By Eleanor Herman
Sunday, March 14, 2010; W10
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.
Bartels had never even lived in Otuam, but was born and raised in Cape Coast, a large city in Ghana about 90 minutes away. Bartels's father had been a railway engineer, her mother -- the late king's sister -- a shop owner. True, Bartels had visited her Otuam relatives from time to time, even after she left Ghana, in Western Africa, in 1975. But she had become a U.S. citizen in 1997. Nothing had ever led her to believe she had the slightest chance of becoming Otuam's king. Going back for centuries, all the kings had been men.
Bartels's uncle had been the king of Otuam, and when he died in 2008 at the age of 90, Otuam's elders consulted genealogical records, discussed which of the king's relatives had the characteristics required to rule, and came up with a list of 25 candidates. Bartels was the only woman. Then the chief priest poured libations of schnapps to the ancestors, intoning each of the names. When Bartels's name was called, the schnapps, instead of sinking into the ground, steamed up -- a clear indication of divine approval.
A relative of Bartels's called her in the middle of the night with the news. "Congratulations!" he said. "You are the new king."
Six months after she had traveled to Otuam for 10 days of ceremonies consecrating her reign as Nana Amuah Afenyi VI, the royal name she had chosen for herself, Bartels was aware that something was dreadfully wrong. In her frequent phone conversations back home with the elders, no one admitted to collecting the fees paid by fishermen for using her waters or by farmers for tilling her lands.
"I don't know who among my elders is the thief," she told me. "But whenever I ask, 'Where is the money?' they say they don't know. Sometimes I think they wanted me to be king because I'm a woman, and they think I will be weak, and I live far away, so I won't be watching them most of the time."
Bartels decided to go to Otuam to investigate her people's most pressing needs, plumb the kingdom's murky financial issues and appoint younger members to her elderly royal council.
She and I had met months before at an embassy event, where I had introduced myself as an author of women's history books. Before we left, Bartels explained that she needed the town's income to refurbish the uninhabitable royal palace, which must be repaired before she holds the late king's funeral. She had been sending whatever she could spare from her meager secretary's salary but had so far fixed only the roof. In the meantime, her uncle, Nana Amuah Afenyi V, was in the morgue in Accra.
"If we give him a poor funeral, his spirit may become restless and vengeful," she said. "So in the meantime he will stay in the fridge, which is fine, except for when the electricity goes off."
In Ghana, the electricity goes off routinely.
We arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana. As she emerged from the airport, Bartels walked into a throng of relatives' outstretched arms. Then we piled our luggage and ourselves into a van to take us to Otuam, about 60 miles away on Ghana's Atlantic Coast.
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.
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.
In one case, a woman, pregnant and with a baby strapped to her back, threw herself on her knees in front of Bartels, begging her to release her husband from jail. Bartels, who usually had a stinging retort for men begging for mercy, blinked rapidly and stared at the table. "I can't look at her," she whispered to me. "Poor woman. But if I let her husband out of jail, word will get out that I am a weak king. My compassion will be seen as womanly weakness."
She blinked even more rapidly. "It is not permissible to see a king cry," she said to me, turning her head away from the woman. Seeing the king's unwillingness to render judgment, Otuam's elders decreed that the man should be released.
Afterward, I asked her about her different approaches to men and women.
"I don't have to be so tough with women," she explained. She chuckled. "There were 10 children in my family. I was number seven. And every night one of us would have dish duty after supper. My two brothers who were a couple years older often got out of it because they were boys. They would go to bed and leave me to do the dishes. I got so mad I would wait until they were asleep, and then put all the dirty dishes in their beds. I would sprinkle them with water so they would wake up and see the mess. They would yell at me and complain to our mother. But I would say, 'You can't leave me to clean up your dirt just because you are boys and I'm the girl. No way!' "
Sept. 25 was the day of Bartels's gazetting in the hall of kings in a town called Essuehyia, about a half-hour's drive from Otuam. Under the arcade of a nearby building, Bartels and her entourage waited on plastic chairs while another local king was gazetted.
The royal dresser, a plump middle-age woman, adorned Bartels with necklaces, rings, anklets and bracelets. On her head, she set a crown of maroon-colored velvet, decorated with gold-painted wooden stars and crescents. Bartels applied heavy eyeliner and then, studying herself in the hand mirror, said approvingly, "I look tough."
