Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
14 - 20 September 2000
Issue No. 499
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Fathia Nkrumah:

Farewell to all that

Tranquility was never on the agenda

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah


It was not meant to be a marriage made in heaven. It was a political union between Mediterranean-oriented North Africa and the rest of the continent, often pejoratively termed sub-Saharan or Black Africa. Yet Fathia Nkrumah's life story is a modern fable representative of a certain era. For fleeting moments in the late '50s and early '60s, it captured the public imagination throughout Africa. The young Egyptian woman who left her country to marry the most illustrious African anti-colonial leader of his time was inevitably invested with iconic qualities.

Fathia is my mother, of course, and my memories of her life as Mrs Nkrumah are necessarily skewed. She was thrust onto centre stage -- that much I know. In many respects she was rather ill-equipped for her role, but she coped reasonably well with being in the public eye. Her official persona was more demure Diana than imperious Eva Peron, although stardom did come naturally to her. After her husband's death, she seemed to disappear; I know she has handled that quite well too.

In her day, women ambassadors were a rarity and, by virtue of the political nature of her marriage, she became an unofficial envoy of her country. She mingled with African and world leaders, playing hostess to Charles de Gaulle, Haile Sellassie, Chou En-Lai and Nikita Khruschev. She had the dubious honour of being the only Egyptian woman to dance with the Duke of Edinburgh when he accompanied Queen Elizabeth II on an official visit to Ghana in 1962. "He was very funny. He turned to me and said: 'I am certain that the crowds will only call your name.' And they did. He was right," she muses.

Fathia Nkrumah
Fathia Nkrumah
Fathia Nkrumah
Fathia Nkrumah
Fathia Nkrumah
Fathia Nkrumah
From top: Assuming her official duties as first lady Fathia Nkrumah was, when called upon, by her husband's side; dancing with Britain's Prince Philip in Accra, Ghana, 1961; with the late Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba's children shortly after his assassination, Cairo, 1961; with Tahiya Abdel-Nasser, Gamal Abdel-Nasser's wife, in Cairo, 1966; at her husband's funeral in Nkroful, Ghana, 1972; Fathia Nkrumah with son Gamal
She understood what part she was to play when she stepped on stage, and she also learned how to come to terms with life behind the last curtain. Upon her second return to Ghana in 1975, crowds lined the streets. She engaged in easy banter with the onlookers as we strolled what was then the main market in downtown Accra, Makola. The market women presented her with brilliantly-coloured, intricately-designed wax print cloth, and they exchanged pleasantries for a while.

In the autumn of 1978, she flew to New York to receive a gold medal awarded posthumously to my father at the United Nations headquarters, during a special session of the UN committee against apartheid. "First of all, let me thank the General Assembly most sincerely for their very kind decision to pay such a singular tribute to the memory of my late husband, Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah. He himself, I am sure, would have considered his contribution to the international campaign against apartheid as a duty, without looking for international approval or award. But alas, his untimely death has robbed us of his presence and encouragement," she told the assembled world leaders.

Mother was born and brought up in Zeitoun, the third daughter of a civil servant and a diminutive but iron-willed woman who raised her children single-handedly after her husband's untimely death. In many respects, Fathia was a very ordinary Egyptian girl. After completing her secondary education, she worked as a teacher in her school, Notre Dame des Apôtres. Teaching did not appeal to her, however, and she took a job in a bank. Then opportunity knocked, in the person of my father. My grandmother's firstborn had left Egypt with his English bride and, when my father proposed, she was reluctant to see another of her children marry a foreigner and quit the country. Mother explained that Nkrumah was an anti-colonial hero, like Nasser. Still, my grandmother did not relent: she refused to speak to Mother or bless the marriage.

The new bride, who had cut herself off from her family and country by marrying Nkrumah, was isolated in more ways than one. She spoke little English, while her groom spoke neither Arabic nor French. Within three months, however, her tenacity had served her well, and she was able to deliver speeches in English, Ghana's official language. Genuinely fond of her new adopted home, she rarely yearned for Egypt. She was happy to escape the suffocatingly conservative culture she grew up in and happily embraced the rich vibrancy of Ghanaian culture. She was amazed at the fierce independence of Ghanaian women. They liked her in return; the powerful "market women" who controlled the textile trade even named a traditional kente cloth design after her -- Fathia fata Nkrumah or "Fathia deserves Nkrumah."

