On the evening of December 22, 1958, the tarmac at the Bombay airport in Santa Cruz was decorated to welcome a special guest and his delegation flying in on Air India’s Flight 112 from Rome. The guest in question was Kwame Nkrumah, the first prime minister of the African nation of Ghana who had led it to independence from the British the previous year.

The visit became a reality after a year of back and forth between top officials and diplomats. A large part of the heavy lifting was done by BK Kapur, the Indian High Commissioner in Accra.

After independence Ghana was courted by both blocs during the Cold War, but it chose to stay non-aligned. Then 49, Nkrumah, like other leaders of African countries in the anti-colonial struggle, looked to Jawaharlal Nehru for guidance on many matters. One such area was Ghana’s approach towards the British.

“At the last Commonwealth Conference, after Dr Nkrumah had met Mr Nehru a couple of times, he was a different man,” Kapur wrote in a letter to MJ Desai, Commonwealth Secretary at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, in September 1958. “He began to take a more balanced view of the Commonwealth and a policy of co-operation with the British. Prior to that he had been somewhat anti-Commonwealth and anti-British.”

Letters shared between Nehru and Nkrumah suggest they shared an intimate friendship. In a letter to Nehru dated May 14, 1958, Nkrumah wrote, “In spite of my whole-hearted sympathy with you in your desire to retire from the active life that you have been forced to lead for so long, I must admit that I am very happy indeed that you have been persuaded to remain in harness for a further period. Knowing full well what this must mean in personal sacrifice, I would like you to know that you have my sincere admiration.”

It was in the same letter that the timing of the India visit was suggested. The Ghanaian leader wrote, “As you know, it has been one of my greatest desires to see your country, and I am most anxious to do so as soon as possible.” He said he would not be able to make it till November: “I thought, however, that if I could arrange to come in December, I might be able to spend Christmas with you.” Nkrumah was later informed by the Ghanaian High Commissioner in Delhi JB Erzuah that Nehru did not celebrate Christmas.

In response to Nkrumah’s letter, Nehru suggested that the Ghanaian spend “at least two to three weeks” in the country. Almost unthinkable now, such long visits by foreign heads of government were not entirely uncommon back then. In 1955, for instance, Nikita Khrushchev and Nicholai Bulganin of the Soviet Union spent three weeks in India.

Nkrumah, who was keen to build on the Afro-Asian solidarity that gained momentum after the 1955 Bandung Conference, wanted to visit Ceylon, Pakistan and Burma as well on the visit. The idea was to spend a couple of days in each of these countries, while keeping India as the main base. The Ghanaian side made sure that India had no objections to this. However, the plan fizzled out after Ayub Khan seized power in a military coup in Pakistan in October.

Busy in Bombay

As soon as it was clear that Nkrumah was going to visit the western Indian city, the Overseas Students’ Association of Bombay wrote to the High Commission of Ghana, requesting a brief meeting with the prime minister. The visit wasn’t scheduled to be very long – it lasted less than two days – and yet the students’ wish was granted.

On the first evening, Nkrumah attended a reception held by the chief minister and a dinner with the governor. The next day, he was taken around the city that was as yet free of dystopian traffic jams.

Nkrumah was welcomed at the Atomic Energy Establishment (now the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), Trombay, which was founded by Homi Bhabha in 1954. Those members of his delegation who had no connection with science were sent to explore film sets.

The full delegation later reunited at the Aarey Milk Colony in Goregaon and had lunch in the area. Five days later, at a press conference, when Nkrumah was asked about his impressions of what he had seen, he spoke of the area now called the “green lungs” of Mumbai.

“Some of the things that I have seen really impressed me very much,” Nkrumah said. “For example, the Aarey Milk Colony in Bombay fascinated me very much. We have also cows and other animals, but people do not drink milk.”

It was in Bombay that the Ghanaian prime minister got his first glimpse of a common mode of transportation in India. “Another simple thing which fascinated me is – I hope you will not laugh at this; it only shows that we are trying to help the common man in Ghana – your scooter, the way you have been able to build up that little thing so that it can serve a family of a wife and two children,” he said. “When we get back to Ghana, we are going to set up a workshop for that at once, so that the poor civil servants can increase their mobility.”

