Resplendent in a bright pink striped dress, a fluorescent shell and bead necklace and a gleaming lion skin robe, Meekulu Mwadinohmo looks every inch the Queen.
One of the Namibia’s last tribal monarchs, Queen Meekulu, leader of the Okwanyama tribe, offered photographer Eric Lafforgue a rare glimpse into her world and allowed him inside the royal palace, which is protected by an elaborate labyrinth.
From within her sprawling thatched palace, she rules over the Okwanyama’s 55 villages with the help of a council, or board, whose members she chooses herself and can fire at will. Indeed, according to Lafforgue, she did so just before the visit on the grounds that the offending councillor was ‘lazy’.
Royal: Meekulu Mwadinohmo is the queen of the Okwanyama people of northern Namibia and has reigned since being elected in 2005
Dynasty: Queen Meekulu has four children and one adopted son, and is the granddaughter of Namibian national hero, King Mandume Ya Ndemufayo
Home: The Queen lives in a royal palace that is surrounded by a labyrinth built from mopane wood and designed to baffle unwanted intruders
Modernising: Queen Meekulu has embraced modernity and dreams of meeting Queen Elizabeth II whom she says could learn much from the tribe
Another duty is managing the ‘omaada’ or royal granary which is filled courtesy of a tax levied on subjects that requires each to turn over part of his or her harvest to the Queen. If famine strikes, the store opened up to the populace so no one goes hungry.
When not taking care of business at the omaada or tending to her HIV positive adopted son, much of her time is spent touring her kingdom, visiting the sick in hospital and hearing the petitions of village elders from the throne room in the centre of her palace.
To get in, visitors must endure an elaborate security process that begins with shouting loudly on approach and involves navigating an intricate labyrinth before submitting to a ceremonial greeting and a lengthy wait in one of the antechambers before being called in to see her.
‘Only those who are familiar with the palace know how to get inside,’ says Lafforgue. ‘It was built to make the invaders lose their way and it’s protected by the men who live on the outside. The women live in the middle and the Queen ls in the centre.’
Annex: Guests visiting the palace must wait to be greeted in the second antechamber (pictured) before being allowed an audience with Queen Meekulu
Tradition: Like her ancestors, the Queen wears a lion skin robe and sports a delicate shell necklace of the sort also worn by other women in the tribe
Family: 30 people currently live in the palace with Queen Meekulu, among them her adopted HIV positive son who came to live with her last year
Royal family: The Queen with her four children, adopted son and her horde of grandchildren – all of whom live with her in the palace
Colourful: The onyoko necklace is made from seashells and was once a symbol of wealth. Now easily available, the jewel is now a symbol of womanhood
Home: The royal palace is designed to protect the women and children who live there, so the strongest men are given sleeping places around the outside
Colourful: Queen Meekulu says that the part of Okwanyama tradition she’s most keen to preserve is the gorgeous colourful clothes and traditional jewels
Elegant: The Okwanyama are famous for their love of bright colour and print, as well as their traditional onyoka shell beads
Eric travelled with guides from Exotic Travel and Safaris, which offers a 12-day tour that includes a visit to the Queen’s lands plus accommodation, meals and transfers, with packages starting at £1,874 per person. For more information, see exotictravelsafaris.com
South African Airways offers return flights to Windhoek from London Heathrow via Johannesburg from £1,010. See flysaa.com for more. For further information on Namibia, please visit namibiatourism.com.na
For more of Eric’s work both in Namibia and elsewhere, see ericlafforgue.com.
Surrounding the palace is a stockade made from tough mopane wood, which is spiked in a bid to keep both enemies and local elephants at bay.
‘By the fence is the olupale where the men gather to tell stories at night while having a few drinks,’ explains Lafforgue.
‘People put the skulls of the cows killed during the reign of the Queen on the fence. Cows are slaughtered for weddings or funerals, and sometimes to use as a trade for millet if the harvest was bad. When the Queen dies, all of it will be burned.’
The Queen, who has ruled the Okwanyama since being elected by a council of elders in 2005, hopes to one day build a museum to house some of the tribe’s most important cultural artifacts and to highlight some of her most illustrious ancestors, among them, her grandfather Mandume Ya Ndemufayo.
