In September, a long-held wish for Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s archive to come home to Africa became a reality. It happened thanks to the dedication of some extraordinary people. Baffour Ankomah pays tribute to one of them, Solomon (Suleiman) Kakembo.
The good news in September was that the late Ghanaian President Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s archive (or to be exact, part of it) was coming home to the continent to be hosted by the Thabo Mbeki Foundation in South Africa on behalf of Ghana, Nkrumah’s motherland.
I was involved in the whole transfer so I know exactly what happened. Nkrumah’s Literary Executrix, the late Mrs June Milne, had custody of Nkrumah’s archive. She put part of it in Howard University in the US, pending the availability of appropriate facilities in Ghana to house it. The other half she kept at her home in London and later in Norwich, where she died on 5 May 2018.
A true champion and Africanist, June had worked very closely with Nkrumah and was the one who went to Conakry, Guinea, 13 times under very difficult circumstances to either visit Nkrumah or to get his papers out after his death. The effort nearly caused her to lose her life but she was determined to rescue Nkrumah’s papers from Conakry after the coup that overthrew President Sékou Touré’s government.
When June died in May 2018, her son Peter Milne became the custodian of the half of Nkrumah’s archive that was in June’s custody. Peter graciously handed the archive to Africa after a group of us, gathered around the Harare-based Institute of African Knowledge (INSTAK) with Ambassador Kwame Muzawazi as the linchpin, intervened.
Peter was contemplating placing the archive in the British Library, after he had tried hard but unsuccessfully to get a suitable African country to host it.
Our group (INSTAK) contacted both the African Union and The Mbeki Foundation (TMF), requesting they step in and be the hosts of the archive as conditions in Ghana currently are not conducive to storing Nkrumah’s papers. The AU showed keen interest but the TMF acted faster.
So, it is to the TMF that Nkrumah’s archives have gone for a temporary home at the University of South Africa (UNISA), from where, whenever Ghana is ready, the archive will finally go home to Accra.
In the midst of all this is a pivotal woman without whom the archive would not have come to Africa: Mrs Elizabeth Kakembo. A true daughter of the African soil (she traces her ancestors from Uganda to Ancient Egypt), Elizabeth played a seminal role by acting not only promptly but also efficiently within our group.
Having worked with June very closely herself for over 20 years, Elizabeth wanted June’s wish for Africa to have what belongs to it to be fulfilled. Interestingly, in early October, Ghana granted June’s wish for her ashes to be placed in the Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra. She deserved it!
Equally deserving mention are Elizabeth and her husband, the late Solomon (Suleiman) Ssenyonga Kakembo who sadly passed away on 5 February 2019. They had been the publishers of Nkrumah’s books since late 1998, under the imprint PANAF Books. When June Milne retired from PANAF, the Kakembos stepped in, and for 21 years have managed to keep Nkrumah’s writings alive.
Debt of gratitude
Africa owes June, Solomon and Elizabeth a great debt of gratitude for having done so much to preserve Nkrumah’s intellectual legacy in line with his wishes as outlined in his last will and testament. Solomon (as he came to be known by his admirers) died aged 80, leaving behind Elizabeth (his best friend and colleague), two children and two grandchildren.
Having known them myself since 1999, I feel obliged to pay Solomon a belated homage especially on the occasion of the coming home of Nkrumah’s archive. Solomon was an African hero. A man worth celebrating, he was born on 24 July 1938 in Mbarara Hospital in Uganda into a prominent Muslim family. Though Muslim, he was educated first at a Catholic Missionary School in Mbarara before moving on to one of Uganda’s leading Christian boarding schools, Nyakasura.
He excelled as an all-rounder at school and was appointed variously as a house captain and head boy. Academically unbeatable, Solomon’s brilliance saw him coming first nationwide in the Senior Entrance Examination during the colonial days.
Consequently, he won several scholarships to study abroad. After starting off at Makerere, he went to study in Pakistan and then Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). He ended up in England where he became one of the first Ugandans to join the Chartered Institute of Marketing in London.
He worked at the London Electricity Board before starting his own business at a time when being an African entrepreneur based in London, with offices in Upper Regent Street in the heart of London, was unheard of for people from Africa.
He was one of the pioneers from East Africa to start his own import-export business in the UK in the 1960s. Known as a serial entrepreneur, he had many successes and some lows, but was always regarded as a kind, enlightened, and sophisticated gentleman by all who knew him.
A forward thinker, who believed in equality of opportunity regard-
less of colour, gender or religion, Solomon maintained these values till the end of his life. He saw fairness, compassion, and forgiveness as some of the major ingredients that societies needed to thrive in harmony. He had friends everywhere regardless of religion, colour, or country of origin.
While they were both studying in London, Solomon met Elizabeth, a Ugandan from a prominent Christian family. They married in Bloomsbury, London, in 1968 and grew to become a model couple of the highest order. For those of us who knew them, no husband and wife deserved more encomiums for practising the Biblical instruction of “the two becoming one” than Solomon and Elizabeth.
A man of modern ideas, Solomon often referred to his wife as his colleague and partner, further demonstrating how he took equality seriously. Together they transformed PANAF Books, embracing new technology, joining the Independent Publishers Guild (IPG), Publishers’ Licensing Society (PLS), and introducing print on demand technology. They made sure Nkrumah’s books continued to be in print till today, and that they would continue to be available for future generations.
Before he passed away, Solomon was involved in a process of refreshing the design of Nkrumah’s books. He was the epitome of devotion to the work of publicising and marketing the intellectual legacy of Africa’s independence icon.
In all this, Solomon never forgot his roots. At the same time he fully embraced his adopted country, the UK, choosing to be buried there. A Pan-Africanist who saw the world as one family, Solomon was one of those who helped to bring about peace and equality during the dark days in Uganda and Southern Africa, and helped so many individuals and families who were really in need. He was extraordinary, a true unsung hero, a man that the world and Africa in particular should not forget.
He is dearly missed, especially by myself and my wife (also called Elizabeth), who had the good fortune of knowing him and his wife, with whom we had sumptuous dinners any time they visited Zimbabwe.