On Homowo, the festival celebrating triumph over a historic famine, we Ghanaians reflect proudly on how our ancestors worked themselves out of a time of tragedy. But when we remember the 1966 coup, it brings up the shame of having worked ourselves into one. There were the conspiracies about a Kwame Nkrumah–assisted Soviet takeover; there were the attacks on libraries and other cultural institutions; and there was the cowardice of the whole thing, exhibited by Lieutenant General Kotoka and his National Liberation Council. When Ghanaians think about the movement toward independence, what mostly comes to mind are the failures of the Pan-African project.
In 1997, which marked the 40th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, former first lady Fathia Nkrumah and her son Gamal returned to the country. When her husband, Ghana’s first president, was deposed in the ’66 coup, the rest of the family was sent into exile. It was an emotional return. “Once again, it was clear that, even for children born long after my father’s death, affection for his widow came naturally,” Gamal wrote in September 2000 in Al-Ahram, Egypt’s weekly paper. “Mother was overcome with emotion and broke down. I tried to comfort her, but I, too, was overwhelmed.”
She was born Fathia Halim Ritzk in Zeitoun, Cairo, in 1932. Her father, a civil servant in the Egyptian national telephone company, died early, leaving Fathia’s mom to single-handedly raise her children. Otherwise, Fathia lived an ordinary life. She completed her secondary education in Zeitoun’s Notre Dame des Apôtres, where she studied French. She worked first at her alma mater as a teacher and later in a bank, before her political marriage to Nkrumah at the age of 26.
Though her mother never blessed the marriage, Fathia set out from the cold Cairo winter, escorted by an uncle, stopping in Khartoum, Kano, and Lagos before finally landing in Accra on New Year’s Eve, 1957. The bride-to-be left with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s blessing and, according to Pauline Frederick, the author of Ten First Ladies of the World, Fathia wore royal jewels and the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Nile. There was no priest at the wedding; the bride and groom did not walk down an aisle; Fathia did not wear a veil. The traditional Egyptian wedding practices of zaffa and zaghareet were not performed. Nkrumah’s mother, 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,” Gamal wrote. Still, on that same evening Fathia was married to Kwame—and to Ghana. Indeed, Fathia Nkrumah’s life and marriage emblematized Ghana’s ambitions on the continent: to be an example of trans-Saharan union, diminish tribal and regional differences, and erase the color line in favor of cross-continental unity. Fifty years after the coup, Ghana’s inaugural first lady is a particularly useful starting point for those studying attempts to realize Pan-Africanism. Curiously, though, it is primarily her absence from the historical record that sheds light on the topic.
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Ghana’s Public Records and Archives Administration Department doesn’t have documents online, and a call to their office in Accra didn’t yield any help. Fathia Nkrumah’s communications team was notoriously private and guarded, and besides, the military junta that came into power after Nkrumah was ousted burned all the books and records from his administration. (In his book The Conakry Years, Nkrumah sarcastically lamented that he was more distraught by the loss of records than by the loss of his presidency.) The Political and Social Thought of Kwame Nkrumah (2011) by the scholar of Pan-Africanism Ama Biney spends a few paragraphs on the marriage, but doesn’t get into Fathia’s own life. Kwame Nkrumah’s papers are in the Dabu Gizenga collection at Howard University in Washington, DC, where some of their correspondence is preserved. The New York Public Library has one book, Frederick’s Ten First Ladies of The World, in which Fathia Nkrumah is immortalized alongside Indira Gandhi, Lady Bird Johnson, Mary Wilson, Yvonne de Gaulle, Carmen Polo de Franco, Jovanka Broz Tito, Tahia Nasser, Daw Thein Tin, and Imelda Marcos. Why does so little documentation of Fathia’s life exist?
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Frederick, an American journalist, published her book in 1967. It contains a chapter devoted to Fathia, and is one of the few well-researched, contemporaneous studies of her life. Frederick reports that, in 1957, Nkrumah sent his friend Alhaji Saleh Said Sinare, who was one of the first Ghanaian Muslims to study in Egypt and was married to an Egyptian woman, on a stealth, Inspector Bediako–like mission to find him a Christian bride from Egypt. Fathia was chosen out of the final five women since she was from a Coptic family, “the most ancient and purest Egyptian stock.” Frederick’s characterization of the relationship—like that of Galatea to Pygmalion—highlights the misogyny inherent in this process. What seems to be the only remotely romantic part of this courtship arrived when Fathia sat down with her family to look at the photos of Nkrumah that Sinare brought with him—anticipating Tinder by many years.
