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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

As the first female ruler of Otuam, Ghana, Peggielene Bartels has had to deal with a legacy of corruption -- and no shortage of sexism.

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Some of Otuam's 7,000 residents live in mud huts with thatched roofs huddled near the beach, where fishermen keep their long, handmade canoes. Shop owners live on the only paved road in town, a profusion of cinder-block houses and tiny businesses. Here people sell beer, food and clothing. Goats climb on piles of rocks, and chickens peck the dirt. At one end rises an imposing salmon-colored Methodist church with a large steeple. Other residents live farther afield, on small pineapple and papaya farms or in single-story, cinder-block houses in the bush, such as the one Bartels stayed in, the home of one of her cousins.

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Fanti is the language of southern Ghana, though English is the official national language. Roads and businesses have English names, and school instruction is in English.

Otuam's clinic has no doctor, but its nurses treat malaria and infections; for serious medical issues, residents must travel 90 minutes to the hospital in Cape Coast. The police station is manned by five officers who live on the premises. There is one jail cell, used mostly as a place for drunks to sober up. The three schools go up to ninth grade only; those wishing to attend high school must live in another town, and most Otuam families can't afford the $500 a year for tuition, room and board. There is no post office. And there is no trash pickup. Trash is burned, but there is very little of it. In Otuam, everything is used and reused until it falls apart.

Running water was introduced to Otuam in the 1940s, and most houses have a kitchen sink, shower and toilet. But about 30 years ago, the taps went dry. Whether this was the result of rusty pipes or a massive rupture somewhere underground, no one knows. Local politicians believe the problem is caused by an inefficient pumping station 30 miles away. After the water dried up, the town dug a couple of pay-as-you-pump boreholes to supplement the free but dirty water in the creek. Children as young as 5 walk hours every day carrying buckets of water on their heads.

Until she could find the money to fix the pipes, Bartels wanted to drill more boreholes throughout the community so the kids wouldn't have to walk so far. But she didn't even have the few thousand dollars for a borehole. The treasury was empty.

***

Bartels had inherited 15 elders from the late king, all of them in their 70s and 80s. Most of them were in excellent shape from decades of fishing and farming, with the slender yet muscular arms of young athletes.

Bartels started her first council meeting briskly.

"You must understand that my thoughts are those of a man," she said. "I am as strong as a man. I am as smart as a man. I demand the absolute respect of a man. If you understand this, we will get along well." The elders nodded and smiled as Bartels translated for me.

After they left, she said: "I don't trust them. I will get to the bottom of the missing money." But she didn't want to take any controversial steps until after her gazetting.

In the days before the ceremony, Bartels usually met with relatives and citizens at the dining room table from 4 a.m. until 8 p.m. Many visitors made calls to welcome the returning king, some bearing huge bowls of fresh fish, while others sought Bartels's judgment in disputes with neighbors and family members. I sat in the corner next to my interpreter, Elijah Koomson, a 22-year-old recent university graduate.

When Bartels spoke to men, especially those accused of misbehavior, her voice bellowed, and her forehead folded into angry creases. But her manner was different with women; she used modulated tones, punctuated by smiles and encouraging nods.


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