Her majesty in Botswana
I met her majesty the Queen – several times. It was during her 1979 visit to Botswana where I was teaching English and she came on a state visit with Prince Philip. I went to the airport with our young daughter to be among the crowd of flag waving British subjects. I was invited to three or four of the ceremonies. There was the reception at the British High Commission, a gathering at the university and the State President’s party.
Curtsy and don’t speak first to Her Majesty
At each of them there was a little tutorial given by a courtier to those of us who were being marshalled in the line. We were instructed to bow or curtsy. We were told it was unlikely she would shake hands. Even if she approached us, we were not to speak first. Her Majesty chooses the topic of conversation. We were to reply briefly because she would want to move on.
On these occasions the questions were either “And what do you do?” or “and how many years have you been here in Botswana?” We were a fairly small group of British people working as teachers, university lecturers, water engineers, agriculturalists, vets, medics, missionaries etc. We mostly knew each other. Because of such small numbers, we were the same group recycled to each royal gathering. I don’t know if her Majesty noticed. Some of us entered into the spirit of this, and had a costume change between each party, as she did.
Empire within living memory
I had qualified as a TEFL teacher at London University Institute of Education in a department quaintly called ‘English for Tropical Areas’ which basically meant English-speaking Africa. Some of our teachers had come from careers in Ethiopia, Congo DRC, Nigeria etc. The Empire was within living memory. I can recall one venerable old Empire educationalist in his 70s called in to give us a special lecture. The gist of it was that some of us would find ourselves teaching in zones of political or even military turbulence, but it was better to try and keep our heads down and just carry on teaching!
Long service in the Commonwealth
I sometimes think that nowadays people who live in the modern UK have no idea of how British people dispersed all over the Empire. Migrants are here because we were there. I am not referring to colonial landgrab, but to commonwealth development which was huge. Some of those British subjects who stood in line to greet their Queen had been years in the country, particularly the missionaries (of the UCCSA – David Livingstone’s heirs), the vets and the water engineers. That is one reason why I think it is so unjust that such people are denied a full British state pension.
Patrial rights of young British subject
I took our three-year-old daughter along to wave the flag when the royal flight arrived at the airport. I had gone back to Kent for her birth at Pembury hospital because I wanted to ensure she would have full rights to residence in the UK. In the early 70s, the newspapers (I used to read the tissue paper overseas version of the weekly Guardian) discussed ‘patrial’ rights, ie birth rights for those with British parents or grandparents. The government tried to balance the needs of Brits returning from work overseas, often with foreign born wives and children, and the public outcry in some parts (Enoch Powell etc) against what some saw as excessive immigration from the former colonies.
My husband had no rights in the UK. In fact, he had just lost his South African citizenship when his SA passport expired and he was denied a renewal on the grounds that he was a citizen of the Transkei (which he was not as he was born in Johannesburg). As Botswana did not recognise Transkei passports, he had been advised to get a UN document as a refugee. We had battled for months over this correspondence.
Back to the NHS for birth
So as my pregnancy advanced, I decided that it was better to fly to the UK and ensure our daughter got full British citizenship, than have her born in Botswana, where neither of us had passport rights. Nor was there a qualified gynaecologist at the hospital. But it was then a shock when I got back to Kent and went for the medical checks to be told that I had to pay for medical treatment under the NHS, as I was a foreign user. In my naivety, I had thought that paying for national insurance, which I continued to do from Botswana, would also qualify me for NHS treatment. I suppose I had been so preoccupied with the citizenship questions I had neglected to look into the NHS regulations.
What was galling was that when I returned to work in Botswana, a colleague told me about their friend whose American husband had got a free NHS operation in a London hospital when they were just passing through to return to the US. I guess in those pre-computer days, the system of spotting the unqualified was a bit haphazard: their name was Smith and mine was Mbali – so easy to spot the unqualified.
Anyway, I paid for the NHS treatment, and got our daughter’s passport as an infant and flew back to Botswana. After all this trouble, I was determined she should know she is a British subject and wave the flag for the Queen.
Invited by her majesty the Queen
Some years later, the Queen sent an invitation to my husband. It was an invitation to be the vicar of Preston-in-Tees (in the north east of England). This was in her capacity as Head of the Church of England, and that parish happened to be directly in the Queen’s gift. Southern Africa was becoming increasingly disturbed by early 1980. Although Botswana itself was peaceful, there was bloodshed in South Africa, and war in Namibia, Angola, and Rhodesia – all the surrounding countries.
My husband was fearful for our family, now with three toddlers, and confided with colleagues he met in a conference in Zambia. They helped to find him a parish in the diocese of Durham. He also wanted to be near University of Leeds so that he could do a PhD under David Jenkins, his tutor from Oxford, who had just been appointed a Professor there. (This thesis eventually produced his book The Churches and Racism published by SCM.)
Stopped at the border
So in 1981 we uprooted from Botswana and flew Zambian airways into Gatwick. When we arrived, I went through the barriers quickly with our three British-born toddlers, eager to be greeted by family waiting on the other side. Then I realised that my husband was still stuck at the passport desk. They did not like his refugee passport. He needed proof of a job in the UK. “But I have been invited by the Queen” he kept saying. They wanted evidence. Unfortunately, this was in files that were in the luggage now piling up at the baggage carousels. Again, in our naivety and preoccupation with the children, we had not thought too much about the details of immigration rules.
The bedroom inspection
However, after rooting around the missing document was eventually found and he was let through. They were still sceptical about our marriage, however. Some months later, when we were installed in the vicarage at Preston-on-Tees, we got a sudden visit from an immigration official. He wanted to check up that we were married. Not satisfied with a marriage certificate, he asked to see the bedroom where we slept. Po-faced, I duly showed him our double bed. I wonder what procedures he would have invoked if we had happened to be sleeping in separate beds?
What was behind this visit was the fear of spurious marriages for immigration purposes, which were becoming increasingly frequent. But I was somewhat surprised: I had thought that my husband’s rights to live there were not dependent on being married to me but on that invitation from the Queen.
I write up all this in detail because I think many people who have spent most of their lives resident in the UK have no idea of the procedures that ‘protect’ them in the charmed circle of full British citizenship. It is only from the outside, and I did marry outside the tribe, that one begins to realise the detail of it.
Now where are we ?
Unfortunately, because of Brexit, our daughter’s costly British citizenship is now of no use to her and our grandchildren, living as they do in Brussels. She had to take out Belgian citizenship to continue to live there.
A coda to this story is that my husband is still grateful to the Queen. He is now in a dementia home. When he heard about the Queen’s death, he asked for his black trousers.