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The King and I

With the King of Pobe

This is a picture of one of my fondest moments in Benin, where I lived and worked for four years. I'm standing next to the King of Pobé, and as you can see from the smile, I'm happy.

Benin retains extensive royalty, and at most public meetings of importance you can expect a king or two to be present. They are treated with extreme deference and legitimate respect, despite their economic circumstances (after the meeting you might see three kings pile into a decrepit car for the ride home, and they seem to be often little wealthier than many of their subjects). They are given the seats of honor in the front row of meetings, where they wave their scepters when something pleases them; the scepters are often elaborately carved hardwood, but sometimes look like dog-tail flyswatters.

Dealing with the simultaneous overlay of traditional (royal) and modern legislative systems is just one of the challenges Africans have to deal with and we don't (OK, maybe the Brits do, sort of). And as a "highly effective international development expert" (laugh, it's a joke), my first reaction was to mentally relegate them to the sidelines. What role can they possibly play in a nation also having a president, a National Assembly, regional representatives, and a dozen ministries? Wisely, I kept my opinions to myself, and watched. What I learned changed my opinion.

Turns out, the kings remain an important political force, retain the full respect of their people, and are an important political voice in affairs that matter. The kings respond directly to their people, and have a much closer relationship to the people they govern than do the bureaucrats in the capital. And they're smart.

The King of Pobé charmed me from the start. He asked good questions, thought methodically about the challenges and opportunities presented, and clearly advocated for pragmatism and progress. He seemed to understand economic development, and wanted us to succeed. He was warm and charming and gracious, and had a spontaneous laugh that lightened up the whole room. His people served us glasses of cold water and a shot of whiskey, both luxuries in a hot, poor region. And he exhorted us to work fast and well, because his people are counting on us. It's not the first time I heard those words, but coming from the king, they took on a more sincere tone than ever before.

I met many other kings in Benin, which led to many other funny anecdotes, like my visit to the naked king of Tanéka Koko. In Allada, my Beninese colleagues and I traveled to participate in a regional event and describe the progress our program was making. We were all invited to process before the king and pay our respects by dropping to our knees and pressing our forehead to the ground before him. When it was our turn, my Beninese colleague Gabriel did so. I was next, and it didn't seem right to just stand there like an ugly American, so I began to descend. I got to my knees before I felt Gabriel's hand on my shoulder. "C'est bon!", he laughed. That's enough! I regained my feet and followed him, but not before catching the eye of the king, who was laughing with tears in his eyes. In a way, I'd paid my respects, or at least been entertaining.

Never again will I question the role of the kings in African society (in Benin, at least). In many ways, they still have the ear of the people – and the willingness to listen. And that makes them essential.

Footnote: I looked into the subject in a few academic databases and found to my disappointment very little study on the superimposition of traditional and modern government systems in African society. Seems hard to believe, given the probable impact.


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