Juanita Britton at her Anacostia Art Gallery. She's getting ready to become Queen Mother of Konko Village in Eastern Ghana.
A woman from Anacostia is ascending the throne of a region in Eastern Ghana in West Africa. She’s not Ghanaian, but she is a successful businesswoman. Her path to the throne marks a modern twist on an ancient -- and flexible -- tradition.
A queen to be
Juanita Britton’s nickname is Busybee, and it’s easy to see why. She’s at her Anacostia Art Gallery, wearing a brown dress and gold bangles of all sizes. She’s in the midst of party planning, and her mind is on food, gifts, music, clothing, and lights as she weaves between statues of giraffes and tribal masks from all over Sub-Saharan Africa.
“I was given that name by my grandmother – I was told I would do several things at once like most children but what was odd is that I would get back to the first thing if I was doing three and go finish it up. So busy bee it was and I probably have ben trying to live up to my name more than anything – but I love simultaneous action."
Britton is from Anacostia. She’s a businesswoman. She co-owns several Brooks Brothers franchises and a bookstore. The party she’s putting together is her official send off. She’s about to add one more position to her resume: Queen Mother Nana Batwe Adubiya II of Konko Village in Ghana, West Africa.
A phone call from an ex
A few months ago, Britton got a call from an ex-boyfriend she dated decades ago. She hadn’t laid eyes on him in 17 years, and he called her out of the blue to ask her to come and be his queen mother. Things had changed quite a bit since they last met.
“When I knew him as a 20-something, he was just John Abu,” Britton recalls. “Twenty-five years later, he is King Nana Mosi Botang II. And his royalty is one of 17 in the eastern region in Ghana. And it came to him that I would be a choice to come back and help him with his Kingdom.”
So Friday she’s getting ceremonially installed. Busybee won't have to move to Ghana, but she is expected to visit a few times a year. And no, she's not getting married to the King -- this is a ceremonial title.
“I will have on a half million dollars of Ashanti gold,” says Britton. “I‘ll have that on and I’ll be on a big chair high above the crowd and six men will be carrying me.”
But this position isn’t all gold. There’s something in it for the villagers and King Nana Mosi Botang II. In a recorded statement from Akropong, Ghana, his highness explains that the role of village chief includes the responsibility to manage that village and its economic development.
King as developer in chief
Over the years, the area around Konko, Ghana, has declined since a plantation was closed and the land was parceled out. In an effort to protect what is left, positions like queen mother are offered to people like Britton, who have connections and business savvy. They become patrons of development for villages like Konko Village -- which is home to several thousand people -- and help to improve their lifestyles.
“As Ghana develops economically and advances politically and becomes more educated and more urban, chiefs are having to look ways to maintain relevance,” says Barak Hoffman, who runs the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University.
Kings and chiefs in Ghana don’t have a formal political role. In fact, they aren’t allowed to participate formally in politics, according to Hoffman. Ghana is a democracy and that’s the way most Ghanaians would like to keep it. But chiefs are still extremely popular, and can be fairly influential.
So in many cases, chiefs are trying to stay relevant by spurring economic development, says Hoffman, . In a handful of them, that’s meant bringing in well-connected, well-appointed friends from the outside, or foreigners who have shown their commitment to a village.
“What these chiefs are bringing are not massive infrastructure projects -- they’re not bringing in Boeing manufacturing plants,” says Hoffman. “It’s much more modest: maybe roads, schools, health clinics – micro-finance opportunities. Things of that nature.”
But before all the hard work, comes the party. Britton brought along an entourage of 25 people including her mother and adopted daughters, as well as several people she knows from Anacostia who have never traveled out of the country. The coronation happens Friday during the annual Odwira festival marking the Yam Harvest.
“The gods: that’s how we have to look at everything that happens in our life, be it greatness or sadness.” Says Britton. “Its the gods have brought it to us.”
And that’s how, by the end of the day, Busybee Britton will be queen bee.
[Music: "Bee" by Detwiije from Six is Better Than Eight]