'King Peggy': A Cinderella Story — With A Twist

Feb 19, 2012
Originally published on February 19, 2012 8:55 am

There's an unlikely new leader in West Africa. Three years ago, Peggielene Bartels, a naturalized U.S. citizen and secretary at Ghana's Embassy in Washington woke to the news that she had been crowned king of Otuam, a Ghanaian fishing village.

She accepted the lifetime appointment, and now divides her time between Otuam and Washington, D.C. She describes herself as a "commuter king" and chronicles straddling two cultures — and lives — in a new book, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village.

Bartels spends 24 days a year in the village, adjudicating property disputes, setting up schools and curbing corruption.

"I love every bit of what I'm doing," she tells NPR's Rachel Martin — but that doesn't mean that the transition has been entirely smooth.

Bartels had to quickly and forcefully let tribal elders know that despite being far away and female, she had every intention of taking her position seriously — and being taken seriously in turn.

"When I said this, they all stood up — a woman is speaking like this? And I said, 'Yes. I'm serious. Treat me like a man, because — I'm a man. I'm a man. Don't look at me as a woman ... If you really understand me as a man, then we can go onward. But if you think I'm a woman, we're not going to work.'"


Interview highlights

On how the kingship has changed her

I don't let it get to me. I always want to be humble. It's as my mom said, "You have to be humble wherever you go." This rings in my ears. Being a king — if I go to Africa, they pamper me ... [but] I look at myself as an individual, who I was before I became a king.

On how her background prepared her

If [you] manage an office ... you have to organize receptions, you have to organize the people coming, and you have to interact with different kinds of people ... you have to be really, really professional and be strong. I said to myself, "Maybe God was preparing me for this. That's why I've been a secretary in this embassy for so long — so I can be a good king."

On changing the village's perception of women

They are beginning to accept me for who I am, whether I'm strict with them, whether I do or don't see their views ... The women are trying to understand me [and that] as a woman you can do a lot. You don't have to sit down and think that you have to wait for a man to succeed in life. If I am a woman and I am doing this, they can also do it. I also talk to the women and say, "If you are being butchered or battered by a man, don't take it because you can do a lot for yourself." The [men] look up to me highly ... even more than the females. The youth come to me and say, "Nana, with all the male kings we've had, none of them have been so generous and helped us the way you have helped us." ... The men come to me as a mother, as a sister and as a missionary.

On realizing her own strength

I didn't realize I had the strength. The strength that I'm having right now, I tell people, it's not just my own strength it's a strength from God and from my ancestors, I pray for it. I pray, "God, you have sent me on this mission. And you have to lead me because you have helped me and led me all my life. I left home as a teenager to go to England to go to school. I was by myself and nothing happened to me ... I've grown up to be a woman, and you are still leading me. So lead me." My strength is not just me. I have supernatural beings helping me. I feel it. I know it.

On straddling two cultures

Part of me, being an American is a Yankee [can]-do-it [spirit] ... In Ghana, most Ghanian women don't speak back; they have to be really quiet when males speak. Me, I've been here [in the U.S.] a long time ... And that helps me. I have two worlds. America helped me be a go-getter and help [the villagers], and the African part helped me be really, really humble to help them.

The biggest lesson she's learned

The biggest lesson I've taken away is that I can't argue in public. Before, if you stepped on my toes, I would step on yours three times ... you could never disrespect me and get away with it. If we have to argue for three days, we'll argue for three days. But these days ... I have wisdom. I look at things with a different perspective. You have to take people for who they are. If they disrespect you — maybe they don't know they are disrespecting you. [But] before, [if you said] something, without knowing what you were saying? Peggielene would really chew you [out]. It's not like that anymore.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Peggielene Bartels had settled into her life. She'd been in America for more than 30 years. She'd built a life here with a great job at Ghana's embassy in Washington, friends, a sense of purpose. But she had no idea destiny would intervene and make her one of the most unlikely leaders in West Africa.

KING PEGGIELENE BARTELS: If somebody had told me we were that one day I'll be a king, I'll tell that person you that your crazy.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARTELS: But that's exactly what happened to Bartels and life hasn't been the same since. We went to visit King Peggy, as she's known, at her home just outside Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

MARTIN: It's Rachel Martin with NPR.

BARTELS: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Hi.

BARTELS: Hi. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm well. Nice to meet you.

BARTELS: Nice to see you too.

MARTIN: It's a modest one-bedroom condo, with floral carpet, ornate furniture and West African art. Pictures of her coronation hang on the wall. In them, Peggy is dressed in the colorful robes of a king and, of course, a crown. And along with the special clothes comes a special name.

