Henk Otte is quite a character. A middle-aged, unemployed Dutchman living on disability, he also happens to be – once a year, anyway – a regally attired chief in the West African country of Ghana.
1982 was when Henk met Patty, a pretty woman from Mepe, a village of 300,000 near the Togo border. They married and settled in Amsterdam. Some years later, Henk was involved in a near-fatal construction accident. But his fortunes took a turn for the better when he and Patty went on a trip to her hometown: Henk was declared the reincarnation of Patty’s grandfather. Soon after, Henk found himself with a new title: Togbe Ferdinand Gapketor II. As one observer says in the wonderful new documentary “Togbe”: “It’s a gender-reversed fairytale.”
As a link to the Europe’s white world of resources and funds, Henk is a valuable asset to Mepe. As Chief of Development, he works tirelessly to collect donations, medical supplies and other benefits, and generally raise the profile of this impoverished village. But he’s also, for all his genial goofiness, a controversial figure. Even the reincarnation angle is contested by some: the citizens of Mepe (or at least the tribal chiefs who speak for them) don’t officially believe in it. They want to be perceived as a progressive people, though Christian missionaries have long had their way with the place – “forced their religion on us,” in Henk’s words. One of the film’s great oddities is a montage of Mepe’s storefront signs: “Vote For Jesus,” “Everything By God Motors,” “Jesus Never Fails Enterprises,” “Be With The Lord Metal and Gas” and best of all, “God Is Greater Than Any Problem Fashion Center.”
“Togbe” is a fast-paced and fascinating portrait of one man, a funny sort of man at that. But the film also provides a look at a country, a people and a culture that we see all too little of. Ghana is an entire world which we know – and, quite frankly, care – almost nothing about. In sometimes grim, always poor surroundings, the people of Mepe wear riots of color in their traditional dress, with music and dancing ever present. They find joy where they can, and they are rightly proud. They enrich Henk, and he them.
The story builds to a celebratory parade in the streets of Mepe, with Henk and his princess of a wife marching among the people. Another observer, an African journalist, remarks that the look on Henk’s face is often a mix of “confused bewilderment and spiritual contentment.” An unusual combination – but not a bad way to be.
Read Film Threat’s exclusive interview with the filmmakers behind “Togbe” in WORKING CLAss KING: THE STORY OF “TOGBE”>>>