Lions Among Us

As children we played kings and street sweepers. We would toss a coin to see who got to be king, and the king got to tell the street sweeper what to do. Nobody wanted to be the subjugated and powerless street sweeper, who was expected to follow the kings every demand. For example, they would have to clean the king's palace and even act as the king's horse. The game worked for a time – as long as the street sweeper did not revolt.

To be granted an audience with a king, traditionally and even today in West Africa (and elsewhere) you must be in contact with the king's inner circle, for example ministers, secretaries and servants. They then pass on the information to the king and he decides if the audience will be granted, and if so, where, when and how the audience will take place. Sometimes it happens that the king calls another king and in this way prepares for the next audience.

To one day become a king, a young prince must pass through many initiation rituals, which include mental and physical trials. And even once becoming a king he will perform many daily rituals in order to rule and appear in public. Most rituals are secret; few but the king himself and his closest voodoo priests know about them.

When the king is ready, I document a reception display that is partly an expression of the rituals that have just occurred within the palace. When I am in the palace, bowed, with my forehead to the ground, I hear commands that sprout from both left and right and I am transported to my childhood game of kings and street sweepers. Each palace has its own rules and secrets, which the outside world in not allowed to know. Receptions vary; in one palace the king cannot be addressed directly and messages are passed through servants. Yet in another palace the king added me as his Facebook friend and offered me a place to sleep.

I am interested in the image the king wants to convey, how the king wishes to be seen. Which regalia, ornaments and symbols he wants to show. It is said that the kings sceptre holds secret powers, which are defined when a king ascends to the throne. There are often many representational images and objects of felines in the kings palace. According to the West African king-mythology, the king possesses their powers.

The influence of different kings varies greatly; one king may have great influence over vast areas and have dozens of palaces - proud evidence of their heritage, whereas another king may have only minimal influence in a small village. Benin has 54 different kings. Officially the kings lost their constitutional power over a hundred years ago, but they still play a key role in ceremonies and are important leaders that command respect among their people.