WASHINGTON — The king folds her own laundry, chauffeurs herself around Washington in a 1992 Honda and answers her own phone. Her boss’s phone, too.
Peggielene Bartels lives in Silver Spring, Md., and works as a secretary. When she stepped off an airplane in Ghana last Thursday, arriving in the coastal town that her family has controlled for half a century, she was royalty — with a driver, a chef and an eight-bedroom palace, albeit one in need of repairs that she will help finance herself.
“I’m a big-time king, you know,” said Bartels, seated at her desk at the Ghanaian embassy just off Van Ness Street NW, where she has worked for almost 30 years.
In the humdrum of ordinary life, people periodically yearn for something unexpected, some kind of gilded escape, delivered, perhaps, by an unanticipated inheritance or a winning lottery ticket.
In Bartels’s case, that moment arrived 15 months ago. The phone in her condominium awoke her at 4 a.m.
“Hello, Nana,” said the overseas caller — a relative, as it turned out — employing a title Ghanaians use to refer to people of stature, from kings and queens to grandparents.
“What you mean, ‘Nana’?” answered Bartels, 55, who has no grandchildren — or children, for that matter. Her husband lives overseas. She thought the call was a prank.
The 90-year-old king of Otuam, a town of 7,000 residents an hour’s drive from Ghana’s capital, had just died, the caller said. The king, as it happened, was Bartels’s uncle. The town elders had performed a ritual to choose his successor, praying and pouring schnapps on the ground and waiting for steam to rise as they announced the names of 25 relatives. The steam would signify which name the ancestors had blessed as the new king.
Bartels, the caller said, was Otuam’s new Nana, with power to resolve disputes, appoint elders and manage more than 1,000 acres of family-owned land.
“Oh, please don’t play games with me,” Bartels replied, reminding the caller that she was a woman, making her more fit for the title of queen. The caller replied that the kingship was the post that was open.
“Things are changing,” she recalls him saying; women can now hold many more positions, even king. “You have to accept it.”
Bartels endured three months of sleepless nights as she weighed whether to take the throne. She asked herself, “Why me?” The turning point occurred one morning as she drove to work through Rock Creek Park. A voice inside her pronounced: “You can’t escape it. It’s yours.”
Soon after, she traveled to Otuam for her coronation, during which she was lifted on a palanquin and paraded through town. She stayed for 10 days before returning to Washington. She was still a secretary, after all.
At the office, Bartels works next to an oversized copy machine, across from a pair of metal filing cabinets. On the wall, a framed portrait depicts her in royal regalia, complete with kente cloth, sword, gold bracelets and, atop her head, a gold crown she described as “heavy.”
In five or six years, after she retires, she plans to move full-time to Ghana. For now, she is a commuting king, using her paid vacation time to visit Otuam for the next six weeks. She aims to cement her hold on the town and show the all-male elders she meant it during her coronation when she warned them not to confuse her sex with weakness.
“If you step on my toes,” she told them, “I will hit you where it hurts.”
Although Ghana is a democracy, many of its towns and regions have traditional chiefs, kings and queen mothers, some juggling less vaunted obligations in other parts of the world.
Bartels grew up in Cape Coast, daughter of a railroad motorman and a shop owner. As a teenager, she aspired to become a caterer. As it turned out, her father had grown up with Ghana’s ambassador in Washington, whom she met during a trip to the District in the late 1970s. He offered her a job as a receptionist, and she’s been there ever since.
A few days before her coronation, she traveled to Otuam to be groomed for her new post, a process that required her to sleep in a room with several aunts who tutored her in the dos and don’ts of royalty. Mostly, they were don’ts: no eating in public, no handling of money, no arguing, no talking directly to villagers.
“You can’t go to clubs and dance anymore,” they told her. “If a person hurts you, just smile and leave.”
“What if they slap me?” she asked. Her aunts assured her that no one would.
The town’s challenges are formidable. The king wants to wire local schools for computers, complete construction on the water system and build a library. She intends to replace half of the 15 male elders with women.
Living in Silver Spring is no escape from her duties. On many nights, the phone rings at 4 a.m., even though she has complained to the elders, “Don’t you know what time it is here?”
One call was to report about a land deal. Another was about a husband who had been accused of beating his wife.
“I will talk to him,” the king promised. “If he does that again, we’ll throw him out of the town.”
(The Washington Post)
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