Once, I went to Africa in search of a king.
I have met more than a few kings over the years, but this was the only one I made an effort to find.
Several kings whose paths I crossed had appropriated the title while being mere chiefs, while others had bought and paid for the moniker. It was difficult to get a definitive answer as to what constituted being a chief as opposed to being a king; it all came down to being able to get away with what they called themselves.
View image of James Michael Dorsey travelled to Benin in western Africa in search of the legendary king of the Gaan people (Credit: Credit: peeterv/Getty Images)
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Africa is a land of few written languages, where storytelling is a fine art. But oral histories allow for personal interpretation and the expansion of the truth. Stories of great men usually carry much embellishment, creating a chasm between the myth and the actual person.
Such a story begged to be followed
I’d heard stories of the ruler of the Gaan people who lived deep in the bush of western Benin and could only be called legendary. I heard that he was a shape shifter, assuming the guise of a panther at night to prowl the tribal lands of his people. Some said he could fly, talk to animals and was a gifted healer. They also said he was only a boy ‒ that he took the throne at 11 and was wise beyond his years with worldly insight that far exceeded his isolated existence.
Such a story begged to be followed.
Monsoon-clogged roads forced me to abandon my vehicle, stuck in mud up to the axles, and bushwhack through millet fields dried by a scorching sun. Hours passed slowly, but in time I broke into a clearing, my feet awash in the sweat inside my boots. Before me in a field stood seven diminutive stone houses, windowless, with door openings but no doors; each contained a seated, life-sized clay effigy of a former king, and each image was inlaid with cowrie-shell eyes and mouth.
View image of This ritual burial ground near the Gaan village held the magical essence of past rulers and was the source of the king's power (Credit: Credit: James Michael Dorsey)
I had stumbled onto the voodoo soul of the Gaan village, a ritual burial ground holding not the bodies of kings, but their magical essence. The burial ground was the source of the king’s power, where he would seek the advice of his ancestors when the mantle of rule grew heavy.
I did not linger; in many tribal areas, violating a burial ground, even a virtual one, is a serious offense, so I followed a critter path into the bush to continue my search for the illustrious king.
Within minutes I arrived at the Gaan village, where I saw his majesty sitting placidly in a wooden deckchair under a tree. He was not a boy, but not yet fully a man either. His ebony skin was flawless and his long, thin fingers that would be at home on a piano keyboard were locked in clenched fists under his chin, suggesting deep thought. His flowing caftan and skull cap did not betray his status, and none of the ostentatious trappings that usually accompany royalty were in evidence. In fact, he had images of turkeys wearing pilgrim hats on his robe.
He turned to offer a slight smile at my approach, saying in French, “I knew you were coming.”
View image of Dorsey: "[The king] was not a boy, but not yet fully a man either" (Credit: Credit: James Michael Dorsey)
His prophetic announcement threw me off balance. He motioned me to a bench in front of him as a lady approached, stately seating herself at his side with her hand on his shoulder and introducing herself in English as his fourth wife and thus a queen. Several curious villagers gathered to watch our meeting. The king spoke directly to me in the native language of the Gaans while his wife explained in English that he was in mourning for the death of one of his three other wives and not in the best of spirits, although his quick smile did not betray any such emotion.
I couldn’t help but notice the bonnet of an aging saloon car poking out from behind a neighbouring hut, and wondered how such a vehicle had made its way to this place when my own four-wheel drive sat useless in the mud.
In Africa, if you achieve greatness, legends quickly grow around you
I spoke with the king, through the queen, on all manner of topics, from African politics to the health of our own families. Our conversation wandered in many directions and survived the passing of hours. He asked me about snow and what it felt like to be cold, as that was something he had never experienced. 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.
If he was a shape shifter or gifted healer, I got no sense of either. He came across as a benign ruler who loved his people and did what he thought best for them. On a continent filled with despots, a benevolent king would almost certainly be called great by his people, and in Africa, if you achieve greatness, legends quickly grow around you.
Had he invited me to spend the night I would have accepted, but no such invitation was forthcoming. Then I realised the villagers I had seen when I arrived had disappeared during our conversation. It occurred to me only then that I might be unnerving to his people while keeping them from their king’s attention. I decided to not overstay my welcome.
