A king works among us
UA instructor, chosen to lead his hometown from afar, dedicates self to improving life there
On most days, Anthony Ephirim-Donkor doesn't look much like a king. Rather than a gold crown and robe, he wears a suit jacket and speaks with a slight, lilting accent as he lectures to his students at the University of Akron.
The 47-year-old lives in a modest apartment in Akron with his wife, Comfort, and three of their children. He's quick to burst into a hearty laugh, and hesitant to tell folks he's royalty.
``I've just tried to keep a low profile,'' he said.
He's an active member of the First United Methodist Church of Cuyahoga Falls, drives a 1993 Dodge Intrepid and is supportive of his wife working part time at Todaro's Party Center.
Like most other folks living in Akron, his life is pretty ordinary. But once a year, he travels to his ancestral land in Ghana, leaving behind his life in Ohio and entering his world as an African king.
During his visits, he distributes gifts donated by friends in the States, oversees the construction of a new women's university and rules on everything from land to marriage issues. He eats food prepared by a select few, his bare feet are never permitted to touch the ground and he can speak to others in public only through an intermediary.
The tale of how Donkor became king of Gomoa Mprumem in Ghana begins a decade ago, while he was living in Atlanta and returned to Ghana to put final touches on his dissertation. The visit would forever alter his life.
Tapped for kingship
It was hot and sticky on Aug. 15, 1993, when Donkor went to his mother's home in Mprumem to tell her that he would soon return to the United States. Donkor is a member of an African royal family, and his mother had told him from childhood that he might someday be king of the farming town of 3,000. His great-uncle had died in 1982 after a 42-year reign, and the village had been without a male ruler since then.
Donkor didn't want the job. He was a minister with his own church in Georgia, was about to receive his doctorate, and lived happily in the United States with his family. But life has a funny way of taking detours.
When he arrived at his mother's home, she was not there. Relatives, speaking in hushed tones, instructed him to wait at a royal brother's house across town. The village is a matrilineal society, meaning the royal lineage descends through the mother. Unbeknownst to Donkor, his aunt, the queen mother, had nominated him for the kingship.
As he waited, an ancient ritual was taking place. The royal family was negotiating with other village leaders. They told the townspeople that Donkor was an honorable man who would serve the community well. After bartering with money and bottles of liquor, they agreed that the fellow with the broad grin and kind heart should be crowned Nana, or king.
The first step in that process is seizing the candidate. Some of the items that had changed hands during negotiations were given to soldiers as payment for performing their duties, which, on this day, meant capturing Donkor.
``I heard chanting of militia songs, war chants, coming toward the house,'' Donkor said. ``It grew louder and louder. And by the time I realized what was going on, they were in the sitting room. They grabbed me, took me outside, and carried me on their shoulders.''
He was taken into town, where 1,000 jubilant townspeople had gathered.
``Hail to Nana!'' they shouted. ``Hail to Nana!''
With Donkor on their shoulders, the men and women circled the village before taking him to a shrine.
``I felt like a sacrificial lamb,'' he said. ``I ceased being Anthony Ephirim-Donkor and became Nana.''
Following the ceremony, the new king was sequestered for eight days in his royal brother's home.There, the elders taught him how to be king, including instructions on following a proper diet, walking majestically, and dancing in a palanquin -- a sort of carriage hoisted on men's shoulders, the preferred mode of transportation for a king during festivals.
Meanwhile, Donkor's wife, who was back in Atlanta, received a telephone call from her brother in Ghana informing her that her hubby was now a ruler.
``Oh,'' she remembers saying to her brother, ``they messed us up.''
Released from captivity, Donkor returned to the United States a changed man. It had become clear that, as king, he was not only honoring his ancestors, but also taking on the burden of his people.
There was a great need to provide the children of the 10-square-mile agricultural village of Mprumem with a good education and deal with the town's other needs.
So, upon his coronation, Donkor, or Nana Obrafo Owam X as he's known in Ghana, set goals to establish an educational system, develop employment opportunities, and improve health conditions.
By American standards, the people of Mprumem are impoverished. Most live in mud-and-stick homes with thatched roofs. They often struggle to make ends meet, and many can't afford electricity.
``They are not rich,'' Donkor said, ``but somehow satisfied.''
