Most Unforgettable Character Silver Winner: To Find a King

by James Dorsey

My pen pal,the African King

While in Africa, I met a king.

Africa has many kings, some self proclaimed, while others are hereditary, and they run the gamut from despot to enlightened ruler.

I have met more than a few in my travels, but had never before sought one out.

The oral histories of Africa allow for personal interpretation, and stories of great men usually carry much embellishment creating a chasm between the myth and the man.  The stories I heard of this king could only be called legendary; that he was a shape shifter, assuming the guise of a panther at night.  Some said he could fly, talk to animals, and was wise beyond belief.  They also said he was still a boy.  Such a story begs to be followed.

Centuries ago the Kaan or Gan people (pronounced Goon), depending on who is doing the spelling, migrated from Ghana into what is today the southwestern corner of Burkina Faso in West Africa, settling near Loropini. They number less than six thousand.

They are primarily animists and practitioners of voodoo that permeates most West African cultures.  Their king is elected from and by members of the royal family, rules for life, and is the keeper of traditional fetishes that are the soul of Gan beliefs.  Some say this king took the throne at age eleven, with worldly insight that far exceeded his isolated existence. Theirs is an ancient culture.

Monsoon clogged roads forced me to abandon my vehicle miles from my destination, forcing an eight mile trek through dried millet fields where I accidentally stumbled into the voodoo soul of the Gan, a re-created burial ground as it were, with stone houses, each containing a clay effigy of a seated former king, inlaid with cowry shell eyes and mouth.  At first, in the darkness, I thought I was viewing mummies lifelike enough to stand and accost me. This was the Gan place of ritual and source of the king’s power.  It is here that he comes for the advice of his ancestors when the mantle of rule proves too heavy to bear. I did not linger, for in many tribal areas, violating a burial ground is a serious offense.  I left an offering of salt, more for the benefit of prying eyes than my own beliefs.

Not far away I saw his majesty sitting placidly in a wooden deck chair under a shade tree.  He was not a boy, but not yet fully a man either.  His ebony skin was flawless and he had long thin fingers that would be at home on a piano keyboard, locked in clenched fists under his chin as though deep in thought.  His long caftan and skull cap did not betray his status, and none of the ostentatious trappings that usually accompany African royalty were in evidence.  He turned to offer a slight smile at my approach, saying in French, “I knew you were coming, father.”

That simple phrase alluded to psychic abilities, but I knew countless people had seen me fighting through the brush, and no doubt the “jungle telegraph” had warned him of my arrival; still, this announcement added to his mystique of special knowledge while throwing me off balance.

In Africa my white hair has often given me entre to villages normally closed to outsiders because there, more than anyplace on earth, age demands respect. The longer you live the more knowledge you accumulate, and education is at a premium. In remote villages, I am usually older than any of the chiefs. The saying goes, “When an African dies, it is like a library burning.” I take full advantage of my age in such situations to see places and seek answers not available to a younger man.

He motioned me to a bench in front of him while a lady approached from a nearby hut.  She sat at his side with her hand on his shoulder and introduced herself in English as his fourth wife and thus a queen. The king spoke directly to me in his native tongue, his black eyes never wavering in their stare, while his wife explained that he was in mourning for the death of one of his three other wives and not in the best of spirits, but his quick smile did not betray any such emotion.

I spoke with him, through her, of all manner of topics, from African politics to the health of our families. When I asked his name I was told I would not be able to pronounce it, and that his true name was known only to his people, for such knowledge in the hands of his enemies could harm him.  Such is voodoo.

I asked what he thought of America having a black president and he laughed, saying Africa had been ruled by black men for centuries and America was just now catching up.  He wisely added that it was our fate to be ruled by black men as we had originally brought them to America as slaves and were now receiving our due. I held my tongue by not reminding him that it was the black kings of Africa who rounded up their own people to sell to white slavers, but I was not there for confrontation.  I wanted to know his thoughts.

We talked of philosophy, religion, and at one point he asked me what snow was like, having never known cold.

His questions came from a separate reality than my own and I found him fascinating, but in no way did I think of him as great.  In Africa where rulers are most often despots, such a benign and friendly ruler could certainly be perceived as great to his own people and that is how legends begin.  I even thought that perhaps in another time and place we might become friends.

We talked throughout the afternoon and not wishing to overstay my welcome, and with no offer to stay in his village overnight, I said I must go.

His majesty beckoned me to follow and there behind some bushes sat a decrepit 66 Nissan sedan that did not  appear to be in running condition but the king got in, started the engine, belching black smoke everywhere, and beckoned for me to join him.  He was personally going to drive me back to my vehicle.

With the roads clogged by mud we veered across millet fields, bounding over uneven ground as fast as the king could coax his aging wheels to go.  I hung on for dear life, with no seat belt, as my head met the ceiling more than once. Seeing the broad smile on his face I realized he was having a wonderful time and let my own apprehension go, enjoying the wildest ride I ever had.

In the village, surrounded by his people, he was the noble leader, but here in the bush, behind the wheel of his car, he could be the young boy that still resided in the man’s body.  This was his relief from the prison of rule and I was his excuse.  Two different cultures had merged into the kind of day a traveler prays for.

We passed startled villagers, wide eyed and open mouthed, as they watched this strange white intruder bouncing along in the king’s car, many of them bowing as we passed, but most too startled to move.  I have no doubt that at that moment I became a story to be told around their evening meal for generations.

We broke through into a clearing and saw my vehicle ahead, finally coming to a halt with a sliding, brake wrenching stop.

His majesty just turned and smiled, gesturing towards my vehicle as calmly as if asking me to lunch.

He posed for a final picture and then reached under his robe to hand me a small slip of paper.  It was a Xerox with his photo on it and read, ‘His Majesty, the 29th King of the Gan.”  It also had a cell phone number.

So there under the broiling African sun, I exchanged business cards with a king and got into my own vehicle, watching as he put the Nissan into reverse and backed away with all the élan that had brought us here.

I have often thought about that encounter and of the two sides of the person I had found; a young man who inspired a legend.  It is then that I think of calling his cell phone but know the call would not go through, nor would he remember me even if I could speak his tongue.

Almost two years later I received an e-mail from him, as he apparently just got internet service, from who knows where.  He asked if we could correspond and so now I have an African king for a pen pal.  He writes to me often and we talk of people, love, life, death, and God, and I am grateful for such a rare gift.

I had become a story for his village, and now he is mine.


James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in 43 countries. His journeys are usually far off the beaten path to record the cultures of indigenous peoples, particularly in Africa and Asia.

His first book was entitled “Tears, Fear and Adventure”. He is a frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and The Los Angeles Times. He is a regular contributor as both writer and photographer to WEND, Sea Kayaker, Ocean, WorldAndI, and Wavelength magazines. His articles and photos have appeared in Natural History, BBC Wildlife, California Wild, Northwest, and the Travelers’ Tales book series, plus Wild Moments, The Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel, and L.A. Weekly newspapers. He is a 2008 and 2010 Solas category award winner for Best Travel Writing.

His was a principal photographer for England’s? Seventh Wave magazine, and his work has been used by the National Wildlife Federation, Ocean Conservancy, International Cetacean Society, California Gray Whale Coalition, and the International Whaling Commission. His work has twice been chosen as Kodak Internationals ?Photo of the Day.? He has appeared on National Public Radio?s ?Weekend America” program and is a Fellow of the Explorers Club and former director of the Adventurers Club. WEBSITE: www.jamesdorsey.com

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