Meetings with Nehru

The next day, Nkrumah flew to Delhi, where he was given a guard of honour and taken from the airport to Rashtrapati Bhavan to meet President Rajendra Prasad.

The same afternoon, he met Nehru for their first formal meeting. According to an Indian foreign ministry note released after the meeting, Nehru asked about the newly formed Union of Independent African States or the Ghana-Guinea Union.

“Prime Minister Nkrumah said that Guinea was very keen on the closest possible union and was prepared to give up its sovereignty, but he himself was thinking in terms of a federation with a common currency, defence, foreign policy and development planning, leaving other matters for the State governments to deal with in full independence,” the foreign ministry note said. Nehru had cautioned the Ghanaian leader not to rush matters with the union. This seemed to be good advice, since the union, which added Mali three years later, was disbanded in 1963.

Another area of keen interest for both prime ministers was civil rights in South Africa and Rhodesia. Nkrumah said that Ghana stood for universal suffrage in these two countries “without any discrimination on the ground of race, colour, sex or creed”.

After the talks, Nehru hosted a banquet for his friend, which was followed by a music and dance recital. Over the course of the fortnight, the two would met several times for formal and informal meetings. Nehru had requested Nkrumah to bring his wife on the trip, but she didn’t come as she was still learning English and did not feel comfortable with her language skills in front of world leaders. Nkrumah, however, got a chance to know Indira Gandhi better during this visit.

Bangalore holiday

The official agenda for Nkrumah’s visit was jam-packed, with a few leisure activities thrown in, such as watching a polo match and having a picnic lunch by Humayun’s Tomb.

While in Delhi, he visited the Palam Air Force Station, the National Physical Laboratory, the Planning Commission and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute and also addressed the Indian Council of World Affairs.

Venturing out of the capital, Nkrumah went to see the Bhakra Nangal Dam in Himachal Pradesh, the city of Chandigarh and the Matatila Dam near Jhansi. He began 1959 with a New Year’s Day visit to the Taj Mahal and on returning to Delhi addressed the people of India on All India Radio.

His holiday began on January 3, when he flew to Bangalore. The destination was carefully picked. While the Indian and Ghanaian governments were preparing for his visit, the Indian government had suggested that Nkrumah spend a holiday either by the seaside or in the mountains. He ruled out the first option because the Ghanaian capital Accra is on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. The second option did not work because he was averse to severe cold. As a way out, the Indian authorities suggested a quiet holiday in Bangalore and Mysore.

Although he received all the courtesies in Bangalore that are extended to foreign heads of state, Nkrumah had no official interactions on his vacation and was able to relax in the moderate climate of the cities before leaving India from Bombay.

Before his departure, he sent a telegram to Nehru, who was in Nagpur for a conference of the Congress Party. “My talks with you will be of lasting value to me and my government,” he wrote. “The places and projects I have seen added greatly to my experience and knowledge. I leave India confident in the knowledge that the bonds of family fellowship and goodwill that exist between our two countries have been immeasurably strengthened.”

In his reply, Nehru wrote that it was a great pleasure to have Nkrumah in India and that he enjoyed their leisurely talks. “I hope that you had a good rest in Bangalore and were not harassed by people wanting you to accept engagements.”

The two stayed friends until Nehru’s death in 1964. In March 1959, two months after he left India, Nkrumah sent Nehru a telegram announcing the birth of his son, who was named Gamal. The two met again on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1960 and at the Non-Aligned Movement Conference in Belgrade in 1961.

Kwame Nkrumah, who became the first president of Ghana in 1960 when the country became a republic, was ousted in a Western-backed coup in 1966. He moved to Guinea, where he served as the honorary co-president until his death in 1972.

The Indian government honoured his memory by naming a road in the heart of New Delhi after him.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. His Twitter handle is @ajaykamalakaran.