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.