LAURINBURG — Growing up, Nuekie Aku Opata always wished for a surname like Smith, or Jackson, and a common first name to go with it — not one that would tie the tongue of every substitute teacher and make her stand out simply for her signature.
Those who could readily pronounce Nuekie being few and far between, the Laurinburg native, whose first name meant “Princess” in her grandfather’s native land and designated her as being a royal descendent, has gone by her simpler middle name “Aku” for most of her life.
But these days, Opata’s coworkers in The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s School of Education simply address her as “your highness.”
Opata last month flew 11 hours to Dowdowa, the 200,000-population capital of a large district in Ghana, to fulfill her father’s wish that she step beyond her honorary “princess” title and take on the responsibility associated with becoming a Queen Mother — and a new, yet no less complicated name to designate her as such: Nana Noyano Opata, meaning Queen Mother of Development.
Stepping on her ancestors’ native soil for the first time and donning her ceremonial cloth, Opata, at age 38, has finally realized what her mother had been trying to tell her all along.
“She said ‘Baby, one day you’re going to really appreciate your name and where you’ve come from,’ and now I do and I feel liberated,” Opata said. “My dad has left me such a great name and heritage. … People say the term African-American but I really am, truly, an African-American.”
Opata’s father, who enjoys the exotic first name “Fred,” left Ghana as a young adult and headed for Russia, where he served under Ghana President Kwame Nkrumah as an advocate for peace for African nations. His father, Nene Lanimo Opata II, inherited the position of Paramount Chief of Shia — closest to the role of mayor in a large American city — in the same district as Dowdowa and near his ancestral home of Shia Hills, in 1945, after the death of Nene Lanimo Opata. The former would serve until his death in 1970.
Upon his departure from Russia, Fred Opata traveled to the United States to further his education. While studying at North Carolina A&T State University along with several brothers, he met Lee Sellers, a young girl who grew up literally on the other side of the world — in the Washington Park neighborhood of Laurinburg.
The two would marry in 1973.
“My mom thought she hit the jackpot,” Opata said jokingly. “But she wanted to have children, and she wasn’t so sure because she thought my dad would leave.”
When she was born in 1976, Opata was wrapped in the patterns that had clothed her parents on their wedding day and put on display during a libation ceremony, a racous occasion to commemorate major life events.
Soon afterward, she and her family were back in Laurinburg.
Already an international jet-setter, Fred was anxious. But Sellers, now Opata, refused to leave. The state of her childhood home — now the home she shares with Nana and two grandchildren — was in disarray, and she couldn’t bear to leave her parents behind.
“My grandmother used to pick tomatoes so mama could go to school,” Opata said. “She told my dad, ‘Look. My parents struggled and sacrificed and I can’t just leave like that and go galavanting across the world with you.’”
The two also found that they differed on other important principles. Growing up in a home with a Christian religion but the polygamous culture that’s legal and embraced in Ghana, monogomy was for Fred a foreign notion. His own father had married five women and began each successive child’s name with a letter of the alphabet, dying just nine letters short of Z.
Opata can’t blame either of her parents for not getting along. They were from different worlds.
So Fred left, saying he’d be back. But in Opata’s words, “he just kept going,” — to London, to Sweden, to all corners of the Earth, eventually landing in Atlanta, where he worked as a social sciences professor.
In the meantime, Opata was working to follow the footsteps of both her parents (Lee would retire as dean of Basic Skills at Richmond Community College) by pursuing a career in education, working for three years as an adult high school instructor at Robeson Community College before moving to UNCP, where she now works as a licensure officer in the School of Education.
And like her father, Opata had her share of the limelight.
While studying at Winston-Salem State University in the late 1990s, she appeared in the school’s student and marketing publications, sometimes as the subject of a profile piece and other times as a poster child for the school’s diverse student body. Young and thin, with flawless skin and close-cropped hair, the former homecoming queen had brief stints in modeling and was featured in national magazines. The story was always one of an African princess who had never set foot in her homeland.
After his retirement, Fred returned to Ghana, where he served as the treasurer to the U.S. and Canada for Ghana’s National Democratic Party under President John Mills. Now, he mostly sticks to campaigning on the local level for the party and as an advocate for the community. When Opata called him shortly after her 37th birthday, he jumped at the chance to fly her over.
“He and I always had a good relationship, but he and I were never very close,” Opata said. “Last year, my pastor had been preaching on release, and he said ‘When you release, God will release for you.’ I said I’ve got to let this go, I’ve got to stop being so mad with him.”
Fred never realized that his American daughter had felt abandoned.
“I had expected him to fuss but he said I need you to forgive me, because I never realized I made you feel that I didn’t love you. So let me make it up to you.”