Bartels's dresser ground a rock onto a smooth stone palette and added a bit of water to make a paste. Then she took the top of a perfume bottle with a perfectly round edge, dipped it in the paste, and applied it to Bartels' arms, chest, and shoulders, leaving pale circular shapes.
"Myrrh," Bartels said. "It wards off devils."
When she was finally summoned, Bartels proceeded into the hall of kings under the official red, royal umbrella. Inside, about 30 kings were seated on a platform. On one side of the hall, musicians pounded royal drums and blew shrill blasts on cow horns. After some speeches, we walked to a doorway where moments before our arrival a goat had been slaughtered. Its blood glowed eerily on the floor. The council's chief priest anointed Bartels's forehead and neck with schnapps as the chief of the council congratulated her.
After the ceremony, Bartels was led to a tiny office to fill out paperwork: name, address, date of birth and so on. For occupation, she wrote, "secretary."
Bartels's organizational skills and decades of administrative experience are greatly admired in Otuam. For one thing, she is literate, which many of the elders are not. She knows computers, having received a diploma from Strayer University in computer information systems. She has lived in the United States since 1979, when she was offered an embassy job during a visit, and has faced daily challenges they can't even imagine.
Armed with such an impressive résumé, Bartels is a symbol of hope to younger residents. Twenty-five-year-old Kweku Acheampong, a student, asked for a private audience with her, with no elders at the table. Acheampong was tall and muscular with golden brown skin, alert eyes and a trim moustache. He came with nine friends in tow.
Acheampong stood respectfully and cleared his throat. "We have been waiting for you," he said. "We have been waiting for years. Why do you think this town has no water? Why is there no library? No Internet? Why does the elementary school have no toilet, and 250 kids use the bushes? Why are our roads so bad? Why does our clinic have only nurses and not a single doctor? Why can we not move forward? It is because the elders have been stealing the town's funds, so there is no money for development. That's why! This must change."
Acheampong continued: "We, the youth of Otuam, want to make sure it will change! We stand behind you as our king. You are young, you are American, and you are a woman. The ancestors sent you here to change things. We want to join your council of elders to make sure no more money is stolen." His companions grunted in approval.
"You are right," Bartels replied. "I will get to the bottom of the corruption and appoint some of you to the council to collect the fishing and farming fees. Now that I have been gazetted, it is time to get serious about this."
Bartels summoned the elders to attend a meeting with the heads of Otuam's four main fishing enterprises. The subject: whether any fishing fees had been paid, and if so, to whom. As I sat again in the corner with my interpreter, Bartels's chief priest, Kwesi Amissah, known by his title of tsiami, showed up. The 77-year-old pineapple farmer was short and wiry, his skin tightly drawn over angular bones.
The other 14 elders were missing.
The female fishmonger, 47-year-old Dzadi Yatu, gave her report first. She was plump and pretty in an ankle-length, pale green linen dress with puffed sleeves. "Your elder Uncle Moses has gone through the fishing village collecting fees with Tsiami at his side," she said. "After the old king's death last year, I paid Uncle Moses and Tsiami 3.5 million cedis." That's about $250.
Uncle Moses Acquah was one of the no-shows, but Bartels launched into Tsiami, who was slumped miserably in his chair. "Did you take those fishing fees?" she asked angrily.
Tsiami shrugged his skinny shoulders and looked straight ahead. "You know," he said, "I'm so old, I actually can't remember."
"You know I paid you that money!" Yatu cried. "You are a liar!"
"Stop insulting me!" Tsiami replied, his dander up now. "It is disrespectful of the ancestors to insult a tsiami."
"Disrespectful of the ancestors?" Bartels asked. "My chief priest, who holds the ancestral libations in one hand and steals money from the town with the other! You have shown disrespect to the ancestors! I wouldn't be surprised if they killed you. You may drop dead very soon!"
Tsiami shrank back into his chair. "It's not just me," he said. "Why blame me? Almost all of the council is involved. Why do you think they're not here? Investigate the others."
"Tsiami," Bartels asked, "do you people think you can cheat me because I am a woman? Like you cheated the dead king in the fridge because he was old?"
Tsiami was wounded. "Why are you doing this?" he said petulantly. "You are trying to scrutinize our asses."
