CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The phone rings in Joseph Edozien's kitchen. He begs leave. His short, solid body rises. It moves with majestic grace across the beige wall-to-wall carpet. His head floats above the rest of him. It's the way he holds it. The trick, perhaps, to being a king -- or looking like a king even if you're not exactly one yet -- is all in the neck.

"Anthony? He's not home," says Edozien on the kitchen phone.

Then a pause ... before the future spiritual and political leader of a kingdom in Nigeria, the Asagba of Asaba, the King of Asaba, offers the same kind of at-home service that any other father of a son named Anthony might:

"Can I take," he asks, "a message?"

Pretty nice place he's got here -- blue velour chairs, Chinese lamps, ivory tusks, two Mercedes-Benzes in the garage and all -- but hardly palatial digs. Quiet and shady, this university neighborhood where Joseph and Modupe Edozien have lived for 20 years and raised their six children is strictly North American: autumn leaves, sloping lawns, jogging teenagers, a shopping mall nearby, the evening smoke of chimneys.

"I will miss it," he admits.

By mid-December, only Anthony's going to be here. Answering his own phone. Joseph Edozien will have left Chapel Hill, where snow might be sticking in the pines, for Asaba, where he was born to a prince 65 years ago and where there is no real winter. Asaba, where December is a hot and dry month, blown by dusty winds from the Sahara. Asaba, where forest gives way to grassland about 170 miles north of the Gulf of Guinea and a thousand miles downriver from Timbuktu. ...

Asaba, where Edozien -- medical doctor, nutrition scholar, university professor for the last 46 years -- will put on long white robes, wrap coral beads around his noble neck, and in a week-long ceremony attended by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of Nigerians, will be crowned king for life.

A kingdom in the tropics.

One million subjects.

"In terms of attitudes and so on," he says in his crisp British voice, "I believe that I have accepted and imbibed the American culture."

Servants at his disposal.

Men bowing before him.

Women kneeling.

"That's right. Teee-heeee-heee," he chuckles. His face blooms into an enormous embarrassed smile. "Yes, it will take some getting used to."

Don't let this chuckling king business fool you. Joseph Chike Edozien is a quintessential Ibo tribesman, full of energy and a thinking person's person. He's an intellectual, a pragmatist, a strict father and a man who didn't consider retiring at 65 -- even if he hadn't been chosen to be king by the elders of Asaba after his uncle, who reigned from 1964 to 1988, died.

"He has great ambition," says daughter Valerie, an architect in New York City. "Great ambition and goodwill for others."

"I don't think he's the retiring, playing golf type anyway," says daughter Margaret, an attorney practicing international law at Stewart and Stewart in Washington. "It's a new chapter in his life, and he'll be very active."

"He's young in mind and spirit," says daughter Ngozi, a student at Harvard Business School. "He goes downstairs every day and rides his Exercycle for 30 minutes. And he's taking it, I'm sure, to Nigeria."

Says his wife, Modupe: "He's going to be very, very busy -- you know, governing."

Edozien himself talks mostly of reforms -- farm cooperatives, progressive agribusiness, stealth administration and proper nutrition -- for the relatively poor township of people living in scattered hamlets and mud houses. Luckily for Asaba -- one of 20 such kingdoms in Nigeria -- these are things Edozien knows about. For 20 years, he's been teaching nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, doing research on public health in Latin America and administrating his department.

He's a king with a curricula vitae. A philosopher king. A nutritionist king.

"People want change," he says of the Ibos. "They want economic development, but they want -- as much as possible -- to maintain traditional values and customs. So far as they are compatible with progress. ...

"The first thing I'd like to do, really, is set up an efficient administration," he says. "It's not disorderly now, but you know ... people are busy working, but in terms of what they accomplish at the end of three months -- it's slow."

Big-farm agribusiness is how he sees the future. "Corn, wheat, yams. Veg-eee-tables," he says, are the main crops. "There isn't much export out of Nigeria. So I'm thinking about it." He wants to examine the system of land tenure now in effect and organize landowners to consider farm cooperatives.

"It leaves much to be desired now," he says, pointing out that 80 percent of the population of Asaba is undernourished. "First of all, there isn't enough food. We need to increase production. But even if there was enough food, a large part of the population cannot afford it."

As king, Edozien will be supported financially by his subjects. This doesn't make him entirely comfortable. "I won't be a parasite," he says. "I'm going to try to live my life as normally as I can with the resources available to me. I will work for whatever I get. And I don't expect them to do everything for me."

The Costume He can be sheepish about certain things royal. What will he wear, as king?

"Traditional dress," he says.

Full-length robes?

"Exactly."

Is there a name for the costume?

"No special name. Just traditional dress."

Any specific color?

"Uhmmm. Most times white. And some other colors. Blue, for instance."

