Peggielene Bartels: Secretary by Day, King of Otuam, Ghana, by Night

Peggielene Bartels stands in the atrium of the Embassy of Ghana in Northwest Washington, where she has worked since the late 1970s. She is also king of Otuam, Ghana.
Peggielene Bartels stands in the atrium of the Embassy of Ghana in Northwest Washington, where she has worked since the late 1970s. She is also king of Otuam, Ghana. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

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 and works as a secretary. When she steps off an airplane in Ghana on Thursday, arriving in the coastal town her family has controlled for half a century, she will be royalty -- with a driver, a chef and an eight-bedroom palace, albeit one in need of repairs 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."

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