What do I call you? Peggy? Nana?

BARTELS: Nana.

MARTIN: Nana is OK?

BARTELS: Yes, Nana is OK.

MARTIN: OK.

Nana is the title given to elders in her native Ghana. The first time someone called her that was four years ago. She was woken up at 4 A.M. with a phone call - one of her cousins back home.

BARTELS: He said Nana. I said Nana? What are you talking about? You know, I'm not a king. I'm not a queen. So, I thought he was trying to con me and so I said, listen, it's 4 o'clock in the morning in the United States. What do you want? So he said, your uncle went to the village.

MARTIN: He's gone to village.

BARTELS: Yes, and he's not coming back anytime soon.

MARTIN: Going to village is what people in Peggy's hometown say when someone has died. The cousin went on. He told Peggy that village elders had carried out a sacred ritual to choose a successor for her uncle, the king. And they had chosen Peggy.

BARTELS: I said a king?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARTELS: A woman king, are you kidding me? He said, No, I'm not kidding you. And in Ghana, it's very rare because at the moment we only have three women kings and I'm the third one.

MARTIN: In the whole country.

BARTELS: In the whole country. And then I said why in the world would they take a woman far away, so many thousands of miles away; that I'm not going to be there full-time right now? Why me?

MARTIN: What convinced you in the end?

BARTELS: I kept on hearing voices and the voices would just say nana. That voice called me nana. It's your destiny. Go for it. So, I said, is it because I'm tired, I haven't been sleeping? What is this, you know?

MARTIN: Peggy agreed to become king. How could she not? But it hasn't been easy. She remembers her first trip back to Ghana. When she met with a group of male elders, one of the men stood up and said...

BARTELS: Shut up. You are a woman. And you have to do what we have to tell you.

MARTIN: This was the first big meeting that you had...

BARTELS: Yes, yes, yes.

MARTIN: ...with the tribal elders.

BARTELS: That's when I stood up. And I sudden, I say, oh, so, you people wake me up 4 o'clock in the morning thinking that I'm a woman that you're going to really intimidate and I'm far away and then you are going to rule me and then have me there as a public figure. I said not me. I want to tell you all that I'm serious. Don't look at me as a woman. I'm a man. So, if you really understand me as a man and then we can go on well. But if you think I'm a woman we're not going to work.

MARTIN: You ended up - and you are currently - fighting a lot of corruption.

BARTELS: Yes.

MARTIN: When did that first become apparent to you that this was a problem in the village?

BARTELS: The first time that they were installing me.

MARTIN: Like a coronation.

BARTELS: Yes, a coronation, yes. Americans, you know, and the Europeans call it coronation but we call it installment. The time came for me to be installed, and then I said who is going to buy the drinks, you know, be responsible for the other stuff? Then I asked the treasurer and he said we don't have money and shrug his shoulders. Then I said, hey, wait a minute. We have a beach. We have a long day that we have fishermen that they always give us money like a land fee and fisherman fee.

MARTIN: Like taxes.

BARTELS: Yes. You know, and I said what happened to it? They said we don't know. They kept on shrugging their shoulders. And then this one would be fingering at this one, pointing at this one. I said, wow, I'm in trouble but I'll fix it.

MARTIN: So far, she has helped bring clean water to the village, renovated the king's palace, opened the village's first bank and she's recruited a church to help sponsor more projects, like a secondary school. It's work that has given Peggy a new kind of satisfaction, a new kind of purpose. How has it changed how you walk through life when you're in America, when you're in Washington, D.C.? I mean, you're a king.

BARTELS: I know. But you know what, sometimes, you know, I don't let it get to me. I always want to be humble.

MARTIN: Is it hard to be humble sometimes?

BARTELS: Oh, it's hard, it's hard. Sometimes I'll be in the shop and someone will say, hey. And I said if it was before I will yell back. But this time I say, hey.

MARTIN: You've learned patience.

BARTELS: Yes. But before, if you say something, maybe, you just say it without knowing what you were saying. Oh, Peggielene will really show you. But now it's not like that anymore.

MARTIN: Is there a part of you these days that ever just wakes up and you just think, oh, I just want to go back to when I was just Peggy working at the embassy, living my life?

BARTELS: Not at all.

MARTIN: Really?

BARTELS: Not at all. I love every bit of what I'm doing. So, I don't reflect on the (unintelligible) at all. All that I really care about is to move forward with them.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for talking with us.

BARTELS: You are quite welcome.

MARTIN: It's been a pleasure.

BARTELS: Thank you.

MARTIN: Peggielene Bartels's new book is called "Team Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.