Fathia Nkrumah is dead
- Fathia Nkrumah is dead, after an inspirational life
Madam Fathia Nkrumah, 75, the widow of the late President Nkrumah is dead.
Madam Nkrumah was suffering from stroke and died at the Badrawy
Hospital in Cairo, Egypt.
One of the sons of Madam Fathia, Mr Sekou Nkrumah told Joy News
shortly after her death that although his mother's death was sad to
hear it was something the family expected due to the complicated
nature of the illness.
"It is sad in a way but at least we should celebrate her life I was
expecting the worst. At her age I believe all kinds of things take
place in her body," he said.
Mr Nkrumah said it was good President Kufuor took time off to visit
his mother before her death. He said that should serve as a basis for
all Ghanaians to shun political differences and live in unity.
"Good timing on the President's part to visit her before her death.
Ghanaians need to move beyond partisan politics and see ourselves as
one," he said.
Madam Fathia was a very young wife and mother of three very young
children when her husband was overthrown in Ghana's first successful
military coup on February 24 1966.
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
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.
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 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
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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