By far the most culturally exciting event for me took place on Sunday afternoon. I had an “audience” with the local King at his palace in Nungua, the city where Shirley lives. Shirley, her mother, an aunt, and her cousin Esther picked me up at the hotel. We drove to Nungua (less than 2km), first stopping down the street from the palace so I could get “dressed” appropriately. The “outfit” is a large rectangle of cloth, perhaps 4-5’ by 10’. I was wrapped so that my right shoulder was exposed (although I had a shirt on under it), and the ends were draped over my right shoulder. This way it was essentially floor length. We got back in the car, found a place to park right across the street from the palace and waited for the invitation to enter.
The “palace” is a one-story compound. Inside, past some elaborate gates with metal figures on the outside, is a small courtyard and a couple of structures. The one on the left is the tribal council hall where we were meeting. Inside is a single large room about 3 times as long as wide. One of the narrow ends of the hall is dominated by a large throne behind a long table (it was covered by a cloth when I first entered to keep it from getting dusty between uses). They both sit on a raised platform. In front of the platform is another long table with 5-6 chairs for the elders. Off to the right side as you faced the throne were chairs which were occupied by the high priests (all in white garments). The rest of the room is dominated by a long U-shaped table with chairs (nice padded ones with the names of the individuals on them) around it. The various village representatives (princes) sat at them. Along the wall behind those chairs was another row of chairs which were occupied by the queen mothers and the princesses. I should also mention that in the courtyard were three musicians playing on traditional African drums playing to announce our entry and the beginning of the ceremony.
Except for the unoccupied throne, most of the chairs were already occupied when I entered. They had reserved four chairs right inside the door at the U-shaped table for myself, Shirley, her mother, and her aunt. A few minutes later, the king entered and assumed his place on the throne. Also with him was the “linguist.” The king does not speak directly to the people during the ceremony, nor do you speak directly to him. All communication is through his linguist. The drums outside then stopped and the main ceremony began.
It was all conducted in Ga, the local tribal language, except for a few occasions when one of the elders spoke in English for my benefit. So I just nodded my head at what I thought were the appropriate times. I heard my name mentioned a few times (as Mr. Alan), and also the fact that Shirley had come to live with us 12 years ago. One of the elders was the chief speaker. When he, or anyone else, rose to speak, the speaker had to pull down the robe from his right shoulder as well so that both shoulders were uncovered in the presence of the king. However, women or the priests (who had a different type of garb) did not do so, nor would their outfits be amenable to it.
After some long speaking, primarily by the elder in the middle of the row of elders, but supplemented by Shirley’s father (who is also one of the elders), or the linguist (on behalf of the king), I was informed that I needed to step outside (along with the women, the priests, and the linguist) for a “libation.” Seeing one of the priests carrying two bottles of Schnapps, I wondered what I was getting into (I don’t drink alcohol). But my fears were unfounded as the chief priest was alternately pouring from the two bottles onto the ground – the libations were an offering to the gods. As he said something and poured a little, the women would all repeat his words or say something else. Finally he emptied the remains of both bottles to an applause and we returned inside.
There was some additional speaking. I was also asked to say a few words (they told me as we were coming back inside that I would be asked so I had a minute to decide what to say). I rose, dropped the robe from my left shoulder and said that I was happy to have been a host father for Shirley and that I felt greatly honored to participate in this ceremony. One of the other men at the table then rose and translated what I had said into Ga so that everyone knew what I had said.
I should also mention that at various times during the ceremony the princesses would all break into some sort of song or chant. I was told that according to their tradition that god speaks to his people through these women, so when they start saying/singing something, everyone stops to listen to what they are saying as that is a message to them from god.
The next part of the ceremony was when the priests all gathered in front of me to place a wreath of some special plant around my neck. I rose and to some sort of special words, the priest (not the oldest one who had led in the libations, but a younger one who was the tallest in the group and could more easily place it around my neck) put the wreath over my head three times – the first two times then removing it and leaving it there on the third time. We then sat down again. The head elder explained a few things to me in English. We all rose as the king exited the room, we all sat down back again for a few minutes while they distributed bottles of soda to those who desired.
After exiting the tribal council room myself, I was invited into one of the other buildings where the King and Shirley’s father were sitting (it was another large room with big stuffed chairs around the outside and pictures of the current and former kings on the walls). I was then able to speak to the king (in English) personally. A few of the things he said to me stood out.
First, he explained that as Shirley’s father was one of the tribal elders, that he was then an “uncle” to Shirley and that made her a “princess” as well, with full rite of ascension to the throne (but of course with many people in front of her). Secondly, he informed me that if I ever came back again that there would be another ceremony and they would give me an official title. Finally, I was invited to travel with the king and his elders to another city where they were going on business for the week. However, I had to decline as they would not be returning until the day after my flight was scheduled to leave Ghana.
The king’s name is “His Royal Majesty King Odaifio Welentsi III” (according to his business card which he gave me). He has three other titles (reading from the bottom up in increasing order of importance):
· President of the Nungua Traditional Council – this is the group that was meeting to receive me that day. The council is in charge of all tribal business within Nungua (a city of about 85,000 people).
· Paramount Chief of Nungua Traditional Area – This is a term that is recognized all across Ghana where there is a council of chiefs that are consulted by the Ghanaian government on many issues. There are six Paramount Chiefs in the Ga tribe, each governing a different geographic area.
· Overlord of the Ga’s – Odaifio is the “chief of the chiefs”, i.e. when the Ga people need to speak with one voice, he is the spokesperson for all the Ga chiefs. There are about 300,000 people in the Ga tribe in Ghana.
Shirley told me afterwards that she had never been in the palace before, except to meet her father in the courtyard, and that likely her mother had never been there before either. I had given Shirley my camera during all the above, but most of what she took were videos instead of pictures, so I’m not sure how much I will be able to post to my Facebook account
This was certainly the highlight of my trip – as it would have been for anyone. As one of few non-Ga people who have been so honored, it was truly a privilege.