Frederick downplayed the political calculation that went into the Nkrumah union by writing that Kwame sought to marry Fathia based on a prophecy from his soothsayer. “Africa’s messiah will be the son of an African man and Egyptian woman,” he was told. (Everyone, Frederick included, seemed to have taken at face value the notion that Egypt existed apart from the rest of the continent.) Fathia, Gamal recounted, was “happy to escape the suffocatingly conservative culture she grew up in, and happily embraced the rich vibrancy of Ghanaian culture.” She loved Ghanaian food—her favorites, according to her son, were kontomire (spinach) with smoked-fish stew and kenke (a fermented maize dish, traditionally eaten with fried fish, chili, onion, and tomatoes). She learned English quickly to blend in and expressed admiration for the fierce independence of Ghanaian women. A traditional kente cloth that had been known as obaakofo mmu oman (“one person does not rule a nation”) is now referred to as Fathia fata Nkrumah (“Fathia fits Nkrumah”) by the powerful market women who control the textiles trade.
But much like other outsider accounts of the time period, almost every other word in Frederick’s is stuck in close-minded rhetoric. President Nkrumah is frequently characterized as an African mystic: the Tarzan to Fathia’s Jane. Frederick’s portrayal—with its passive characterization of Fathia, its racist language, its view of Egypt as non-African, and its condescension toward the idea of a federation of free African states—embodies what became the dominant narrative on Pan-Africanism: its promise, followed by its unfulfillment.
The idea of an organized Pan-Africanism—a nebulous political philosophy dedicated to addressing the concerns of people of African descent all over the world—can be traced as far back as 1900 when the Trinidadian Henry Sylvester Williams called for a conference “to protest stealing of lands in the colonies, racial discrimination and deal with all other issues of interest to Blacks.” Over the next century, people of African descent from all over the world—including the Americans W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna J. Cooper, and Paul Robeson—would take leadership in the movement to affirm a history and future of the African continent beyond the shadows of slavery and colonialism.
The Nkrumah union brought to life through the basic unit of society—the family—an example of a Pan-African home, at once transcending tribalism, which was rampant at the time (and seen as Pan-Africanism’s villain) and rearing an idea born in conferences from the diaspora. “I would like to go and marry this anti-colonial leader,” Fathia told Egyptian President Nasser. “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.” The couple married just one year after Nasser challenged British control of the Suez Canal.
Up until the 1966 coup, Fathia was an active first lady as well as a sort of ambassador for Ghana. She was the chief patron of the National Council of Ghanaian Women as well as honorary chief of Ghana Girl Guides. She also hosted world leaders including Charles de Gaulle, Haile Selassie, Chou En-Lai, and Nikita Khrushchev.
At an event with the Ministry of Social Welfare in Ho, a town in southeast Ghana, where Fathia laid the foundation stone of a health clinic, she proclaimed that as “mothers, the health of our children is our first responsibility, for these little ones are the future of our country.” This wasn’t just rhetorical: She was a mother to Ghanaian children. And a family like hers was not the norm. That she would also play the role of ambassador for the Pan-African household and family is revolutionary now, just as it was in 1960.
Sadly, Frederick’s book is blind to the political potential inherent in the Nkrumah marriage, as were most Western diplomats at the time. Moreover, her account substantiates Chinua Achebe’s tart observation that Africa is viewed primarily “as setting and backdrop,” alone, which “eliminates the African as human factor.” Dismissing Fathia’s actual life and relationships not only dehumanizes Fathia, but it also endangers the promise of Pan-Africanism, the very notion her marriage embodied.
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The Nkrumahs first returned from exile in 1975, when Colonel Acheampong’s government invited the family back to settle in Ghana. Fathia and Kwame’s daughter Samia then attended the Achimota School, her father’s alma mater, and the University of Ghana in Legon, which her father had worked tirelessly to improve. By the early ’80s, the family was driven out of the country again after the December 31, 1981 coup d’état, when the National Defence Council seized Fathia’s property. Despite all of this, according to Samia Nkrumah, Fathia never wanted her children to discard their identities as Ghanaians and, especially, as black Africans. “Mother never stopped telling us, what he thought, what he said, what he believed in,” Samia said on Ghanaian television. Nevertheless, Samia moved to London after her college years and stayed. But after Fathia’s death in 2007, Samia decided it was time for her to come back. Both of her parents are buried in Ghana. “I remember thinking they are both here, what are you doing outside? Come back quick!” she recounted. In 2011, Samia became the chairman of the Convention People’s Party, founded by her father, making history as the first woman to become a party chairman in Ghana.
Pan-Africanism, as a project of political economy, has largely been a failure. The recent initiative by some countries to remove visa requirements for travelers from other African countries is one of the few embers in the smoldering ashes of plans for continental unity. A cultural vision of Pan-Africanism, though, burns in the hearts of many Africans, and descendants of Africans, all over the diaspora. It remains alive in university conferences, events that showcase the culture of the continent, and passionate debates and conversations on social media. But the fact that many people identify, however loosely, with being African doesn’t replace the need for the sort of services that people need, and that only a government can provide. Samia Nkrumah, in dedicating her life to grassroots organizing, is one of the last few exemplars of formalized Pan-Africanism. It is what her parents, who yearned to inspire a continental narrative, wanted: a synthesis of familial and political unity. Perhaps the soothsayer was wrong, and the messiah will be the daughter of an African man and an Egyptian woman.