West African monarch, His Majesty King Toffa IX, visits the French Quarter as part of a United States tour.
- by Ellis Anderson
With the exception of Mardi Gras royalty, I’ve never been in the presence of an official monarch. So when I first learn that His Majesty King Toffa IX of Porto Novo, Benin, West Africa, will be briefly visiting the French Quarter on October 15, I charge extra camera batteries and polish my favorite lens.
Early afternoon on the 15th, King Toffa and his small entourage walk down the middle of Dumaine Street. They are greeted by a line of drummers in front of Voodoo Authentica and emissary Andrew Wiseman, who sings a ceremonial song of welcome.
His Majesty's bearing indicates his place in the world. A black fez hat with a gold harp emblem acts as his casual crown. A forest green satin jacket reaches to the middle of his calves. Gold and turquoise embroidery encrust the garment and its matching pants.
The monarch’s feet are shod in elaborate gold and black sandals that would start an eBay bidding war between Saints fans. His silver-handled black cane is apparently more for ornamentation than support. While the king is older, he’s not elderly. He’s solid as a linebacker. His steps may be slow and sedate, but they’re also confident, unerring.
In his other hand, the sovereign holds a white torch of horsehair, its stem wrapped in a little towel. The king nods in acknowledgement to the thin crowd watching him pass. A few merit a brush of the horse tail, administered as if it were a golden scepter recognizing some noble quest.
According to press materials I’ve read, the king from Porto Novo in Benin, Africa is visiting five different Southern states on a "Tour of Reconciliation." His ancestors aided Portuguese slave traders, who began bringing people in bondage to the New World 400 years before.
King Toffa’s first stop had been a few days before, in Loudoun, Virginia. In a ceremony there, he “poured water and alcohol on the ground to wake and speak to the ancestors, asking for forgiveness for his ancestors’ part in the slave trade.”
Traffic on Dumaine Street stops. Drivers gawk. No one honks. The locals and the very confused drivers from out of state understand they’re witnessing something out of the ordinary – even for the French Quarter.
The king will privately meet with African-American leaders later in the day at Congo Square. He's in the Quarter now with a simpler mission - to confer blessings. King Toffa enters Voodoo Authentica, where a makeshift throne awaits him in the back room.
The light in the room is a muddy mix of types and I don't want to use flash (later, when editing, I'll decide I like the interior images better in black and white).
People crowd the small room, but stay a respectful distance from the throne, since we understand without being directly told that no one is supposed to touch the king.
One of the first to welcome the king and receive a blessing is Vincenzo Pasquantonio, from the City of New Orleans’ Office of Human Rights and Equity.
While I’m jockeying for photographic perspective, I meet Dr. Ina Fandritch. Fandritch is the author of "Marie Laveau, the Mysterious Voudou Queen: A Study of Powerful Female Leadership in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans." She speaks to me with a smile and a German accent.
“Have you been blessed yet?” she asks, when the line to the throne has thinned.
“Me? I’m just here to take photos,” I say. “I don’t think that qualifies me for a blessing.”
“It’s traditional for everyone in a king’s presence to get a blessing,” she says. “Even the photographers. Especially the photographers.”
I approach the king and kneel on the flagstones in front of him. He brushes me repeatedly with the horsetail scepter and speaks in something that might be akin to French, although I can’t grasp a single word. He speaks over me for a long time, which makes me a little nervous. Does he perceive I need extra blessings?
Afterward, I ask Ina what he’d said.
“Oh, all these traditional blessings are pretty much the same,” she says. “He’s asking for prosperity. Also that roads open up for you. Things like that.”
After everyone's been blessed, including the drummers outside (who come in one at a time so the music can continue throughout the king's visit), some ask if they can have their photo taken with the king. He graciously complies. It's explained that no one can stand upright next to the throne while the king is seated there, presumably because he shouldn't be overshadowed.
Queen Cherice Harrison-Nelson, of the Guardians of the Flame Maroon Society, gets special dispensation, however. She's allowed to stand up straight beside the monarch because she's having knee issues.
Back outside, the King enjoys another performance by the drummers, with Andrew Wiseman dancing before them.
The drummers have specifically learned rhythms from Benin for the occasion and the king expresses his great pleasure through interpreter Marilyn Yagibou.
As the King and his entourage walk toward their car, my intuition shouts at me that it's not over yet. I run up the sidewalk, pass the group and then jump into the street in front of them. I turn around and raise my camera.
The blessing already seems to be working.
Ellis Anderson first came to the French Quarter in 1978 to pursue dreams of becoming a musician and writer. Eventually, she also became a silversmith and represented local artists as owner of Quarter Moon Gallery, with locations in the Quarter and Bay St. Louis, on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her book about the Bay's Katrina experience, "Under Surge, Under Siege," was published by University Press of Mississippi and won the Eudora Welty Book Prize in 2010. The French Quarter Journal joins The Shoofly Magazine, Bay St. Louis Living, as a sister digital publication of Ellis Anderson Media, LLC.
Email Ellis here.