The Nkrumahs’ marriage was no match made in heaven

Five years ago, during a time of horrific xenophobic attacks around the country, Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini said during a March 2015 “moral regeneration” event in Pongola in northern KwaZulu-Natal that migrants should “pack their bags and go home”. He said foreign traders were changing the nature of South African society with their goods and enjoying the wealth that should have been for local people.   

A week later, the attacks on migrants and their property escalated in KwaZulu-Natal, taking the form of killings, looting and arson. 

It is probably to be expected from a non-elected, reactionary and entitled monarch. But the same is true of right-wing populist and free-marketeer Herman Mashaba, Johannesburg’s former Democratic Alliance mayor. He has “regularly tried to blame state failure in sectors such as crime and public health, among others, on migrants”, wrote Jan Bornman for New Frame.

The reaction from Mashaba and his right-wing ilk to clashes in downtown Jo’burg between migrant shopkeepers and raiding cops in early August 2019 was predictable: “Go back to where you came from.” But it wasn’t always like this, as the uplifting tale of an early 1960s song tells us.

Exiled on songs

Dorothy Masuka (1935-2019) released the upbeat, infectious and optimistic Ghana at a time when many African countries had gained independence from their colonial rulers. It was, as John Samson wrote on the 1001 South African Songs blog, a “joyous celebration of the wind of change blowing through Africa”. It crossed borders, not only with its sentiments but also musically, with a jaunty guitar played in the West African highlife style.

Masuka was a well-known and popular singer, but as music historian Gwen Ansell wrote in an obituary in 2019, she “was so much more: a composer, a hero of the struggle and an architect of the discourse of popular African liberation music”.

Born in Bulawayo in then Rhodesia, Masuka spent most of her school years in South Africa. In her teens, she composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of them major hits. Ansell said Masuka wrote and recorded in multiple African languages; it is likely that the total of her compositions, all in African languages, exceeds 100.

The radical spirit of pan-Africanist Masuka’s songwriting led to long years of exile — the apartheid and Ian Smith regimes, in South Africa and Rhodesia, respectively, couldn’t handle her outspokenness. Her time away included 16 years in Zambia, performing and earning a living as an air hostess. It is likely that she recorded Ghana during this period, and this rare song has a fascinating history. 

Africa’s first ladies

It appeared on a 2004 compilation titled More Great Moments in Vinyl History, put together by British DJ Andy Kershaw, who specialises in so-called world music. A listener to Kershaw’s BBC show found an old single of the song, which appears to have been a test pressing, at a market in London. Kershaw interviewed Masuka, but she had very little memory of the song, thinking it might have been recorded in Zambia.

In the lyrics, Masuka paid tribute to a number of African first ladies by name, singing that she wanted to visit them in their newly independent countries. “Mama Nkrumah” [who she also sings about in the song] was born Fathia Halim Ritzk to a Coptic Christian family in Cairo, Egypt, in 1932. Her marriage to the iconic anti-colonial leader, independent Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, captured the public imagination.

“It was not meant to be a marriage made in heaven,” their son, Gamal Nkrumah, wrote in a tribute to his mother in 2000, in the Egyptian paper he edits called Al-Ahram Weekly. “It was a political union between Mediterranean-oriented North Africa and the rest of the continent, often pejoratively termed sub-Saharan or Black Africa.”

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 Nkrumah explained to them that his bride was an African despite her fair skin, wrote Gamal.

But the new bride, who had cut herself off from her family and country by marrying Nkrumah, happily embraced the rich vibrancy of Ghanaian culture. The country’s women soon reciprocated and she was welcomed wholeheartedly into her adopted home of Ghana.

“She was amazed at the fierce independence of Ghanaian women,” Gamal said in the tribute. “They liked her in return; the powerful ‘market women’ who controlled the textile trade even named a kente cloth design after her — Fathia fata Nkrumah or ‘Fathia deserves Nkrumah’.”

Fathia and her children had to flee Ghana on 24 February 1966 when the military overthrew the government of Nkrumah, who was out of the country. He died at the age of 62 in exile on April 28 1972. His remains were exhumed and returned to Ghana two months later.

Fathia died in Cairo in 2007, aged 75. She was buried next to her husband in Accra, Ghana. In the end it was different for Fathia the “foreigner”. Mama Nkrumah returned to where she came from, fully accepted as a Ghanaian. It is worth emulating in these days of bigger borders, cheaper politicking, viler racism and bloodier xenophobia.

This article was first published in New Frame

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Charles Leonard
Charles Leonard is a journalist, editor, broadcaster, DJ and record collector. For more than 30 years, he has edited and written for a variety of South African publications and broadcasters, including the Mail & Guardian, Business Day, SABC, Vrye Weekblad and the Sunday Times, as well as Channel Four News in the UK.

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