KRINDJABO, Ivory Coast — It's a long way from Peoria, Champaign and Chicago to the magic forest in the Kingdom of the Sanwi, and when six Illinois high school students arrived there they got the royal treatment.
The students, part of an exchange program between the United States and this West African nation, were greeted by the gold-bedecked King of the Sanwi at the edge of his magic forest.
The reception in the royal palace was, according to the customs of the Sanwi, a formal affair.
A spokesman for the group was required to speak to the king's interpreter in the local language, Agni, because it is forbidden to address the king directly in such circumstances.
The king's responses, often only half a dozen words, would then be translated at length--for half an hour on one occasion--by the interpreter.
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Once the formalities were over, however, the king spoke to the students in fluent English, posed for pictures with them and told them of his kingdom and the honor they had given him by their visit. In accordance with tradition, he is known only by his formal title, the King of the Sanwi, and uses no other name.
"I am torn between happiness and sadness by your visit," he said. "Happy that you are here and sad I could not welcome you properly."
He explained that tribal custom did not permit him to wear his most elaborate vestments on Saturday, the day the students met him.
He said that while he had to wear black robes, "the elders and I decided I should wear this gold so you could have some feeling of the honor you give us by your visit."
He was referring to his crown of gold nuggets the size of walnuts, a huge triangular pendant at his neck and smaller versions that hung from his elbows. He also had on heavy gold ankle bracelets below his gold-trimmed black robe.
The students were here as part of a joint project between the University of Illinois and the United States Information Agency in a U.S.-Ivory Coast student exchange program.
The Illinois students said they learned much and will have a lot to report when they return home at the end of November. All agreed that the king's reception ceremonies and warm welcome were the most unexpected parts of their adventure.
"When the Ivorians came to our school, everybody just said, 'Oh, here are the Ivorians,' " said 17-year-old Emily Osborn of Champaign. "Here they had this great big welcoming ceremony."
Since the Americans arrived in Ivory Coast on Nov. 1, they have been greeted by the mayor of Abidjan, the nation's capital and a modern city of 3 million people. They were feted by traditional singers and dancers in a celebration of their arrival and hosted by the country's education minister.
They were also featured prominently on national television.
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"I took a taxi the day after we were on television and the driver said, 'Oh, you're one of the Americans.' I couldn't believe it," Osborn said.
Sixteen-year-old Kristin Yontz of Peoria said, "The Ivorian family I'm staying with are really interested in America and how we do things. You turn on the radio here and there is all kinds of music, American and European, everything."
"I think their culture is more diverse than ours," said Erin Conley, also 16. "(Radio station) KZ93 in Peoria is not going to play African music--that's for sure."
The students won their places on the 28-day tour in an essay competition. Each had to write two essays, one in English and the other in French, Ivory Coast's official language, on international and domestic topics of interest to both countries.
They said they have become aware of how much their African hosts know about the United States and how little Americans know about Africa.
"We sort of knew the people didn't live in trees here," said 15-year-old Brendan Daley of Chicago. "A lot of people said before we left, 'Are you going to be living in mud huts?' It isn't anything like they imagine. It is interesting to see here a mix of modern and old ways."
The other two students were Kei Ross, 14, and Tasha van Es, 15, both of Champaign.