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Despite Colonial Past, Kenyans Swept Up in Royal Wedding

Kenyans fought hard to get their freedom from the British empire. But when the Royal Wedding played on TV today, an estimated one in four Kenyans were following the wedding, on TV or radio.

By Dana HughesCorrespondent / April 29, 2011

Britain's Prince William kneels at the alter with his bride, Kate Middleton, as her father Michael (l.), and William's brother and best man Prince Harry (r.) listen, during the wedding ceremony conducted by Rowan Williams at Westminster Abbey in central London, on Friday, April 29.

Dominic Lipinski/Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

You might think that a former colony, with a complicated if not downright fractious history with the United Kingdom, would thumb its nose at the royal wedding. After all, isn’t the marriage of the future king and queen of England, full of extravagant pomp and circumstance, a throwback to the good old British Empire days? What Kenya broke free from 47 years ago?

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But … you’d be wrong. Kenyans have caught royal wedding fever as much as the rest of the world – if not more. In a country with a population of roughly 40 million people, it’s estimated as many as seven to 10 million may tune in to see Catherine Middleton, the commoner, marry William, her Prince Charming.

“It really is the ultimate fairytale wedding,” says Sharleen Samat, the production manager for Nation Television, one of Kenya’s privately-owned national networks. Nation, or NTV as it’s commonly known, plans to devote much of the day’s programming to the nuptials.

NTV’s morning program “The Breakfast Show" is airing a special “royal edition," complete with a fashion show where Kenyan wedding dress designers will showcase how they would dress the regal bride. The channel will broadcast the ceremony live from Westminster Abbey. NTV’s afternoon business show will focus on Kenya’s booming wedding industry and examine the population’s "mad fascination with weddings," says Samat.

In fact, all of the country’s major television channels have royal wedding coverage plans. Viewing parties throughout Nairobi are also being held; from a luncheon at the swanky Fairmont Norfolk hotel to a public screening being staged at a shopping mall.

Some people will be viewing for entertainment, while others will be scouting for ways to turn their own Kenyan wedding into a royal replica. “After the royal wedding everybody will be trying to mimic what Catherine Middleton is doing,” says Dr. Catherine Matsisa Rosza, editor of Samantha’s Bridal magazine. “So we are really looking forward to it. We’re really excited.”

Though Buckingham palace won’t confirm official numbers, the price tag for Kate and Will’s wedding and subsequent soiree is estimated to be in the multi-million dollar range. By contrast in Kenya, a wedding of $20,000 is considered extravagant. So why all the interest in an event taking place, seemingly literally and figuratively, a world away?

“Britain has a historical, cultural, and political connection to Kenya,” says Samat. “This is where the queen, Prince William's grandmother, found out she was the new Queen of England. Prince William proposed to Kate in Kenya.... it's where the fairytale started.”

Kenyans aren’t just in love with the royal wedding. They seem to be in love with weddings period. Two of the most popular shows on television are reality shows about weddings; one is even named “The Wedding Show.” The concepts are quite simple … stories of couples in love and their weddings. Even Kenyans who could never afford the mostly upper- and middle-class ceremonies showcased, love to watch. In a culture where marriage and children are highly-valued and where everyday life can be a struggle, weddings represent a chance to celebrate a rite of passage and a day of true joy. Both women and men take great pleasure in the tradition.

Even my cab-driver, a 33-year-old proud African man, laments he’ll miss watching the royal ceremony because of work.

“Would you really watch if you weren’t working?” I ask incredulously.

“Of course,” he says. “Weddings are beautiful.”

Dana Hughes is the Africa news correspondent for ABC News, based in Nairobi.

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