Come to Ghana, he told her, and be the Queen Mother.
She responded by laughing hysterically.
“I said ‘Pops, you know I’m from itty-bitty old Laurinburg. What does that even mean? Does that mean I get some money or something?’”
No, he said calmly, it means a ceremony, and some new duties. Opata would be named Queen Mother of Development, and she would help start a wave of cultural change towards one that values education for young women instead of household roles.
“The girls are not encouraged to attend schools like the boys and we want them to attend universities as well, whether here in Ghana or abroad in the U.S. or UK,” Fred said in an email from across the Atlantic. “… Aku will do an excellent job as Queen Mother of Development. She is a beautiful educated young lady who has always made me proud to be her father. She will serve very well because she works in education at UNCP and understands the needs of the young people.”
Before her trip, Opata was less than convinved she had what it takes.
“I feel like I’m in Coming to America, but in reverse,” she said.
But one hour after stepping onto Ghana soil, all she felt was relief.
“It just really felt like I was home,” she said.
After the ceremony which crowned her queen and clothed her in traditional patterns, Nana Noyano Opata was only identifiable as American by one trait rarely seen in Ghana: her tattoos. She loved all the colors and fabrics so much, her African garb was all that was packed for the return trip to Laurinburg.
A new (old) world
Ghana is Africa’s most stable political nation, but it is still a developing country — meaning its people and sometimes, its techonologies, are modern but the infrastructure is not. Phone reception is often non-existant during the rainy season. Roads are uneven, dusty, bumpy, crowded and noisy, with blows of the horn serving as a musical backdrop to the thuds and jerks of cars continuously slamming into each another.
“I guess there’s no need for insurance because they hit each other and just keep going,” Opata said.
But as long as they weren’t behind the wheel, the hospitality shown by the people of Ghana was overwhelming.
“I love being an American, the U.S. is a great place — but there’s one difference I noticed,” she said. “If there’s one person that doesn’t have, nobody has. Everyone pulls their resources to make sure everyone else has what they need.”
For Opata, that meant waking up to clothes that had been freshly washed and dried by her sisters, and a plate of food at the waiting — fortunate for Opata, who finds fish eyes hard to swallow, some of her meals came from a nearby KFC restaurant. It also meant a flurry of activity as locals helped her become acclimated to her new position. One of her first vistors was a local seamstress who arrived at the front door, in classic African fashion, carrying a sewing machine on her head.
“They make us look extra extra lazy,” she said of African women. “They can have 50 pounds on their head, a baby strapped on their back and out washing clothes by hand.
“They work really really hard and I respect that. It makes me feel like I’m so lazy, like I could never do enough.”
Opata also felt strangely uneducated.
“People think Africa is some backwards continent. Everybody there speaks at least three native languages and French and English,” she said. “They really are smart, but there are a lot of housewives in Ghana, a lot of women who don’t work. … I would like to see these girls go to college. They have all this intellect, they ought to be able to use it.”
But the people of Ghana and the country’s history Opata says, can teach Americans something as well. With no history of slavery on her father’s side of the family, she is an example that black history is so much more than what often passes as such in American schools.
Her family — several aunts and uncles, cousins and neices — live in gated communities, their houses sporting marble floors and countertops. They are entreprenuers, politicians and business people who have thrived for years and years. In fact, only one home she saw outside of the close-knit community would fit the general description of a “hut.”
“Africa is not this dark place,” she said. “These people are very prosperous and for the most part they are very modern.”
To help bring them even more up to date, Opata is gathering textbooks to send to her newfound family, who will largely be responsible for carrying out her work during her extended absence.
How she is to fulfill the rest of her duties is something Opata has not quite figured out.
During her visits, which will be at least once each year, Opata also hopes to establish a connection with Data Link University College in Tema. The Opata family name is well respected in that city, past generations having helped to establish infrastructure and recruit industries.
The college also has a link to Opata’s current employer, with its founder and President Ernest Ansah serving on the advisory board for UNCP’s School of Business — and Dr. Cliff Mensah, a native of Ghana and and UNCP economics profesor, teaches at the Tema campus. He was there, with all her family and friends, as she was named queen — a welcome familiar face.
But like her colleagues at the School of Education, he won’t refrain from a little teasing. When Opata arrived back in the states she had a message from Mensah waiting, asking her if she had been in contact with her adoring “subjects.”
Opata takes it all in stride. After the overture of hospitality of her homeland, she was prepared for a somewhat cool reception back home.
“When I wore my regalia out in Ghana, people were bowing to me and took me from the back of my line to the front of the line, they just gave me top-notch service,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to get home and it’s going to be none of this.’”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-506-3023. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.