Against her family's wishes, then, she embarked on a journey deep into the colonial Africa of the late 1950s. Only her uncle agreed to accompany her on the long journey to newly independent Ghana. For a month before the wedding, the young bride could not sleep a wink. She had been summoned by President Nasser, who asked her if she was sure that she wanted to accept Nkrumah's proposal of marriage. Marrying a head of state -- of the first African country to achieve independence from British rule, in fact -- entailed duties and responsibilities, sacrifices and potential risks. Having heard the president's warning, Fathia replied promptly: "I would like to go and marry this anti-colonial leader. I read his autobiography -- I know of his trials and tribulations, of his struggles during his student days in America and Britain, and of his spearheading the anti-colonial struggle upon his return to his homeland. I am deeply impressed." Only her family stood in the way, she informed Nasser. She had little idea of the challenges that lay ahead.

It was late December and Cairo was experiencing an exceptionally cold winter. Khartoum, the first stop on her journey, was very hot, unbearably so. She spent the night there with her uncle and the next morning headed west, stopping over in Kano and Lagos, Nigeria, before landing in Accra.

The bride-to-be reacted to the tropical climate in a decidedly unromantic way: with swollen feet and a heat rash that turned her pale skin screaming scarlet. A doctor was summoned. "What's wrong with her?" the prospective groom demanded. The doctor reassured him and the wedding went ahead. Not one to waste time, Nkrumah married Fathia the evening of her arrival in Ghana: New Year's Eve, 1957-1958.

Few were told about the marriage plans. Even Father's secretary was taken by surprise when she heard the news on the radio. The ceremony was a very simple affair, which came as a shock to an Egyptian bride who expected an ostentatious marriage ceremony befitting a head of state. It was to be the first of many such cultural shocks. A handful of ministers and my paternal grandmother, Nyaneba, were present. Grandmother, who was blind, pulled Mother's hair; after a few tugs she declared that the bride was not African even though she was assured her hair was jet black. The two women later developed a close affinity, which mother attributed to the fact that Nkrumah had very little time for either his mother or his wife.

It was an inconspicuous ceremony -- a civil marriage since my father refused religious rites. Mother and her uncle were shocked to learn that there would be no priest officiating over the marriage ceremony, no veil, no walking down the aisle, no zaffa (marriage procession), nor even the customary zagharit (ululations).

At first, many Ghanaian women did not take kindly to the idea of Kwame Nkrumah marrying a foreigner. The militant women's league of the ruling Convention People's Party was especially galled that the national hero had married a "white woman," even though Father explained to them that his bride was an African despite her fair skin.

Christianborg Castle, renamed Osu after independence, was at the time the seat of government and Nkrumah's official residence. It was also to be Mother's home for the next five years. As a child, I often caught her watching the Atlantic pound the rocky headlands upon which the castle was built. It was a forbidding place, originally built by the Danes as a slave trading fortress where thousands, perhaps millions of Africans were shackled and shipped to the Americas. Everyone knew the place was haunted with the ghosts of the slaves, and at night, the deep dungeons often echoed with screams. Even Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, the last governor-general of Ghana, confessed that there was one particular room in which he dared not sleep because whenever he did he was awakened repeatedly during the night by incessant knocking, banging of doors and groaning in the hallways. Mother, however, often spent the night there alone. Both my younger brother Sekou and myself were born in Christianborg, while my sister Samia was born in Aburi, a beautiful mountain retreat some 30km north of Accra. Mother loved the cool and refreshing mountain air there and it was her favourite escape from her official duties.

Between sober marriage ceremonies and haunted houses, then Fathia was fast absorbing the different aspects of West African culture. On the other hand, she immediately took to Ghanaian food. Kontomre, or spinach and smoked fish stew; yam cakes; fried plantains; and her all-time favourites kenke (a fermented maize dish traditionally eaten with fried fish, chili, onion and tomatoes) and the rich red palm oil stews of fish, crab, prawn and snail. But she also taught the cooks at the Castle how to prepare Egyptian dishes. Father nicknamed her "rabbit," because she always insisted on green salad as a side dish, which most Ghanaians of his generation thought rather odd.

Much of Mother's experience in Ghana first lay behind the castle walls, and later within the confines of the presidential palace, Flagstaff House. At Christianborg, peacocks roamed freely and the beautiful blue birds' piercing cries filled the air. The lawns were meticulously kept, and the driveway lined with ornamental palms. Bougainvillea splashed brilliant shades of vermilion and crimson against the white walls. Still, presidential life was far from idyllic. The daily routine was frequently punctuated with nerve-wracking assassination attempts. Mother was always poised and calm in such situations. In August 1962, Father, who was away in northern Ghana, had a hand grenade hurled at him at close range. It missed him, but killed a small girl who was offering him a bouquet of flowers. Father had to be hospitalised for two weeks for his deep shrapnel wounds. For weeks we watched with trepidation as, still recuperating, he would come out of his office every afternoon and cross the battlements into the residential part of the castle. In 1964, one of the guards at Flagstaff House attacked my father as he returned from office. The assailant was overpowered after killing a bodyguard, Salifu Dagarti. My father's white suit was blood-stained and we children were frantic with fear. I still remember the looks exchanged between my parents -- no words were uttered, though. Mother ushered us into our bedrooms and left us to attend to my father. Incidents such as these left an indelible mark on the family.

