Fathia Nkrumah enjoys a near-mythical place in postcolonial Ghanaian history. Her skin colour mattered; she was not a black African. Her native country mattered; Egypt is ancient, biblical and mystical.
Yet, the wife of Ghana’s first president is known exactly for that: being the wife of Ghana’s first president.
As she was, without the light and glamour of her husband’s eminence, Fathia is to an embarrassing extent, unknown to those who should. This should not be surprising since Nkrumah towered above most he stood close to.
Of course, there is also the age-old tradition in which women are supposed to passively adorn and humanise their husbands and so we are not often educated in their backstories.
But Fathia Halim Ritzk held her own. Born into a middle-class Egyptian family in 1932, Fathia’s mother had to raise her and four other siblings as a widower.
Fathia’s father, a clerk at a telephone company in Cairo, passed when she was young.
Her family was Coptic. She schooled at Zeitoun’s Notre Dame des Apôtres or Our Lady of Apostles, where she became literate in French.
After school, Fathia taught for a while at her alma mater but was reportedly not enthused with the job. So she went to work in a bank. And that’s where fate and politics would find her.
About 2,500 miles south-west of Egypt, a young intellectual was making himself a nuisance for the British colonial government in the Gold Coast.
Kwame Nkrumah had fast established himself as the people’s man in the country that he would lead to independence. The colonial administrators were not pleased.
So when Nkrumah got Isis Nashid, an Egyptian working for the colonial government, pregnant, he had to hide it.
In the little-known story revealed in 2015 by Souad El Rouby Sinare, Nashid had to leave Nkrumah and the Gold Coast to her native Egypt. Upon arrival, she quickly got married to avoid the shame of having a child out of wedlock.
Nkrumah continued with the freedom struggle.
But not long after the episode with Nashid, Nkrumah was convinced by Said Saleh Sinare, a businessman and personal friend, to look for a wife, preferably the woman who had his child in Egypt.
But instead of Nashid, Fathia was found available and ready.
Souad Sinare recounted: “When we informed Dr. Nkrumah of our find of a bride [to-be], he was very happy that he also informed the President of Egypt, Gamel Abdul Nasser, who was happy that his friend…had decided to marry from his [Nasser’s] country.”
Both had not met before. But she was also excited even if her mother did not like the idea of marrying a foreigner.
Her brother had already married an English woman in the 1950s and had gone away. Fathia tried to convince her mother that Nkrumah was like Nasser, a freedom fighter, but the older woman would have none of that.
Fathia effectively travelled to Ghana in 1957 to marry a man whom she did not know except for his reputation. And she did so with just one uncle but without her family’s blessings.
Gamel Nkrumah, her first son, would later say of his mother: “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 to no English and Nkrumah spoke neither French nor Arabic. She had to learn so that by the end of her first year, Fathia was delivering speeches in English.
Fathia was happy, not only about her marriage but also about Ghana. It was not a conservative society in the same mould as Egypt.
The Ghanaian women Fathia knew in the early 1960s were fiercely independent, educated and wealthy.
She endeared herself to this wealthy category of women who were mostly retailers of wax prints and the famous traditionally woven cloth called kente.
By their wealth, these “market women” were powerful and influential. They named a kind of kente after the first lady, calling it “Fathia fata Nkrumah”, Akan for “Fathia is perfect for Nkrumah”.
But before they would accept her, the market women and wives of powerful men, were actually very angry with Kwame Nkrumah. He was going to marry a “white woman”.
The women’s wing of Nkrumah’s own Convention People’s Party (CPP), reacted in the harshest way possible, telling Nkrumah they were disappointed in him.
Nkrumah had to explain to them that in spite of her skin colour, Fathia was African. This tension is microcosmic of modern-day discussions around the Africanness of continental North Africans.
But Nkrumah’s determination to defend Fathia’s Africanness also raises questions about whether he thought of her as a tool of political expedience to his hopes of Pan-Africanism.
Gamel Nkrumah himself wrote: “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.”
Carina Ray writing in 2006, also said of the marriage: “The US State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were rumoured to be primarily concerned with whether the marriage was intended to create a political union between Egypt and Ghana”.
Whether she was a tool in their game or a completely loved wife, Fathia Nkrumah found meaning for her role and she played it well.
Before going to Ghana, Fathia, it is said, spoke to Egyptian President Nasser. He wanted to be sure if the wife of a powerful man from a place she had no idea about is what she wanted to be.
The young woman reiterated her readiness, maybe naively.
Despite the culture shocks and noticeable temperature differences for an Egyptian in Ghana, Fathia would go on to play hostess to some of the world’s most powerful leaders; an unofficial envoy for her country, and the wife of a man whose life was constantly under threat.
In 1966, when Fathia’s eldest child was only seven, Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup d’etat. She herself was 34, still youthful and energetic.
Fathia flew out of Ghana with her three kids to Egypt, from where she would once again be an outsider looking in. It is not known if she ever saw Nkrumah again until his own death in 1972.
That was not the end of her relationship with Ghana. She was invited to live in the country but in 1979, Fathia’s mother-in-law, Nkrumah’s mother Nyaneba, died in the arms of a bitterly sad Fathia, at the age of 102.
Feeling like those who loved her were no more, Fathia left Ghana again, this time by choice and not compulsion. She would return to visit in 1997 for the country’s 40th independence.
In 2007, she died in Cairo aged 75.
Fathia had been a young woman with convictions of grandeur but also the victim of political nastiness. Above all, she had dared to follow her dreams and that is what probably matters.