Secretary by Day, Royalty by Night
Embassy Worker Remotely Rules a Ghanaian Town

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."

"Not everyone gets to become king," she said. "Perhaps it is my destiny."

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."

The king already has a biographer, Eleanor Herman, a historian whose published works include, "Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge," and "Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics." Herman met Bartels at a reception at the Ghanaian embassy and became intrigued when Bartels described herself as a secretary, but added, "I'm also a king."

"A king of what?" the writer asked.

That led to a lunch, and more lunches, and now Herman is accompanying the king to Otuam. "You have an average human being who suddenly finds herself in a position of power," Herman said. "It's a story that brings into play all the human elements of life: you have power, she's going to have deal with male chauvinism, there may be cases of greed. How is she going to change it?"

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. "Some of them are teachers and lawyers, and some of them are executive secretaries," said Katherine Carboo, the embassy's press attache and Bartels's boss.

Far less typical is a female king -- Carboo knows of two -- although more and more women have become candidates for the throne. "It's in the last 20 years that there's pressure for more equitable gender representation," said Gwendolyn Mikell, a Georgetown University anthropology professor who studies Africa.

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."

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