The intimate and personal revelations made of powerful men do not fail to gather an audience, and if said powerful men are as legendary as Kwame Nkrumah, you get the widest and the most committed attention.
What is the psychology behind thirsting after these revelations? Perhaps, it is a mere intellectual curiosity in the hope of reconstructing our image of a man with reference to his merits and otherwise.
We may be also looking for just the salaciousness – a perfectly human desire.
Whatever it is, Genoveva Esther Marais’ 1972 book Kwame Nkrumah: As I Knew Him satisfies both intellectual and mundane thirst. This is a biography of a man written by a woman who seems to have seen him in his most vulnerable state.
“He revealed himself to me as I believe he did to no one else, not even the woman he later married.
In fact, he wanted to marry me and I could have been his wife. I preferred to be his special confidante…”
Marais was a lover of Ghana‘s first president and she could have been the country’s first lady too, according to her. But fearful of being reduced to adornment for arguably Africa’s most popular man, Marais chose an option that guarantees an intimate connection yet leaves room for self-fulfillment according to her own volition.
Born in South Africa to mixed parentage, Marais attained the highest level of education, an uncommon achievement for non-white women of early and mid 20th century South Africa and a sign that speaks to Marais’ privileged background.
But privilege and mixed parentage did not shelve Marais from much in apartheid South Africa. She writes:
“What always disturbed me was the fact that white Africa could have no place for me, that I must remain an alien in my own country: or get out.”
After receiving a Diploma and then a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education, Marais became a high school teacher for a while. She finally left for the United States to Columbia University to pursue an MA.
In New York, the slender and beautiful Marais was for some time, a model.
Further credence to her gorgeousness is lent by the testimony of Hans Buser, a Swiss salesman who was in Ghana around the time of independence.
In In Ghana at Independence: Stories of a Swiss Salesman, Buser narrates his first meeting with Marais who had gone to the dealership where Buser worked, to buy a car:
“…In the meantime, word had gotten around that there was an uncommonly attractive woman with Buser in the Motors Showroom. Suddenly, everyone found a pretext to come and see; my sales colleagues, men from the workshop and service departments, even managers and my direct boss…”
The scene Buser paints at the dealership also gives another fascinating portrait of Marais. While in the employ of Ghana’s Ministry of Education, Marais had been taken to the dealership to get the car, nothing more than £520 or $16,000 in today’s money.
According to Buser, at the time, £520 was what took home an Opel Rekord for many junior officers in government ministries. But upon seeing the car that was an Opel Rekord, Marais retorted, “No, this car is too small for me. I am used to big cars – I will take the Chevrolet.”
In spite of the protest of the bursar of the Education ministry who was at the scene, the manager of the dealership gave a Chevrolet 56 to Marais on her word that “Daddy in Bloemfontein” will pay for what was apparently double the budget for a car for a junior officer.
Buser’s account of the auto dealership meeting may be true but it helps to understand that Marais was employed to be an Inspector of Schools, a position a tad higher than paper-pushing civil service.
Marais went to Ghana in February of 1957, weeks before Ghana’s independence on March 6. She had been looking forward to a new adventure in a place that was going to be the first independent Sub-Saharan nation.
Nkrumah, or rather Nkrumah’s political reputation, was known to Marais. This was in no small part to Marais’ father:
“He lived to see Ghana achieve its independence before he died. The thrill he felt was translated to me.
When I met Nkrumah at last it was because my father had fired me with his own enthusiasm.”
In the same year as Marais went to Ghana, another woman, the Egyptian Fathia Halim Ritzk, had gone to Accra to marry Kwame Nkrumah, a man she had never seen but for pictures.
The relationship between Nkrumah and Ritzk, simply called Fathia by many Ghanaians who adored her, was contracted by a friend of Nkrumah – a friend Nkrumah had sent to Egypt to search for another previous Egyptian lover of the soon-to-be Ghana prime minister.
This dramatic sequence, the stuff of a Mexican telenovela, took a fateful turn for Marais when she received an “invitation to attend a State Ball, the culmination of Independence celebrations.” It was at this event that Nkrumah saw her, the inception of their history.
We do not know how true it is that Marais was asked by Nkrumah to be his wife. After all, the man knew he had a wife-in-waiting.
Could Nkrumah have turned down Fathia for Marais? As much as that was conceivable, it would have come at a serious political cost to Nkrumah and Ghana as Egyptian leader Gamel Abdel Nasser was personally invested in seeing the marriage between a daughter of his country and one of his best friends on the African continent.
Could Nkrumah have married both women? The man Ghanaians nicknamed “Show Boy” was a man they could allow to get away with a few indulgences. Despite initial reservations, the powerful women’s wing of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) acquiesced to Show Boy marrying a “white woman” (Fathia).
What does not seem to be in much doubt is that Marais had thorough access to Nkrumah, body and soul. He took her on as his personal stylist, close pal and mistress.
They were “honest with each other” and she knew him more than “Nkrumah the Prime Minister” but also “Nkrumah the man”. She added, “He could relax with me”.
In her book, Marais notes that Fathia was aware of the relationship Nkrumah had with Marais. But she also praises Fathia’s handling of her predicament as a woman dedicated to keeping up appearances and being the mother of a new nation.
Marais would go on to become the head of television programming at the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation. She also produced and acted in TV shows and stage plays.
On February 24, 1966, everything came tumbling down for Marais and Ghana. Nkrumah was overthrown while he was out of Ghana on a diplomatic mission in Asia.
The new military government, openly pro-Western and thus recognized by the US and UK, forced out the Chinese and Eastern European communists who were involved in various facets of Ghanaian life. Personal foreign friends of Ghana’s first president were also repatriated, save an unlucky few.
Nkrumah was exiled in Guinea and while Fathia flew out of Ghana with her three kids to Egypt, Marais wanted to go to Nkrumah in Conakry. But she was temporarily detained, an ordeal which included sexual assault and the confiscation of some her belongings.
Her detainment was chronicled in the LIFE Magazine edition of March 16, 1966, where she was curiously referred to as “Nkrumah’s slender mulatto mistress”.
Prior to 1966, Marais had been writing the story of her professional and personal relationship with Nkrumah. Due to the stress in trying to get out of the country, one of the things she lost was the manuscript for her book.
If it was not for acclaimed South African singer Miriam Makeba, who leveraged her star power to help retrieve the manuscript, we may never have known Marais’ account.
The book was also written with Nkrumah’s blessings, apparently. Marais mentions that he was a primary editor, making a whopping 146 changes to her surprise.
Throughout her narration, Marais speaks of Nkrumah not as a voracious political animal but a man liable to feeling emotional pain and the joy of spirit, admitting of his wrongs and giving warmth towards all those he called loved ones.
In 1971, Marais married a Sierra Leonean aristocrat and the country’s high commissioner to the UK, Victor Kanu.