Dancing With Daddy Three princes, three princesses: a computer businessman, a medical student, an architect, a lawyer, an electrical engineer and an MBA student. All of Edozien's children, ages 25 to 34, were born in Nigeria. The family came to America in 1967, partly due to the eruption of civil war in Nigeria, when the Ibos tried unsuccessfully to establish the independent state of Biafra. Edozien became a visiting professor at MIT before settling at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"I think he'll make an excellent king," says Margaret of the man she still calls Daddy. "I can tell from the way he ran our household."

Edozien, in standard Nigerian style, was strict with his children. He quizzed them around the dinner table, about current politics, world events. "Education was paramount," says Margaret. "Everybody has a second degree. That was one thing my father and mother emphasized.

"He was strict, but extremely loving," she continues. "He didn't like the girls dating in high school. But he'd take us out and he'd be our date. He'd call us his harem -- the three girls and my mother. My first experience in nightclubs was dancing with my father."

The Edoziens are close still. The sons and daughters have found their own lives and work in America, but remain Nigerian citizens. They consider returning someday, like Louis -- the computer businessman -- who has moved to Lagos, the capital of Nigeria. Margaret spent 18 months in Africa in 1985 to qualify for the Nigerian bar after getting a law degree in the States.

"Women there," she says, "are raised in the more traditional sense -- toward marriage and family. But those who enter professions do well, and don't find much sexism. At least I didn't."

"In due course of time," says her father, "the children can make their decisions about whether they are returning to Nigeria, like Louis, or staying in the United States. But I hope they will come."

"I'm taking a course in agribusiness," says Ngozi of her work at Harvard, "so it's never too far from my mind."

No Housecleaning Modupe Edozien is not an Ibo. She is a Yoruba, a neighboring tribe in Nigeria, and is considered to be from a different ethnic group than her husband. She and Joseph (she calls him "Joe") married in 1955. Before colonial times, the tribes had nothing to do with each other. Afterward, relations became more antagonistic.

"I understand more Ibo than I speak," she says, "but I'm sure when I'm there it will come back."

"At the time my father married my mother," says Ngozi, "it was, well, somewhat controversial." During the Biafran War, from 1967 to 1971, the tribes fought each other. Hostilities are now considerably fewer, but remain. "One of my father's goals," Ngozi says, "is to minimalize the detrimental effects of ethnicity."

Modupe has worked as a radiology technician at the UNC hospital for the last 17 years, but come December she'll trade her white lab coat for something more regal. "I'll have to be a leader for the Asaba women," she says, "and help the ones who need it."

She'll miss "the privacy" of her life in Chapel Hill, she says. In Asaba, she'll be busy, apparently, with entertaining. "Nigeria is one of those societies," says Margaret, "where relatives are always visiting. The favorite pastime is getting together and having discussions. My parents may lose some of the things we take for granted here, but they gain the richness of culture. People are much more sociable there, and it's more of a community."

"A day in Nigeria never passes," says Ngozi, "without someone stopping by."

Privacy aside, her daughters speculate that their mother might also miss something else: shopping.

"She is one of the most fashionable and elegantly dressed women I know," says Ngozi.

"She won't be able to hop in the car and hit the mall," says Margaret. "That's her favorite pastime."

"The situation won't be much different from what I'm used to here," says Modupe, defending her new life. "Of course, there will be people doing everything for us. That you have to get used to. You have to just relax and let them."

No cooking.

No housecleaning.

No laundry.

"Actually," she says after a chuckle worthy of the king, "that is something to look forward to."

The Real Truth Mysterious initiation rituals -- three days' worth -- await Edozien in Asaba. "There are cultural and traditional secrets that the elders teach you," he says. "The king becomes the custodian of all the traditions, culture, secrets of the people. ...

"On certain days, for example, the ancestral spirits are supposed to appear to people -- dance and do all kinds of things. They tell everybody The Truth. But when you become the custodian, the elders initiate you and tell you The Real Truth."

He won't be a priest, exactly. "I guess the nearest equivalent is the Queen of England," he says. "She is the head of the Church of England, but she isn't a priest herself."

Raised Roman Catholic, Edozien says his role as a tribal spiritual leader won't conflict with his religion. "Since I practice my own religion, I will have to get somebody -- an uncle or somebody who belongs to the traditional religion -- to deputize on certain occasions. But if they are having certain ceremonies and I think they are fetishistic, then I won't go. Otherwise you can pretend -- whether you believe or not -- and make an appearance."

The whole family -- as long as Ngozi can get her business school exams rescheduled -- will be going to the coronation on Dec. 14 or 15. "The date has to be fixed according to traditional processes," says the future king. "They look at the moon or something."

King for a Day What if he doesn't like it?

"I guess you can abdicate," he says, smiling hugely. "Of my knowledge, no king of Asaba has yet abdicated. I hope I won't be the first."

"He really has a vision," says Margaret. "There will be moments when he won't like being king, but then he will remember why he's there."