View image of The king's car, an aging saloon, was parked behind a nearby hut) (Credit: Credit: James Michael Dorsey)
I paid respects to both king and queen, thanked them for their time and stood to leave, when his majesty inquired about my vehicle. He showed great surprise when I told him it was parked miles away in thick mud.
He said he could not allow his guest to walk so far and clapped his hands, summoning a small boy from a nearby hut. The king whispered in his ear and the boy took off like a rabbit. His majesty informed me that the boy would spread the word to his people with motorbikes to come and find me on the trail and take me to my car. I again thanked him profusely and set out walking in hope that would happen soon.
Within minutes I heard a terrible noise and turned to see the king’s ancient car chugging along over the rocky ground. Its peeling paint was sun-faded to almost pure metal and its tyres were smooth. I stopped as it pulled up alongside me – and there behind the wheel sat the king. He flung open the passenger door and motioned me inside.
View image of Dorsey: "Behind the wheel of his car, [the king] could be the young boy that still resided in the man's body" (Credit: Credit: James Michael Dorsey)
He was smiling broadly, proud to show off his ride, and I took in a panoramic view from the American flag deodoriser on the rear view mirror to the sweet wrappers at my feet. Dust covered everything and it smelled rancid; I would bet that animals slept inside at night. The windows, what there were, would not roll up, and there was no door handle on my side. The king was secured by a seatbelt, but I had none. I was not yet settled when he stepped on the accelerator with a neck-snapping jerk and we swerved off the road into the millet fields.
He was having the time of his life
For those not familiar with millet fields, they are ploughed in neat rows, the furrows allowing water to reach the growing stalks on top of the speed bumps. Logic would dictate that to drive through such a field you would go along the furrows, but his majesty chose instead to drive perpendicular to them, launching my head into the ceiling with each bump while he visibly enjoyed my suffering; in fact, he began yelling with pure glee.
A broad grin covered his face as he drove like a tank commander. I waited to hear the snap of an axle or the crunch of a petrol tank being ripped from its mooring. Birds took flight in panic and small creatures ran for their lives. We crashed through the jungle like a great prehistoric beast. In the tall, dried millet stalks, the king could not see 3m in front of us, and he was having the time of his life.
View image of The author and the king shared a bumpy ride over the furrows of a millet field (Credit: Credit: Fabian Plock/Alamy)
It took a moment, but I got it.
In the village, surrounded by his people, he was the noble leader, quiet and dignified. But there in the field, behind the wheel of his car, he could be the young boy that still resided in the man’s body. Driving was his relief from the prison of rule and I was his excuse.
Driving was his relief from the prison of rule and I was his excuse
We passed startled villagers, wide eyed and open mouthed as they watched us drive by; some bowed as we passed, but most were too startled to move. The king drove with complete abandon, and, realising a moment like this would never come again, I surrendered to the now and joined him in howling at the forest spirits at the top of our lungs. The image of this strange intruder bouncing along in the king’s car probably became a legend to be told around evening fires.
We eventually reached a clearing and saw my vehicle where I had left it; we came to a sliding, brake-wrenching halt. How we found it with our meandering route is beyond me, but the king knew exactly where he was. His majesty gestured towards my four-wheel drive as calmly as if asking me to take a seat at lunch.
View image of The author and the king posed for a photo together, exchanged business cards and parted ways (Credit: Credit: James Michael Dorsey)
I set my camera in a tree branch and we posed for a picture together. Then he handed me a small slip of paper. It was a photocopy with his photo on it that read, ‘His Majesty, the 29th King of the Gaan’. It also had a mobile phone number. There under the broiling African sun, I exchanged business cards with a king and parted ways, leaving me to ponder all that had just happened.
Many times I thought of dialling his number but figured the call would not go through, nor would he remember me even if I could speak his tongue.
Two years later I received an email from the king. Either he had learned impeccable English or it was written by another in his name, but I did not care. I could not believe he had kept my card, but he asked if I had enjoyed the ride, so it must have been special to him.
The story of my pen pal, the king, always makes people smile
We write to each other every few weeks now, not about important things ‒ just stuff like what snow feels like – and he once asked if I knew any movie stars (I do not). He also told me his car had died not long after our ride; now his people attach ropes to it and pull him along while he steers. He said that is not as much fun as we had.
Since then, the story of my pen pal, the king, has fuelled countless dinner-party conversations and always makes people smile.
I went to Africa to find a king and became a story for his people, while he became a story for mine.
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