Riding with the King in Burkina Faso

Going for a joyride with the young king of a tiny West African tribe, the Gan.
  • Going for a joyride with the young king of a tiny West African tribe, the Gan.

I had been photographing for about two weeks in Africa when I heard about a king. Africa has many kings, and I've met more than a few, but had never before sought one out.

Africa's oral histories allow for personal interpretation, and stories of great men usually carry an embellishment that creates a chasm between the myth and the man. The stories I heard of this king could only be called legendary. 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's spelling, migrated from Ghana into what is today the southwestern corner of Burkina Faso in West Africa. They number less than six thousand, and it was their king I wished to meet.

Monsoon-clogged roads forced me to abandon my vehicle miles from my destination, and after an eight-mile trek through millet fields I accidentally stumbled into the voodoo soul of the Gan – a recreated burial ground as it were, with stone houses, each containing a clay effigy of a former king. 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 weighs heavy.

Deep in thought.

Deep in thought.

Not far away I saw his majesty sitting placidly in a wooden deck chair under the shade of a tree. He was not a boy, but not yet fully a man either. His ebony skin was flawless, and he had long thin fingers locked in clenched fists under his chin as though deep in thought.

In Africa, my white hair has often given me entry 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. The saying goes, "When an African dies, it is like a library burning."

In remote villages, I am usually older than any of the chiefs and take full advantage of my age to see places and seek answers not available to a younger pilgrim.

Through a local man, I spoke with the king about many subjects. I asked what he thought of America having a black president and he laughed, saying Africa had been ruled by black men for centuries, so America was long overdue. We talked of philosophy, religion, and at one point he surprised me by asking what snow was like, having never known cold.

We talked throughout the afternoon, and not wishing to overstay my welcome, I said I must go.

His majesty beckoned me to follow, and there behind a hut sat a decrepit '66 Nissan sedan that looked like it had not been driven in years. The king got in, started the engine – belching black smoke everywhere – and waved for me to join him. How often does one get a ride from a king?

With the roads clogged by mud, we drove through 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. Seeing the 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, he was the noble leader; 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: I was a temporary escape. It had become 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.

Back at my vehicle, the king posed for a final picture and then reached under his robe to hand me a slip of paper. It was a Xerox with his photo on it and said in French, "His Majesty, the 29th King of the Gan" (left). Under the broiling African sun, I exchanged business cards with a king.

Almost two years later I received an email from him, as he apparently had just gotten internet service from who knows where. So now I have an African king for a pen pal. He writes to me sporadically in bad English, and I am grateful for such a rare gift.

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

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Great story you have become, and written.

Please, extend to the king our kindest greetings.

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