband, Prince Philip, told her about her father’s death. At that moment, Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth.
Years later, the royals still embrace Africa in their own way.
Since colonial history cannot be changed or erased, Nyamu-Steinbeck said, African nations should look at the big picture and utilize the relationship to boost tourism, which is a big part of their economies.
“The biggest reward this attention could accord Africa is for those beyond her borders to understand that the continent is so much more than orphans, famine, disaster, poverty and corruption — that it offers a well-trained service industry, a sizable educated elite, and technological innovations galore,” she said.