The last king of the Okwanyama, Mandume is a national hero in both Namibia and neighbouring Angola and was killed fighting South African forces as they swept through what was then Deutsch-Südwestafrika [German South-West Africa] in 1917.
After Namibia was incorporated into South Africa, many of the tribal royals were banned and Queen Meekulu’s family were only reinstated, following much discussion among the elders, after the country gained independence in 1990.
Since regaining her throne, Queen Meekulu’s mission has been to boost Okwanyama culture and wellbeing of its people, and says there is much that other royals, the UK’s own Queen Elizabeth among them, could learn from her tribe and its traditions.
‘She dreams of meeting Queen Elizabeth one day and has invited her to visit twice,’ explains Lafforgue. Queen Meekulu adds: ‘Anyone can enter my palace. The Queen of England should come here to take lessons from our traditions.’
Dapper: The women aren’t the only ones with a natty sense of style: the men too embrace fashion although they don’t always make it as colourful
Stylish: Cowhide sandals are worn by almost everyone and last for years. According to the Okwanyama, if the bottom of your foot itches, someone is coming to visit
Dancing queens: Okwanyama girls clap and laugh as they break into an impromptu dance – much to the delight of everyone watching
Happy: Most Okwanyama live off the land and consider their cows to be their wealth. Most are never killed and are kept solely for milk and barter
Busy: Most of the Okwanyama work in the fields or in their villages. Others help staff the royal palace building the vast elephant-proof mopane wood fences
Lesotho’s Letsie III might be the Africa’s best known monarch thanks to his vast harem of wives but the priapic king is by no means alone. From Nigeria to Uganda, the continent is awash with royal families, although few enjoy powers comparable to those of Letsie III.
Uganda is home to no fewer than five monarchies, among them rulers belonging to the Buganda, Toro and Bunyoro tribes. Most powerful are the ‘Kabakas’ of the kingdom of Buganda; an area located in and around Ugandan capital Kampala.
Currently, the tribe is led by the Cambridge-educated Kabaka Muwenda Mutebi II, who has ruled the kingdom from the imposing Mengo Palace since 1993.
Like British royal wives, his spouse, Sylvia Nagginda, the Nnabagereka of Buganda, spends her time working on charitable campaigns and has her own foundation, the Nnabagereka Development Trust Foundation. She is also patron of the Kampala Ballet and Modern Dance School.
Other Ugandan royals include Charles Mumbere, Omusinga of the Bakonjo people who inhabit the Rwenzori Mountains, and 18-year-old Rukidi IV of Toro whose mother, the colourful Queen Best, is notorious for her links with former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddaffi.
Elsewhere, the Kano people of Nigeria are ruled by Ado Bayero, formerly the Nigerian ambassador to Senegal and the Emir of the Kano People since 1953. While most of his reforms have proved popular, his embrace of education has put him at odds with radical Islamist group Boko Haram, and he narrowly avoided assassination last year following an attack that injured two of his sons and left his driver and bodyguard dead.
One of the few remaining monarchies that still rules by decree is that of Sultan Mohammed VI of Morocco, who has enacted a number of far reaching changes to the laws of the country since his accession in 1999.
Among them are making the Berber language one of the country’s official tongues, guaranteeing social and civic equality for women and handing more power to Morocco’s elected parliament – in particular, the Prime Minister who now has the power to dissolve Parliament at will.
Delicious: During the rainy season, children make a little extra pocket money by catching frogs, which the tribe then eat boiled and sprinkled with salt
Happy: Under Queen Meekulu, no person will go hungry thanks to the royal granaries which are opened up to the Okwanyama people when famine strikes
Helping out: During harvest, every member of the tribe pitches in to help grind up millet for flour and also to prepare it for storage
Competition: During milling, women will chant ditties about their strength with each encouraging the others in a bid to be seen as the strongest
Cheerful: An Okwanyama girl carries a woven plate full of millet and shows off her cheerful sunshine yellow top as she goes
Friends: When the Queen was reinstated after Namibia regained independence, younger members of the tribe welcomed her back
Help for the aged: Elderly people play a key role in Okwanyama society and are helped in their old age by Queen Meekulu and younger members of the tribe
Tranquil: Night falls over Okwanyama lands in northern Namibia. Tribal land also extends across the border into southern Angola