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Outside of Harry and Markle, royal wedding was more than love

The wind of change blowing over the British Empire in the 1950s resulted in independence for several countries. Some like Kenya became republics while others like Canada remained dominions with the Queen of England still the head of state. The wind did not kill the British Empire with a bang; it has been dying with whimpers – with Brexit the latest.

With independence, we got our own national anthem and other symbols of nationhood. Unlike my parents, we no longer sing “God Save the Queen.” But evidence of Empire’s heydays is still with us, from the language I am writing in to palatial homes that once dotted Kenya’s white highlands and former colonies. Football, financial and legal systems and the Church of England are other remnants of the British Empire.

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Our parents and grandparents, despite subjugation under the British rule, had the fortune of living through the British Empire then independent Kenya. They often talked of Her Majesty’s government and still remember Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Kenya in 1953. One old man remembers how they swept the roads before her arrival.

That history is slowly getting lost as pre-uhuru generations continue leaving this small planet. If your parents or grandparents went through the Empire’s hey days, talk to them and record all that you can, it is a precious family treasure. I noted long after they had died that two of my uncles and a step-grandfather were veterans of World War I and II and fought for the British Empire. They all came home.

However, there is a part of the British Empire that never died; it has successfully resisted wars, time and social misfortunes. It is the monarchy, starting from Alfred the Great in 849 AD.

The monarchy is the heart of British soft power as the media demonstrated in run-up to yesterday’s wedding between Prince Harry and Megan Markle. The strength of the monarchy is reinforced by the Church of England, for which the Queen is the “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor”, according to the website of the British Royal Family.

It further notes “On the advice of the Prime Minister the Queen appoints archbishops, bishops and deans of the Church of England, who then swear an oath of allegiance and pay homage to Her Majesty.”

The royal wedding is not just about love between a prince and an American former actress. It is a watershed, the first time the British royals have married a lady of mixed race, black and white. It is not clear why being 50 per cent black makes you black and not white.

Eunice Mwende, a graduate student at University of Nairobi and self-confessed hustler, put it succinctly: “It is a commoner verses royalty, white verses black, divorced verses never married before, older lady verses younger man. It beats so many stereotypes and I’m happy to be alive when all this is happening.” What of you?

The marriage between Markle and Harry, not long after Obama became the first mixed-race US president, shows that racial relations across both sides of the Atlantic are thawing. This “first” is perhaps what is making the royal wedding so special not just for the British, but the world at large.

Some feel this is a good break from Trumpism and Brexit. Other observers say the event is a transition; the real change will be when a lady who is black in colour marries into the royal family, either in UK or elsewhere outside Africa.

The popularity of the wedding could also be based on the fragility of marriage in the West; any marriage is seen as a bright spot. Eurostats shows that the marriage rate in the EU has declined from 7.8 per 1,000 people in 1965 to 4.1 in 2013. The divorce rate increased from 0.8 per 1,000 in 1965 to 1.9 in 2013. Add the legalisation of same-sex marriages and the significance of traditional marriages goes up substantially.

Harry and Markle’s wedding is more than love. We now know more of UK than in the past, thanks to the media. That translates into more tourists and market for British products and services. UK and other Western countries long realised the close connection between our emotions and economics. No wonder behavioural economics is on the rise, even winning an economics Nobel Prize. That is why such a wedding has economic implications.

The power of the royal family as an economic conveyor belt arises from the fact that it can be replicated. Remember Porter’s Model? Turning social events into economic events has become popular in Kenya too; perhaps an indicator of Western influence and rise of capitalism and materialism.

Lots of Kenyans are busy over the weekend attending pre-wedding parties, weddings, ‘ruracios’ and ‘ngurarios’. These are cultural events but with lots of economics in them. Pre-wedding parties are about pooling resources to get someone a wife. We never get an account of how the money raised was used. Dowry negotiations have changed. It used to be a straight-forward process with standardised bride price in every community in terms of number of goats, heads of cattle and other small items that are often dependent on family.

Today, the goats and heads of cattle might be the same, but are indexed to cost of living. Determining the price of these animals is the heart of dowry negotiations. A cow in Kiambu can be Sh100,000 but Sh25,000 in mythical Dundori, Nyandarua.

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One woman summarised the prevailing thinking in marriage negotiations: “If you can’t take me to the altar, take me to the bank.” Ngurario has no big stories, it is the final traditional ceremony to confirm you have paid the full bride price.

Let’s go beyond the royal wedding. Why has Britain, a modern democracy with vibrant political parties, kept the royal family? There are good cultural and economic reasons for keeping the royal family, a common practice in Europe and lots of Asian countries including Japan and Malaysia.

Royal families are part of national cultures and provide a sense of belonging and continuity. Uganda realised that and revived kingdoms. I recall attending the coronation of Rukirabasaija Oyo Nyimba Kabamba Iguru Rukidi IV, the Omukama of Toro, in Uganda on ‎April 17, 2010. As we try to reach the magical 10 per cent annual growth rate in Vision 2030, we may need to incorporate a cultural component.

Maybe we should revive our kingdoms as a cultural curiosity. South Africa ensured traditional leaders have a place in national life after the end of apartheid. In Kenya, such “kingdoms” will not only create cultural pride but serve as counterweights to the excesses of elected leaders. They could serve as repositories of our rich cultures espoused by languages, traditions and history. What do you think?

We hope the newly-wed British royals have considered coming to Kenya for honeymoon.

– The writer teaches at the University of Nairobi.

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