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Harry and Meghan's Nigerian adventure: Traditional attire to warm welcomes

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When is a royal tour not a royal tour? Well, when the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, embarked on a significant visit to Nigeria spanning three days in May.

This journey was not a royal tour because of course Harry and Meghan are not working royals. But this deeply meaningful campaign was at the behest of Nigeria’s armed forces, marking an exceptional moment of engagement with key military and community leaders. The visit was all about aligning their ongoing efforts to foster mental-health awareness, spearhead various philanthropic campaigns and, of course, promote the Invictus Games.

Sweltering in the Lagos heat, I was in the press pack embedded in the crowds that were eager to embrace the royal couple.

“We just love them,” one of them said to me. Another told me how much they loved Harry’s late mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, as my own Ghanaian mother did, and they were so happy to see him carry on his mother’s good work. Someone else told me, “Meghan is one of us. I am so happy she came here.”

Coinciding with the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Invictus Games, this visit by Harry and Meghan was particularly poignant. Through their engagements, including involvement with Invictus Games athletes and mental-health initiatives, the couple's agenda was filled with moments designed to bring attention to pivotal causes. It was a fashion-forward yet culturally respectful display, and everywhere they went the couple was mobbed.

Meghan tastefully leveraged fashion by wearing Nigerian designers. This brand of cultural diplomacy was used strengthen ties and promote crucial discussions around mental health and veterans’ support, capturing headlines and drawing extensive global media coverage.

Prince Harry and Meghan visit children at the Lights Academy in Abuja, Nigeria, May 10, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

The couple's visit on day one commenced with a warm reception at Lightway Academy, where they engaged with students and discussed the importance of mental health. They met with the chief of defence staff to discuss further involvement in the Invictus Games. Prince Harry visited a military hospital to meet with injured service members, highlighting their recovery programs.

Notably, Nigeria has one of the biggest armies on the continent with more than 230,000 personnel, many of whom are wounded veterans. Nigeria debuted at the Invictus Games in 2023, with the athletes receiving encouragement and support from Harry and Meghan during the competition in Düsseldorf, Germany. This involvement has not only boosted the morale of the Nigerian team but also highlighted the global nature of the Invictus Games.

Prince Harry, who founded the Invictus Games in 2014 after his service as an Apache helicopter co-pilot gunner in Afghanistan, has been a pivotal figure in promoting sports as a rehabilitative tool for injured service members.

Prince Harry catches a volleyball during an exhibition sitting volleyball match in Abuja, Nigeria, May 11, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

On day two, the focus was on training and advocacy. Meghan and Harry attended a training session for Nigeria: Unconquered, showcasing their commitment to the rehabilitation of veterans through sports. A sitting volleyball exhibition match was held, with Prince Harry leading one of the teams, emphasizing teamwork and resilience among wounded service members.

This is especially important in Nigeria where conversations about disability are rare. Showing the resilience of wounded service-members, whilst also acknowledging that they even exist and can lead positive lives, is hugely important.

Meghan co-hosted a significant event focused on women in leadership, underlining the importance of female empowerment in global contexts, alongside Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general of the World Trade Organization on Saturday in Abuja.

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, right, sits by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, during an event in Abuja, Nigeria, Saturday, May 11, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

Day three was all about cultural engagement and fundraising. The day began with a basketball clinic organized by Giants of Africa, where the couple participated actively, promoting sports as a tool for healing. Then came a polo match and cultural reception to raise funds for Nigeria: Unconquered. The visit was rounded off with a journey to the State Governor’s House where the Governor commended the couple’s work on mental-health issues concerning the military.

Meghan Markle's discovery of her Nigerian roots has profoundly influenced her connection to the country. Through a DNA-based test, Meghan learned her ancestry is 43 per cent Nigerian, a revelation that she talked about in her podcast Archetypes. She said, "Being African-American, part of it is really not knowing so much about your lineage and background ... and it was exciting for both of us."

This newfound awareness was described by Meghan as both "eye-opening" and "humbling," enriching her understanding of her heritage. She expressed how this discovery has shaped her identity and her role as a public figure, emphasising the impact on her personal and public life.

Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, says it’s been 'humbling' to find out through a genealogy test that she is partly Nigerian (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

Her excitement about her background prompted Mo Abudu, the panel's moderator and chief executive of EbonyLife media group, to ask attendees to pick a Nigerian name for the Duchess. Members of the crowd proposed "Ifeoma," a name used by the Igbo tribe meaning "a treasured thing." Other attendees suggested "Omowale," meaning "the child has come home."

Meghan further acknowledged her ties to Nigeria during her speeches, referring to Nigeria affectionately as "my country." This phrase underscored her emotional and cultural connection to the nation, resonating deeply with her audience. She also shared these sentiments with students at Lightway Academy, telling them, "I see myself in all of you as well." which highlighted her personal link to the Nigerian youth.

