Nkrumahs White Ladies

Editor, I notice “Deyda Hydara” shedding tears over the Madi Jobarteh Nkrumah piece. I hope this short review from my book “Freedom Essays” will cheer him up!

Luntango Suun Gann Gi

Book Review

Erica Powell & June Milne are two remarkable English women who were by Nkrumah’s side throughout his years as Prime Minister and then President of Ghana. Ms. Powell was at the very heart of Ghana’s first government as Private Secretary to Nkrumah and Ms. Milne was on the scene from the start as well, first as a lecturer at the University of Ghana, and then as adviser and friend to Nkrumah until he died – she was with him in Romania in 1972 when the end came.

In Ms. Powell Nkrumah inherited an admiring and committed secretary from his adversary and jailor – the British Governor of Ghana (Gold Coast). Having arrived in Ghana in 1952 to work for the Governor, Ms. Powell became an admirer of the “communist” jailed and then freed by her boss – to become the Prime Minister of Ghana under a British colonial administration:

“One of my colleagues beckoned me to the window … that man standing next to the Governor is Nkrumah … he has just been made Prime Minister … terribly anti-white of course” (p.10)

That was Ms. Powell’s first glimpse of the man who would soon drive the British out. The Governor tells her he is not “anti-white” at all as “he holds no grudges against the British”. Nkrumah himself soon confirms this by passing her desk and virtually ordering her to a dinner-date with him. She asks the Governor’s advice about the dinner-date with Nkrumah and the Governor replies: “You have to go Erica but let me know what happens” (p.21). She is asked to spy, unwittingly, and she does, certainly unintentionally and without malice.

As the relationship (platonic – or so we are told!) between Ms. Powell and Nkrumah develops, the Governor gets orders from “higher up” to fire her and pack her off to England (Both the FBI and M15 had kept files on Nkrumah during his years in the US and UK). Ms. Powell considered her sacking by the Governor a “betrayal” since she had kept the governor fully informed of her relationship with Nkrumah, and the Governor had given his approval. It is fitting that Ms. Powell has a picture of her and her black “Knight in shining armour” on a white horse on the cover of her book: Nkrumah did literally ride to her rescue by hiring her when the British Governor fired her – thus enabling her to remain in Ghana as she wished.

Ms. Powell remained dedicated to Nkrumah until the 1966 coup. “At times I was a super-bitch!” in looking after Nkrumah’s interests, she writes (p.193). Her book is a very personal story, told in a very touching and down-to-earth manner. She writes of exhilarating moments and of moments of sadness and disappointments with total honesty: for instance, Nkrumah kept her in the dark about his impending marriage to the Egyptian Fathia until the wedding day. When he later reproaches her for keeping something from him, she fires back “You didn’t tell me about your wedding”. She writes equally honestly of the race issues in colonial Ghana, “The European Club would admit no African, however high his rank, not even as a guest” (p.10). Without thinking she may be considered jealous, she writes that “Dr. Nkrumah regretted his marriage” (p.127). And she gives a hint of possible reasons why she may have become a victim of the people surrounding the President when she writes that “Usually it was only when things were almost out of hand that word reached the President – and never through the mouth of these sycophants” (p202). As with all love-stories, slights, real or imagined, are strongly felt. The reader is left wondering whether or not bitterness on Ms. Powell’s part entered the relationship – Ms. Powell never visited Nkrumah again after he moved to Conakry in 1966 even though she later came to work for President Siaka Stevens next door in Sierra Leone.

June Milne’s book, as befits a professor and former pupil of the most exclusive Cheltenham Ladies College, is an exemplary work of meticulous research and presentation – but in no way boring! Facts even I never knew about Nkrumah after all these years are laid bare. It never occurred to me, for example, that the erudite philosopher and multiple-degreed Nkrumah was anything other than from a well-off family in Ghana. Not so, I learn from Ms. Milne. My complaints about the toughness of my earlier years in Europe are trifled by comparison to the penniless Nkrumah’s struggle to survive in America: “He (Nkrumah) sold fish from a wheel-barrow in Harlem, but had to give it up when handling fish caused a skin problem”. The man had to work to eat and have a roof over his head, but the next job was even worse: “In a soap factory his task was to load the rotting entrails and lumps of animal fat and push the load to a processing plant”. And if I complained many a night that I felt the bitter cold in Scotland on the night-shift, Nkrumah’s fate was even worse: “There was a time when he worked outside at night from midnight to 8am, in all weather … bitterly cold … he developed pneumonia, collapsed and was rushed to hospital and nearly died” (p.11). I sometimes tell friends of one Christmas in Scotland when I had to add water to stew to make it last me the long week-end. Ms Milne tells us that as late as 1946 Nkrumah fared much worse in London: “Many a Fridays he went round the dustbins at the back of a hotel or restaurant to salvage the fish-heads which had been thrown away. These, which he called the best parts of the fish, he would take back and make a nourishing stew for himself and his colleagues” (p.26).

Nkrumah’s personal struggles against poverty throw an illuminating light on his politics as well. For example on his commitment to socialism and the advancement of the economic well-being of the ordinary Ghananian, and of his break with his elitist and conservative colleagues of the Gold Coast Convention Party (which Nkrumah left to form the highly popular, and populist, Convention Peoples’ Party).

These two books, one a very informal personal story and the other a formal professional biography, illuminate and inform on Nkrumah’s life, love, and the politics of Ghana and Africa. Both books also inform on the Western suspicion, hostility and propaganda against Nkrumah – with Ms. Powell being unreservedly indignant about this most “unfair” treatment of her boss. Excellent read both.

Dida Jallow-Halake,

Kotu, The Gambia, 2005.

Editor’s note: I hope Madi Jobarteh, Uncle Halifa Sallah, Uncle Sainey Faye, Uncle Ous Mbenga, and the many admirers of Nkrumah will not faint at the provocation of Dida!

 

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