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Nkrumah, Fathia (c. 1931—)

Nkrumah, Fathia (c. 1931—)

Egyptian-born first lady of Ghana. Name variations: Helen Ritz Fattiah; Fathia Halim Ritzk; Madam

Fathia Nkrumah. Born in Egypt around 1931; father was a clerk in the Egyptian telephone company; educated primarily by the Sisters of Our Lady of the Apostles; also studied Arabic at the University of Cairo; married Kwame Nkrumah (prime minister and then life-president of Ghana), in December 1957; children: sons Gamal (b. 1959) and Sékou (b. 1963); daughterSamia Nkrumah (b. 1960).

The eldest of five children born to a Coptic clerk and his wife in Cairo, Egypt, Fathia Nkrumah was in her mid-20s and living in a modest home in the Cairo suburb of Zeitun with her widowed mother when a friend of Kwame Nkrumah's arrived in Egypt. Nkrumah, the first prime minister of the newly independent African nation of Ghana (formerly Gold Coast), had been told by a soothsayer that "Africa's messiah will be the son of an African man and an Egyptian woman" (or so the story goes). A passionate Pan-Africanist whose dream was a united Africa, Nkrumah sent a friend to find him an Egyptian wife, apparently with the approval of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who was also a friend. Presented with several pictures of prospective brides, the prime minister reportedly was impressed with two young Muslim women, but decided on Fathia because he too was Christian. They were married in a private civil ceremony in December 1957 at Christianborg Castle in Accra, the capital city of Ghana; the wedding may have been the first time they met. The bride spoke no English, and the English-speaking groom spoke no Arabic.

News of the prime minister's marriage was announced to the public only after the ceremony was complete. Single Ghanaian girls and women who had dreamed of marrying the popular, powerful bachelor were upset, but many others who had not held such dreams also were upset at his selection of a white woman for his wife; memories of the British who long had held the country as a colony were still fresh. As well, Fathia was shy by nature, unable to speak the language, and living in a totally foreign culture, none of which were helpful in making a good impression on observers. Her husband enlisted several British-born and African-American women to assist in her acclimation, and she also took English-language instruction. Despite his marked intelligence and excellent education, Nkrumah held traditional 1950s views on a wife's place, and accounts of their closeness vary. Fathia, who inclined to plumpness, apparently became preoccupied with maintaining a slim figure to suit his taste. (According to one source, on the rare occasions that average Ghanaians spoke of their first lady the topic was invariably whether her weight was up or down.) Although she once may have even tried to return to Egypt, they had three children: Gamal (born 1959) and named after the Egyptian president, a daughter named Samia (born 1960), and Sékou (born 1963), who was named after Sékou Touré, the president of Guinea.

Meanwhile Nkrumah had become more and more occupied with his vision of a united Africa, favoring foreign policy to the vast detriment of the domestic situation. His regime became increasingly authoritarian as political opponents were suppressed, the economy foundered, and foreign debt mounted; despite a personality cult that grew around him, encouraged by his followers, unrest became widespread. When assassination threats increased, Fathia and her family moved from Christianborg Castle to the heavily fortified, isolated Flagstaff House in Accra. By the first years of the 1960s, while Nkrumah was increasingly isolated from the public for his own safety, Fathia began appearing at more public functions, and served as the chief patron of the National Council of Ghana Women and honorary chief of the Ghana Girl Guides. On February 24, 1966, however, while Nkrumah was out of the country, the Ghanaian armed forces and police seized control of the government. Fathia and her three small children fled the country on a plane sent by Gamal Nasser.

Kwame Nkrumah lived the rest of his life in exile in Guinea, and died in 1972. Ignatius Katu Acheampong instituted a coup in Ghana that same year; during his years as head of state, he invited Fathia and her children back to Ghana, where they lived for a time. After Acheampong was deposed in 1978, however, they were again made unwelcome, and later stripped of their house. In 1997, in what was perceived as a gesture of reconciliation, Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings invited Fathia Nkrumah to attend the celebrations marking the 40th anniversary of Ghana's independence. She sat in a front-row seat.

sources:

Frederick, Pauline. Ten First Ladies of the World. NY: Meredith Press, 1967.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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