I was out for lunch with a friend the other day when I spotted this cardigan in the window of a small retro clothes store in Brixton. It looked just like original art to me and could have been costume from a blaxploitation film. There was this big rounded 1970s collar with dark brown calf-pelt panels stitched down the front. I liked it immediately. Walked into the shop, pulled it off the mannequin, and tried it on. It looked pretty good to me in the mirror. So, I turned to my friend, and I asked, what do you think?
Kwame Nkrumah once said, “Far better to be free to govern or misgovern yourself than to be governed by anybody else.” This statement directed against the British colonial forces oppressing Ghana at the time has inadvertently come to represent a way of life for one Stephanie Benson, modern heiress to the ancient Queen of Ashanti throne.
Sultry, sexy singer, mother of five, independent woman, and loving wife are just some of the hats worn by Stephanie Benson. Dressed casually in jeans today, this beautiful woman would cut a dashing poise in any setting. But don’t let the chiselled features, hour-glass shape and sexy pout belie the strength of character and steely determination that drives this woman towards her single-minded path for happiness.
The stories of a fairytale princess never normally go from rags to riches, not that Stephanie is short of a bob or two these days. But never did the Brothers Grimm or The Arabian Nights tell tales of beautiful princesses who gave it all up for love and a bungalow in Kent. Then again, these stories were written long before Princess Akua Ohenewaa Asieanem of Kokobin (a.k.a. Stephanie) was born. So, this daughter to millionaire pharmacist Samuel Benson and Queen Nana Achiaa Boahemaah II decided to marry an English bloke and live in the unsanctified world of unsanitised people.
It all started when Stephanie’s father died. She was sent to live with her strict uncle in England. At the age of 15, she thought that she had escaped the restrictive lifestyle of royal protocol but found out that although she was living in North London affluence, her movements were still constantly supervised and under the watchful eyes of her uncle and his employees.
When she had finished her schooling, she took up employment as her uncle’s secretary. Whilst there, she was sent on a computer training course where she met her future husband, Jonathan. It was more or less love at first sight for him, says Stephanie, and she recalls that it took slightly longer for her to warm to the idea.
“I was 19 when I went on my first date with Jonathan. And I ended up falling head over heels in love with him. I had also realised that my uncle would never accept it, so we had to meet in secret.” When Jonathan proposed Stephanie eagerly accepted. The night she rang her mother to tell her the news, her uncle insisted that she return to Ghana immediately.
Once there, a huge party was arranged and the place filled with eligible suitors. Despite thinly veiled attempts by the family to force her to stay, Stephanie quickly returned to England where she is now twenty years into her marriage. Five children later, a chocolate shop and factory in Tunbridge Wells, a record deal she walked out on, and a flourishing career as a singer, she still claims to be very much in love.
But who in their right mind would follow the little man’s dream in reverse – from riches to rags – and still loudly proclaim to be happy?
Why would anyone want to give up a life of luxury; personal servants, a 25-bedroom mansion, education in the best schools of the world and, an annual trust fund as big as most people’s lifetime earnings?
“My life growing up was really never easy,” she sighs. “My mother was never around very much. Our life was governed by strict protocols, customs, rules and old-fashioned traditions. I couldn’t just run up to her for a hug when other people were around, or even call her mom,” she says rather wistfully.
This enforced distance between mother and child is in stark contrast to the relationship she cultivates with her own five growing brood, aged 9 to 20 years old. Her busy day-to-day world is very much like any other mother, yet despite a hectic schedule, daily school runs, live performances, time in the studio, and helping to run the family business, she still somehow manages to share quality time with her children.
“I like to be a trendy mum. My children know they can talk to me any time. I am their mum, and their friend,” she says matter-of-factly. So what lessons on race, identity and culture does a black woman who grew up in the royal lap of luxury pass on to her mixed-race children, particularly when deciding on schools and where to live? None, apparently, and it works just fine. “My two eldest daughters went to a private school from the age of three and, as it were, they were the only black children there. They never suffered any harm from it,” she shrugs.
“The only time we had a problem was once when another child told my son, ‘We don’t sit next to brown people.’ My son didn’t understand what he meant and was quite upset by it,” she says now, visibly disturbed by the memory. “That was probably my mistake. I never really discuss racism with them. I never had a chip on my shoulder in that way.” This statement, which to many may seem both ignorant and cold, underlines the reality of Stephanie Benson’s world view.
She has never really seen herself as a ‘black’ woman as such. She has never really shared the same cares or concerns as the masses. What Stephanie Benson knows above all else is that she is in-line to the throne of the royal Queen of Ashanti. She carries within her the lineage of great warriors and daring heroines, and that knowledge of history coupled with determination is what propels her through life and gives her an edge on self-worth.
In fact, Mrs Benson comes across as fiery, rebellious and very, very confident. None of it is a front. She is a consummate professional and utterly charming with it, too. This strong, rebellious, single-minded ancestry is what she claims to pass on to her children, and hopefully, they in turn to theirs.