Their needs are great, but there is no unrest. Most of the citizens are Christians; they look to God, and work hard, to provide for their families.
Though he lives in the United States, Donkor is the guy in charge. He keeps in touch with the village, sometimes talking daily with the people there by phone.
In his absence, the community is run by a council of elders made up of several sub-rulers and lineage heads. If an issue arises in which Donkor needs to be involved, he is telephoned for advice.
It has benefited the people of Mprumem that their king, who receives no salary for his royal standing, lives in the United States. American money goes a long way in Ghana. With the help of a few friends in the United States, Donkor has been able to build a preschool, where some children get their only meal of the day. He has also built a middle school, and work continues, as money becomes available, on a primary school.
Still, not everyone can afford to send their youngsters to school. Tuition, which pays for things such as school supplies, ranges from $10 to $15 a year.
``When I have money,'' Donkor said, ``I pay the tuition for them.''
Because of Donkor's love for education, and because few women can afford or are chosen to attend college, he is building the first women's university in Ghana with the help of church congregations and philanthropists in the Akron area, Georgia and Tennessee.
It's a slow process. It has taken two years to get the first-floor walls raised on the Woman's University of Ghana, near Mprumem, but there's hope that the project will be completed within five years.
On the employment scene, a brick factory closed its doors in the mid-1980s, putting many people out of work. Donkor continues to look for investors to restart the factory. ``We have one of the best clay deposits in Ghana,'' he explained.
Farming and kente cloth weaving are the village's main enterprises.
Several years ago, Mac and Susan Goekler of Tallmadge spearheaded the construction of a new reservoir to help alleviate health problems brought on by waterborne diseases.
``Despite its poverty, Mprumem is the envy of all the surrounding villages because of Dr. Donkor's American connections,'' said Mac Goekler, who with his wife has visited the town several times to assist with the projects. ``For us, it is a lifelong obligation.
``Anthony could have come back (to the U.S.) and never returned. But he has essentially sacrificed a good portion of his career, and his life, because of the people.''
Each year around Christmas, Donkor returns to Mprumem for the Akwanbo festival.
``All citizens must come home to participate in the festival and see how well their leader is doing,'' he said. ``Because the well-being of the leader translates to the well-being of the community.''
Last year was Donkor's 10th anniversary as king, so there was a bigger-than-usual celebration. Barbara Wittman, a graduate student in UA's history department, and Sharon and Harvey Nerhood of Cuyahoga Falls tagged along to help.
``It was one of the most inspirational and exciting times of my life,'' said Harvey Nerhood.
During the annual visits, Comfort Donkor hosts a Christmas party for the village's children, giving them small gifts. Last Dec. 29, the youngsters received yellow No. 2 pencils and T-shirts.
Comfort, a wonderful cook who once owned a restaurant in Ghana, prepared chicken, rice, cakes and cookies. When the food was nearly ready, the children gathered in the yard of the king's home with their bowls. Some adults managed to get a bellyful of goodies if their youngsters were sly enough to slip into line more than once.
It's clear in watching the Donkors, who live in a concrete-block home when they're in Mprumem, that they are deeply in love.
``When she goes to Ghana without her husband, he's lost. He acts as if a part of him has been misplaced,'' explained Sharon Nerhood. ``They are soul mates. When one cries, the other tastes the salt.''
The Donkors moved to Akron in 1999 when Anthony accepted a job as an African and Near East history instructor at UA. They have four living children: an 11-year-old son who is a student in the Woodridge district; 19-year-old twins, a boy and girl, who were born prematurely and now attend UA; and a grown daughter who lives in Ghana. Another child died at a young age.
Although Comfort is not considered a queen in Mprumem, she cares deeply for the people. And only sometimes when she's in Akron does she refer to her husband as Nana.
``It depends on her mood,'' her husband joked.
It doesn't take much to get Sharon Nerhood all worked up about discussing her adventures in Mprumem -- and her deep respect for the man who is king.
``We got to mine just a small part of the golden treasure of this humble, but extraordinary gentleman,'' she said. ``He opened our eyes to the beauty of a culture truly unique to our experiences.
``How blessed we are to have a true Africanist to teach the greater Akron community about the richness and complexity of the Africa of today.''