All the King's Men: As the first female ruler of Otuam, Ghana, Peggielene Bartels has had to deal with a legacy of corruption -- and no shortage of sexism
Last fall, Peggielene Bartels was on the way to Agona Swedru, a market town about 1 hours from the fishing village of Otuam, in Ghana. Bartels, who is a secretary and lives in Silver Spring, wanted to buy new beads and sandals for the "gazetting" ceremony that would enhance her status as king. After the proceedings, and with the news published in the local gazette, she would be backed by other gazetted kings, adding huge heft to her power. Although it is possible for a woman to be a Ghanaian king, as the title refers to the person who wields executive power over a tribe or community regardless of gender, it is unusual.
As a historian, I had come to Ghana with Bartels to follow her story. Gazing out the window as our taxi careened over potholes, I saw such enterprises as the By the Grace of God Brake and Clutch Center, the Jesus is our Savior Beer and Wine Pub, the Forget Your Wife Chop House and the Thanks Be to God Toilet Facilities.
Up ahead, there was a police checkpoint. The taxi rolled to a halt, and the officer asked the driver to show his license. In the front passenger seat, Bartels's cousin leaned toward the officer, smiling. "This is the king of Otuam," he said, gesturing to the back seat, where Bartels was wearing the robe of a king. In Ghana, the police routinely wave dignitaries through roadblocks.
The officer glanced at the driver's license. "This has expired!" he said, waving it. "This is a very serious infraction."
"But it isn't -- " the driver said.
"Stop being rude! You should not contradict me," the officer interrupted.
Sighing, the driver opened his wallet and pulled out several colorful bills.
Bartels leaned forward and snatched the driver's license from the policeman's hand. "Expiration date 2013!" she said. "What is this nonsense? His license is not expired. You are trying to extort a bribe from him. I am the lady king of Otuam, and I will not put up with this. I am going to tell the president of Ghana about you. What is your name? Show me your ID!"
The officer stuttered an apology. He had misread the expiration date on the driver's license, he said. He saluted Bartels respectfully and waved her on, hoping she would go.
"These ridiculous men really have no idea who they're dealing with," Bartels said.
Peggielene Bartels, 55, has been a secretary at the Embassy of Ghana for more than 30 years. She is separated and has no children and lives in a one-bedroom condo.