These meetings focused on mentorship and the challenges women face in leadership roles, where Meghan used her platform to advocate for empowerment and support for women, tying in her Nigerian heritage as a source of inspiration and strength.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex's visit not only supported the physical and mental recovery of veterans through sports but also aligned with their broader goals of promoting mental health and supporting young people affected by conflicts. Their active participation and genuine interactions with the athletes underscore their commitment to the Invictus Games and its values.

Meghan's diplomatic wardrobe choices on this trip could only be described as a triumph. There was traditional and modern fusion where during a reception in Abuja, Meghan was seen wearing a skirt made from aso oke, a traditional handwoven fabric from southwest Nigeria, gifted to her at the event. She paired this with a modern blouse by Carolina Herrera, showcasing a blend of Nigerian tradition with contemporary fashion.

Meghan Markle shake hands with a girl on a wheelchair during the Giant of Africa Foundation at the Dream Big Basketball clinic in Lagos Nigeria, Sunday, May 12, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

Then there was symbolic attire when Meghan chose a blush silk maxi dress named "Windsor" for its significance, possibly nodding to her wedding year with Prince Harry. She wore a cross pendant necklace, once belonging to Princess Diana, during a lunch with Nigeria’s chief of defence staff, symbolising continuity and respect within the Royal Family. They paid tribute to the host country through colour when the Duchess wore a white Altuzarra suit, complementing Harry’s green suit, mirroring the colours of the Nigerian flag, during one of their official engagements.

Prince Harry and Meghan visit army wives at the defence headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, May 10, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

In a significant nod to her Nigerian heritage, Meghan wore a red midi dress by Nigerian designer Orire to a Women in Leadership panel, deviating from her usual neutral-toned outfits to align with the vibrant local fashion. (The website has since crashed as people scrambled to grab the designer pieces.)

She said earlier on the trip, “I very quickly got the memo that I need to wear more colour, so I can fit in with all of you and your incredible fashion.”

This choice was not only a fashion statement but also a tribute to her Nigerian roots and the local textile industry. Meghan's attire throughout the tour included pieces by Nigerian-British designer Fisayo Longe, featuring traditional Nigerian garments like gele and iro, which she wore with elegance and pride.

Meghan Markle's wardrobe during the Nigerian tour was meticulously chosen to communicate respect, homage, and personal connection to the country’s culture and heritage. Through her outfits, she engaged in a silent yet powerful form of cultural diplomacy, enhancing the impact of their visit and fostering a deeper connection with the Nigerian people. And frankly, she looked amazing.

Prince Harry, left, and Meghan, right, holding hands upon arrival at the government house in Lagos Nigeria, Sunday, May 12, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

The media coverage of Harry and Meghan's visit to Nigeria was notably widespread and detailed, capturing the attention of major global news platforms. Reports from the BBC, CNN, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Vogue were particularly prominent, each providing their unique perspectives on the various facets of the royal visit.

These outlets highlighted everything from the couple's engagements with local communities and their fashion choices to their advocacy work around mental health and support for veterans. This extensive media attention not only amplified the impact of the visit but also underscored the global interest in Harry and Meghan's philanthropic and diplomatic endeavours.

It's not just Meghan’s wardrobe that was a triumph on this visit. The entire three days were well-managed, culturally sensitive and inspirational. Throughout their visit to Nigeria, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle showcased an unwavering dedication to promoting mental health awareness, empowering veterans through the Invictus Games, and engaging in cultural diplomacy with thoughtful fashion choices.

Their journey was rich in moments that underscored their global influence and commitment to touching lives, from the warm receptions at community events to the significant discussions on mental health and women's empowerment.

BabaJide Sanwo-Olu, Lagos state governor, left, welcomes Prince Harry and Meghan upon arrival at the government house in Lagos Nigeria, May 12, 2024 (Sunday Alamba / AP Photo)

The strategic engagements and collaborations with local initiatives reflected not only their personal interests but also mirrored their royal legacy of service, compassion, and global citizenship. There’s no doubt that the Royal Family could use some of the Sussexes’ stardust right now to boost their popularity, and revive what’s looked like an aging and far-too-slimmed-down crop of working Royals lately.

The impacts of their visit are multifaceted, stretching from immediate attention to critical social issues to fostering long-term relationships between the U.K. and Nigeria. By intertwining Meghan's personal heritage with their royal duties, they have opened avenues for deeper cultural connections and highlighted the importance of international cooperation in tackling pressing global challenges.

As the Duke and Duchess of Sussex continue their work across the globe, their time in Nigeria stands as a testament to the potent blend of heritage, humanity, and hope that defines their public service, inviting us all to consider our part in the larger narrative of global empathy and connection.

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