For the African women who love Diana, ‘The Crown’ feels personal
By Tariro Mzezewa
The latest season of “The Crown” took Aulbright Nyih on an emotional roller coaster. Initially thrilled to see Princess Diana on screen, by the third episode she was reduced to tears by the portrayal of Diana’s bulimia. Soon Nyih was cursing Prince Charles, as he and his staff tried to keep Diana away from her son. And when the prince became jealous of Diana’s popularity, Nyih was ready to throw something at the television.
“I cried so many times watching this season,” Nyih, a dental student in Dublin, said. Although Nyih was born after Diana’s death in 1997, her Cameroonian mother talked about the princess as if she knew her personally. A running joke among millennial and Gen Z women with African mothers is that Diana was their mothers’ best friend.
“It’s just known that African mothers love Diana,” said Wangechi Waweru, a Kenyan rapper, whose mother was also a Diana fan. “She was their Beyoncé.”
Diana’s poise, care for her children, charity work and devotion to the African continent, which she visited several times, all appeal to women — and their daughters — who still feel a strong connection to the princess. Some African women even bear her name. A search for African mothers and Diana on social media yields hundreds of posts.
Many of the women who adored Diana come from countries that were colonized by the British, and grew up during or soon after a time of oppressive colonial rule — which might make positive associations with the royal family hard to understand. But all the women interviewed for this story said they and their mothers viewed Diana as an individual, not tainted with the colonial past.
My own mother, who spent most of her life in Zambia and Zimbabwe and has been a loyal Diana fan since the 1980s, said the new season confirmed much of what she believed about the royal family — particularly that their coldness toward Diana left her depressed. She paused watching halfway through the season because she found Emma Corrin’s performance as the princess all too real.
After her marriage to Prince Charles, Diana is portrayed in “The Crown” as young, shy and isolated in Buckingham Palace while her husband spends time with his lover, Camilla Parker Bowles. As the season progresses and Diana becomes more famous around the world, in her personal life she is increasingly lonely and lost, either criticized or ignored by both Charles (Josh O’Connor) and the rest of the royal family. The season has sparked much reaction from both fans and critics of the royals.
But for the African women from various countries and the daughters to whom they passed their love for the former Princess of Wales, the re-creation of her lonely life as a member of the royal family feels personal.
Sarah Nsibirwa, a pharmacist in Pennsylvania who is originally from Uganda, said she watched the first half of the season with her 29-year-old daughter and the second half with her 26-year-old daughter in four days.
“For any woman who has gone through finding out her husband isn’t loyal or who knows a woman who has been through that, watching Diana feels personal,” Nsibirwa said. “We all understand what it’s like to have to put on a smile while you’re burning on the inside.”
Even with the knowledge that the show’s creators took some creative liberties, for the princess’ female fans in Africa and the diaspora, watching the show has felt like watching the abuse and trauma of a close friend.
“You could feel the emotional neglect she went through,” said Diana Umana, a first-generation American songwriter, whose parents are from Nigeria. “The amount of times she would call Charles and he wouldn’t answer. How adamant they were about her being separated from her child. Everything she was feeling was completely normal, but she was being gaslighted by everyone from Charles and Camilla to the advisers and the queen.”
Umana, 28, said that she was named, in part, after Diana and partly because her parents wanted her to have a name that would be easy for everyone to pronounce.
Several women said Corrin’s portrayal of Diana as an enigmatic young woman thrown into a marriage she wasn’t ready for reminded them of their own mothers, aunts and other African women in their lives.
“I think African women of a certain generation see themselves when they were pushed into marriage and thought it was going to be a fairy tale, but they ended up sharing their husbands with in-laws, maybe with other women or maybe with substances,” said Rudo Manyere, a Zimbabwean blogger who lives in Oxford, England. (Manyere’s middle name is also Diana, after the princess).
“Diana was different from the rest of the royal family because she had that rebel spirit,” said Stephanie Kalulu, who was born in Zambia and now lives in San Diego. “Watching the show was so upsetting because it really felt like they set her up. They knowingly let her marry this man who was in love with someone else. She was doomed from the start.”
“The Crown” has also reignited a strong dislike for Parker Bowles that was born decades ago by the British tabloids’ all-too-simple narrative about her being a home-wrecking mistress.
“As a kid, I didn’t know why exactly, but I understood that we, as a collective of women in my family, did not like Camilla,” said Aida Sykes, a Tanzanian business specialist focused on gender and inclusivity, based in Dar es Salaam. “I remember walking around saying her name in full like you’d do for a villain of some sort.”
But watching the show’s fourth season, Sykes and others said, made them realize just how complicated the relationship between Charles, Camilla and Diana really was, and how long a history the prince and Parker Bowles had by the time Diana entered the picture. With each episode it becomes clearer that the real villain, most women said, was the family that encouraged Diana and Charles to marry.
“You feel like the royal family is to blame for the fallout and like maybe they should have let Camilla and Charles be, because the ramifications of that relationship on Diana were devastating,” said Sue Nyathi, a Zimbabwean author who lives in South Africa.
Nyathi’s new novel, “A Family Affair,” tells the story of 22-year-old Zandile, who marries an older man and becomes disillusioned with her marriage. Nyathi saw Diana in her protagonist.