This is a story of young love torn between two continents and a woman who grows up to become a queen of a land on a distant shore.
Growing up in Laurinburg, Nuekie Aku Opata wished she could change her name. “I just wanted to fit in,” she said. “My mother said there would be a day when I would appreciate my name.”
That day has come for Opata after traveling to Ghana, Africa, in July to be installed as a Queen Mother of the Shai Tribe. Her new name is Nana Noyano Opata II.
Back in Pembroke, where she is the licensure officer for the university’s School of Education, Opata recounted the story of a place that had existed for her only in stories and long distance phone conversations.
The Opata family descends from royalty of the Shai Tribe, whose ancestral home is in the hills of Ghana. Today, they live in Tema, a modern city of more than 225,000 on the Gold Coast of Africa. Aku’s visit answered many questions and gave her a new appreciation for Africa.
“What I found is a new life,” Opata said. “I found a true sense of identity there. I am the fusion of African and African American.”
Aku Opata’s mother, Lee Sellers Opata, met Frederick Narh Kweku Opata while they were students at North Carolina A&T University. They fell in love, married and produced one child. When Aku was three, the marriage ended, and her father returned to his family in Africa.
In old family photographs, Aku Opata’s grandfather, Chief Nene Lanimo Opata II, can be seen meeting with heads of state and royalty, including Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah, Indonesian President Sukarno and Prince Phillip of Great Britain. Other photos show him presiding over royal gatherings, and in a final photo, he is on his deathbed.
Nene Lanimo Opata II had five wives and 17 children. He inherited his title from his grandfather. Their leadership of the Shai Tribe dates back 300 years or more. Aku’s grandfather presided over the transition from colonial rule to a constitutional republic in 1957 that absorbed tribal governments into a modern state. Ghana is one of Africa’s most stable and successful nations.
As the future Queen Mother, Aku was treated royally. Her food was prepared for her, clothes pressed every morning, and all her needs were looked after. An extensive wardrobe was tailored for her with some garments made from the famous silk and cotton cloth called Kente, which originates from the Ashanti Tribe and is the cloth of kings.
The installation ceremony was “surreal,” Opata said. It began with dressing in royal regalia, which she said was incredibly heavy and hot. After the installation, there was a feast.
“It was about my family honoring me,” she said. “They speak several languages, but they conducted the ceremony in English for my benefit.”
As Queen Mother, Opata will serve as an advisor to the women of the family. “I am the young women’s development leader,” she said. “I bring a different perspective, but I will not go outside their cultural norm; I respect their culture.”
As a college-educated American – a strong-minded, working, single mother –Opata would encourage the young women to seek education. “In Ghana, the boys are encouraged to continue their education past high school, but not the girls,” she said. “My father and all his brothers were educated in America. Times are changing, in Africa too.”
Africa had always been a mystery for Opata. She had continued to have a good relationship with her father, but she had never visited Ghana. In fact, she did not know she was in line to become Queen Mother until a year ago.
“I really didn’t take it too seriously until a few weeks before I left,” Opata said. “Then I got really scared.”
Her new name reflects her new status. “All African names have meaning,” she said. “My grandfather’s name was Okrah and became Opata when he was installed as chief. Opata means arbitrator.
“My name: Nuekie means first-born, and Aku means female born on Wednesday,” she continued. “Now, I am Nana Noyano, but I’ll keep Aku in America.”
The experience has been profound for Opata. Africa, she said, is nothing like it is portrayed. Tema is a beautiful, modern coastal city with incredible ocean and mountain vistas. The Opata family homes are spacious and comfortable.
Ghana’s history as the Gold Coast of Africa is legendary. The Opata family and her grandfather, the “arbitrator,” played an important role at a critical time in moving from a tribal government to a modern state. But as Aku learned, tribal customs are powerful.
“I wore my regalia to the airport,” she said. “I didn’t go through customs, and everybody acknowledged me from what I was wearing.”
Opata scrolled through the photos on her cell phone – 1,446 of them – including several of her visit to the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves were once held until they departed for the New World.
“It was moving,” she said looking at photos of a near-lightless dungeon and a door with an inscription: “Door of no Return.” There was also a beautifully written plaque from Ghana’s tribal chiefs apologizing for their role in the slave trade.
“This plaque is from the Obama’s visit,” Opata said. “Michele Obama’s family went through that door.”
For this American, the world is getting smaller. A special guest at the installation celebration was Dr. Cliff Mensah, a Ghana native and UNCP economics professor. Dr. Mensah teaches every summer at Data Link University in Tema.
“It was very kind of Dr. Mensah to come,” Opata said. “He gave me a tour of Data Link, which is a very nice university. He loves his time in Ghana.”
Having found a family and a place in the family, Opata is looking at the future with new eyes. She hopes to return next summer for the installation of a new Shai chief and an anniversary celebration of her first year as Queen Mother. She would like to bring her two children too.
Looking farther into the future, Opata sees two continents coming closer together. As a first step in her role as advisor, she has begun collecting children’s books to send to Ghana.
One thing is certain. She will always appreciate her given name.