For much of Peggielene Bartels’ life, an average day entailed driving a rickety 1992 Honda Accord to her secretarial job at the Embassy of Ghana in Washington, D.C., returning home to her one-bedroom condo after a full day, resting on her worn white leather couch, and eating a simple meal alone.
This all changed after she received a fateful call in 2008.
At 4:00 a.m. one night in August, Peggielene woke to the news that she had been chosen to be the next king of Otuam, a struggling fishing village in Ghana where most of her family still lived. Her cousin made the wakeup call, informing her that the village elders received a sign from their ancestors stating that she would be the top Otuam royal.
At first, she didn’t believe it was true—while Peggielene grew up in a town close to Ottuam, she had lived in the U.S. for over 30 years—but after a long conversation, she accepted the role as king of Otuam.
“King Peggy” is now 55 years old. She splits her time between the U.S. and Ghana, reigns as the leader of 7,000 people, and still brings her boss coffee at her secretarial job in Washington.
TakePart spoke with King Peggy about her new book, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village and her journey revitalizing a corrupt town in need of clean water, medicine and schools.
TakePart: Was there ever any talk of you being the next king of Otuam?
King Peggy: Not ever. I knew that I am from a royal family, but it never crossed my mind that one day, I will become a king. They don’t have women as kings.
TakePart: Did you struggle with the decision to accept this new role?
King Peggy: I did struggle very hard because in Africa, it’s not like becoming a European king, where everything is on a silver platter for you. You have to really struggle with them to bring about changes, and it involves a lot of financial aspects. Being a secretary and going to rule 7,000 people, I had to really give it some thought.
They were not used to a woman telling them what to do. So I made it a point to them that I have the strength of a man.
TakePart: What made you accept the role as king?
King Peggy: Well, when it happened, I told them I’d think about it. I kept on hearing voices, and I thought that maybe I was tired or something was wrong with me. I kept on hearing these voices saying, “Nana, Nana.” It was either a woman’s or a man’s voice telling me, “Nana, go for it. It’s your destiny and you are not going to be alone. People are there to help you. Don’t lose this destiny; it’s your destiny. It’s not every day that someone is going to become a king.”
TakePart: So you accepted, and as you said, there are not many female kings in Ghana. How did you gain the respect of the men in the town?
King Peggy: To be honest with you, the beginning was a battle. They fought me so hard. Most of my uncles and my elders were in their eighties and nineties. They were really set in their own ways and were not used to a woman telling them what to do. So I made it a point to them that I have the strength of a man and I was chosen by God, through my ancestors and through them. I told them, “You are the ones who woke me up at 4 o'clock in the morning. Let’s really be realistic, I’m going to help you, regardless of my gender. So please, let’s do it as a man dealing with a man and stop thinking about my female side.” After that, the male chauvinism that I was encountering just mellowed.
TakePart: In the book, you talk a lot about the corruption in the town and how much of this comes from the elders.
King Peggy: When I took my throne, it was really a mess. There were no funds in the family coffers. Normally, we get funds from the fishing village for using our ocean and also from the land they sell. All of that money was being used by my elders. The schools only went up to the 9th grade. That means after a person finished school, they have to leave for the city, and girls were coming back pregnant, meaning the child’s education was lost. There was no running water. The children had to wake up like at 5 o’clock in the morning to fetch water. When I saw all of that, I said well, we have to do something about it. I told them that we had to open a bank account where we would deposit money for future use. They fought me so hard, but no matter what, I was going to open up the bank account. I was the first person to go there with our money to save, and now everything is under control. I’ve been able to save $20,000, which is 200 million in my currency. That’s a lot of money for us.
TakePart: What advancements have you made? Does the village now have running water?
King Peggy: Yes, with the help of God and the help of good people of the United States. Like for instance, Shiloh Baptist Church of Landover in Maryland has really helped my village. They have sponsored children to go to school. I now have three boreholes of clean water for the village. I’m still working on trying to repair my hospital and bring in doctors.
Nobody should underestimate themselves, especially women.
TakePart: You lived in both places now. Was it a difficult decision for you to live in the U.S. part of the time and in Ghana part of the time?
King Peggy: To be honest with you, at the moment, it’s not difficult at all. In the beginning, they knew I was oversees and also in the embassy every year, they give you one month of vacation. Every year in September I stay there for a month and come home. I’m not always there physically, but spiritually and mentally I am there 24/7. Normally I wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning, which is 6 o’clock in Ghana and talk to my elders who takes care of business for me. I manage both worlds, then I sleep a little, and I get ready to go to work in my 1992 Honda Accord.
TakePart: What have been the biggest changes in your everyday life since you became king?
King Peggy: I’m loving it. I’m channeling my energy with my people back home and doing a lot to help them better their lives and to empower the women and help them lead a very fruitful and blissful life. I’m helping them to be role models to the children and letting the children know they can be somebody some day if they put their minds to it.
TakePart: The women and children in the village probably never had anyone tell them anything like this.
King Peggy: Never. They tell me, “Nana, I didn’t know a woman can do all of this,” and I say, “Let me tell you something—women can do a lot. We have the strength and we can do a lot for ourselves and our community.” We all have a mission in this world. Nobody should underestimate themselves, especially women.