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In Lexington, VA He’s A Professor; In Ghana, He’s A King

Washington and Lee University Biology Professor Daniel Wubah helps first year biology student Morgan Patterson.
Washington and Lee University Biology Professor Daniel Wubah helps first year biology student Morgan Patterson. In his native Ghana, Wubah is safohene or king of about 20,000 people. (Ben Paviour)

The small town of Lexington, Virginia is known for its brick-lined, historic downtown. It’s steeped in Civil War history, including the burial grounds of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to find an African King. For Virginia Currents, Ben Paviour has more on the Ghanaian native who’s both a professor and a leader in his native country.


Daniel Wubah: If you add one mil to 100 micrograms...

Daniel Wubah’s biology lab seems like a typical freshman science class at Washington and Lee University.

Wubah: ...which would be the same as...

And if you ask students like Alexis Feidler to describe their teacher, they’ll say he’s a friendly biology professor.

Alexis Feidler: He is very happy and like super there for people. I feel like he’s willing to help us out in any sort of thing.

But Wubah doesn’t just lead the classroom. Thousands of miles away, in his native Ghana, people rely on him for another kind of leadership. He even has a different name.

Wubah: My name is Daniel Wubah and I'm the faculty member at Washington and Lee University. But my Ghanaian name, my royal name in Ghana is Nana Ofosu Peko III.

It’s a name that the professor assumed in September, when he was coronated safohene of a traditional Asante tribal region in Ghana. Wubah says the title makes him king of around 20,000 people in his family clan. That’s all news to students in Wubah’s biology class.

Students: What? (laughter) Cool.

The story behind that title goes back centuries.

In the 17- and 1800s, Asante leaders expanded their empire through the trade of gold and enslaved people. The empire was united around The Golden Stool, an item so sacred that no one - not even the kings - can sit on it. The Asante fiercely resisted British colonization and traditional tribal leaders still have a lot of power in modern, democratic Ghana.

Wubah knew about his own royal pedigree from a young age. Still, he says he had a pretty ordinary childhood.

Wubah: The only thing is that very early on in my life, I was made aware that I was one of the candidates, you know, to ascend to a throne.

In his early twenties, Wubah left Ghana to study in the US. He would spend three decades teaching at American universities, studying fungi in cow guts and rising through the ranks of academica. In 2013, he became provost at Washington and Lee University. Then, about a year later, he got a phone call from his cousin back in Ghana.

Wubah: You know, when he called me, actually, he didn't tell me my uncle had passed. But he said, "The time has come." And I knew that it was a code that I had to prepare to ascend to the throne.

The ascension comes with a treasured object: a black, handcrafted stool that’s been passed down through ten generations.

Wubah: The throne on which I sit now came into existence in 1625. So, it is almost 400 years old. And everyone who has sat on it, had to go through this process. So I couldn’t break that. So I had to go.

(Drumming From Coronation Procession)

The coronation process includes a week of isolation in a hut and a loud, colorful parade during which Wubah was carried by family members through the streets.

After the ceremony, everything changed. Now that he’s safohene, Wubah can only speak to villagers through an interpreter. He can’t eat in public or walk alone. His duties include managing small disputes, raising money for schools and other local projects, and working with a paramount king to govern around 140,000 people in the Breman Traditional Area, about three hours northwest of Ghana’s capital Accra.

Back in Lexington, Daniel Wubah manages to keep up on his tribal duties in 4:00 AM phone calls back to his council of elders in Ghana.

Calls like this have become more common as Ghanaian chiefs leave their villages to find work elsewhere. Iowa State Anthropology professor Ann Reed says most people she’s interviewed for her research are okay with native Ghanaians like Wubah ruling from the U.S.

Ann Reed: Sometimes Ghanaians kind of frown upon that in a way, but as long as—-if this person is delivering, for example, on the promotion of economic development, people don’t necessarily see it as a bad thing.

Wubah has faced a different kind of hostility here in Virginia. In 2014, when he served as provost at Washington & Lee, a group of black law students demanded the school take down confederate flags from Lee Chapel. Wubah met with the students and heard out their demands. The school eventually agreed to remove the flags and to research its own relationship with slavery. The changes infuriated white nationalists.

Wubah: And so I do have emails, and I do have letters in my basement, where it was basically saying, I had, we had no right to do that. And the consequences of doing that would be something that would harm us. Some of them were couched. Some of them were very direct.

Wubah says he took the threats in stride—he’d lived in the Shenandoah Valley for years, and he knew not everyone wanted him here. This spring, he announced he was accepting a job as president of Millersville University of Pennsylvania.

Still, Wubah says his family will keep their Lexington home. They love its country setting and their friendly neighbors. It reminds them a bit of Ghana. But even with all of his royal duties, Wubah says he has no plans to permanently return to Africa.

Wubah: The truth is, I’ve lived here for 34 years. If I miss something about Ghana, I’d probably have gone back to Ghana. But this is my home.

For Virginia Currents, I’m Ben Paviour, WCVE News.