African tribe descends on Newcastle for wedding rite

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The Independent Online

With a fiancé who answers to the name of Torgbui Mottey (which translates as "chief pioneering pathfinder through the forest" in a Ghanaian language), Elaine Cupples can at least enter married life safe in the knowledge that there will be no rows over the road atlas.

Married life will not be conventional, though, as the student nutritionist is discovering. A large gathering of tribespeople from Ghana's Shia tribe have rolled into Newcastle-upon-Tyne to help prepare an African blessing for her forthcoming wedding. As North-east weddings go it is an unusual build-up to say the least.

Miss Cupples' partner is as Geordie as they come. His friends know him as John Lawler, who has his own adventure travel firm and hails from nearby Newton Aycliffe. But Mr Lawler ventured to the village of Shia to undertake teaching work during his university gap year eight years ago and so impressed the locals that he was made a sub-chief of the place. That means Miss Cupples will soon be an African queen, though it remains unclear what title she she will receive. There has been talk of Queen Strongbow, as she is "quite partial to cider" but she is hoping for something a little grander. "I'll have to wait and see," she said, as the red carpet was rolled out for the Shia clan yesterday.

Shia, which is 45 minutes from the bustling town of Hohoe in the Volta Delta, was in grave need of help when Mr Lawler arrived from Accra, the Ghanaian capital. The village was still feeling the effects of the devastating forest fires of 1983 that wiped out much of Ghana's important cocoa industry. Despite his limited professional experience, the environmental engineer played a significant role in building a secondary school and indicated to the elders that he would return in future years. The elders were impressed enough to create the position of "chief of development" for him and asked if he would like to take it in perpetuity. In return, he is expected to return once a year - and has done so, also adding a kindergarten with the help of Newcastle University students.

His "coronation" took eight hours, starting with a slow walk in full toga under a parasol escorted by the village's four other village chiefs. At the central durbar ground, before 2,000 villagers, his mother and his sisters, he swore the oath of allegiance to Torgbui Dadzawa III, the Paramount Chief of the area, and was renamed Torgbui ("chief/ grandfather") Mottey ("pioneering pathfinder of the forest") I (the honour may be passed on to a son).

The African contingent - Paramount Chief of Shia, Torgbui Dadzawa, and 15 of his clansmen - arrived in Newcastle on Thursday and after a tour of the city yesterday spent time with the couple, discussing arrangements for their wedding blessing, which will take place immediately after their forthcoming wedding in Matfen, Northumberland. A visit to Newton Aycliffe was also scheduled.

The trip certainly helped develop Miss Cupples' ideas about the social customs of Shia, which include not eating in front of others. She is also clear on how to address her husband in Shia. Anyone who uses "John" out there is fined two goats, so she might stick to the nickname his Geordie mates have selected for the acclaimed sub-chief Torgbui Mottey: Toggers.