Another shock now awaited us, one that would change the course of our lives and Father's, for he would never set foot in the land of his birth again. He was away on a special mediation mission that took him to China on his way to Hanoi. We stayed in Ghana where, on 24 February 1966, we were awakened at dawn by the din of artillery fire and explosions. Mother's first instinct was to tell us, in a firm voice, not to be afraid. The roaring of the unfed lions in Accra's zoo, a short distance from Flagstaff House, terrified us. Mother had the presence of mind to telephone the Egyptian embassy in Accra and ask the ambassador to contact Nasser. She had barely put the phone down when the lines were cut. A few minutes after Cairo was contacted, Nasser dispatched a plane to take us to Egypt, and safety. The gun battle for the control of Flagstaff House between the mutinous army and the presidential guards was intensifying. The presidential guards only surrendered when the coup leaders threatened to blow up Flagstaff House. Everyone, Grandmother Nyaneba included, was quickly evacuated and the hostile forces trooped in, ransacking the premises. Mother took a few personal belongings, which were promptly confiscated at a roadside checkpoint. She seemed fearless, berating the soldiers and reproaching them for their ingratitude. Even family photographs, letters and souvenirs were taken away, however.

En route to the airport, today still named after coup leader Colonel E T Kotoka, we stopped at the Egyptian embassy. Mother had to borrow a coat from the ambassador's wife, and jackets for my siblings and me. Next we were taken to Police Headquarters for interrogation. At gun point, we were ordered out of the car and told to sit on the ground in a clearing in the bush. Mother was outraged. The tense moments as the troops radioed for instructions dragged on. Eventually we were allowed to proceed to the airport.

A new chapter in Fathia's life was about to begin. After six years of raising her three children virtually single-handedly, she learned of father's death on 28 April 1972. We hastily travelled to Guinea (where he had taken up residence after the 1966 coup) via Paris and Dakar. Mother was not prepared for the sight of the emaciated body laid out in the coffin. Images of her husband's painful last days (Father died of cancer) were to haunt her for the next decade. For months on end she would lie in bed, unable to eat or sleep, withering away. As children, we could not understand that she was deeply depressed.

First, however, she gave a dignified performance -- the last of her career -- befitting Nkrumah's widow. A state funeral was staged for my father on 14 May, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Sekou Toure's Democratic Party of Guinea. It was a Sunday. Nkrumah's coffin was laid temporarily in the Camayenne Mausoleum, where Guinea's national heroes were buried.

President Ahmed Sekou Toure, after whom my brother Sekou was named, officiated. For two long days at the Palais du Peuple in Conakry, mourners from all over Guinea, South African anti-Apartheid activists and freedom fighters, and representatives of African and foreign governments paid tribute to Kwame Nkrumah. Fidel Castro and Amilcar Cabral spoke touchingly of Nkrumah's vision and accomplishments.

Father's remains were exhumed and returned to Ghana on 7 July 1972, over two months after his death. An Air Guinea aircraft landed in Accra with Nkrumah's coffin and widow aboard. After a brief stopover, the sad party travelled to Nkrumah's burial in Nkroful, his birthplace in western Ghana. Grandmother Nyaneba, then well into her 90s, waited patiently for her son. Mother stood by her side. Grandmother was determined to remain alive to witness Nkrumah's triumphant return to Ghana. Only after her hand was placed on his coffin did the old woman at last accept that he was dead. Grandmother was to pass away seven years later in my mother's arms, aged 102.

Today, Mother lives a sheltered life in Maadi. She is serene -- an astounding trait given the trauma she has experienced. Far removed now from the ebb and flow of African politics, she views the past with a healthy detachment.

It was an emotional moment, though, when Mother and I visited Ghana in 1997 to attend the celebrations held to mark 40 years of independence. We visited the marble mausoleum in Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, built in his honour by the Chinese. We stood before a statue of Nkrumah inscribed with the CCP slogan, Forward Ever. The statue stands on the spot where he declared independence on 6 March 1957. A group of schoolgirls and their teachers were also touring the mausoleum that day. They insisted on taking a photograph with Mother. Once again, it was clear that, even for children born long after my father's death, affection for his widow came naturally. Mother was overcome with emotion and broke down. I tried to comfort her, but I, too, was overwhelmed. And I knew that, after all, Fathia could face this alone.

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