Bartels turned on him with fire in her eyes and said, "That's right! Big, small, medium-sized, short and tall asses, I will scrutinize them all! I will stick my head up there with a flashlight! Be prepared!"
Tsiami slapped his baseball cap on his head and departed for his pineapple fields. After hearing additional reports from the fishing bosses, Bartels dismissed them and summoned Uncle Moses. At 73, he wore glasses, and had a wide nose and a straggly gray moustache.
"The fishermen say they have paid you large sums of money since the death of the late king who is in the fridge," she told him.
"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied. "Which fishermen?"
"You know very well which fishermen. And I have news for you. This corrupt system is going to change!" she cried, banging her fist on the table and sloshing their beers. "Change has come to America, and I have come from America to bring change to Otuam! I am the Obama of this place!"
"You have lived in the U.S. so long that you have become a white woman," Uncle Moses scoffed.
"Uncle Moses, I am a white woman," she said crisply, "and I am also a man and a king. Never forget that. Now, did you receive fees from fishermen?"
Uncle Moses shifted uncomfortably. He seemed about to speak and then closed his mouth. Finally, he said: "All right. I will go outside to pee, and when I return we can discuss it."
Bartels nodded. "Go ahead," she said. "I'll be waiting."
Uncle Moses ambled out the door and into the bushes. We waited. It took a long time to realize that Uncle Moses wasn't coming back.
Over the next couple of weeks, Bartels attended the gala opening of Otuam's first bank and opened an account where, from now on, Otuam's fishing fees and land rents would be deposited. She presided over the annual harvest festival, sitting with her entourage under huge red umbrellas on the beach as drunken revelers danced for her and fired guns.
She was chief judge in a witchcraft trial, a case that centered on a fisherman stripping naked and cursing another -- a naked curse being the most dangerous kind -- and the victim's young nephew dying that day. Bartels ordered the man who uttered the curse to pay the heavy fine of about $200 for priests to appease the angry gods.
Mostly she sat in meetings for 16 hours a day, discussing financial matters and adjudicating disputes. Despite intense resistance from her council, she brought in an outsider known for his honesty, her cousin, 52-year-old Kwesi Acheampong, a distant relative of the youth leader, to rule in her name when she is back in Silver Spring.
She also wanted the corrupt elders to admit their guilt before she left. "If people confess their crimes, I will be merciful," she said at a council meeting. "But if I they don't, I will squeeze their balls so hard their eyes pop out. Then I will put them in jail and let them rot there; I don't care how old they are. My mercy depends on your confessions."
The next morning at 5:30, three of them came for an unexpected visit. "Oh, boy," Bartels said, watching them traipse in. "Oh, boy, here they come. Today I'm a Catholic priest, listening to the sins of my flock."
They confessed that they, along with many other council members who were too terrified of Bartels to come, had stolen the fishing fees and land rents.
"I am glad that you have confessed to me," she said. "I will forgive you. I will not make you pay the money back. But be advised, from now on, if I get wind of a single cedi going missing, going into your pockets, you will rot in jail. There will be no second forgiveness."
The men broke into wide toothless grins.
"I want you all to retire very soon," she said. "This week, I will appoint nine new members to the council: six young men and three women. These new members will collect the fees and jointly deposit them in the bank account I just opened. Your days of theft and corruption are over."
Bartels returned to her job as a secretary in a closet-sized office in the press section of the Ghanaian Embassy, where much of the space is taken up by an enormous old copy machine and stacks of newspapers. She answers the phone, types letters and peruses American publications for any mention of Ghana. But Bartels no longer wears the dark pantsuits and blouses she favored for the office. As a gazetted king, she must wear only Ghanaian attire, usually a two-piece fitted dress with a long, flared skirt.
She hopes to go back to Otuam in September with computers for the schools, books to start a library and enough money to dig new boreholes so the kids won't have to walk so far for water. She hopes that her royal palace will be completed, a fitting place to finally hold a royal funeral for the late king, who is still in the fridge. To this end, every morning she prays to Jesus and pours schnapps on the carpet by her condo door, the amorphous stain bearing witness to the ancestral libations. Bartels is greatly heartened by the recent offers of two African American churches with missions in Ghana to raise money for Otuam's many needs.
Every day she calls her regent, Kwesi Acheampong, to advise him in her absence. Recently, she learned that one of the elders sold 30 plots of land that he didn't own and started his own taxi service with three cars.
But those are the trials of a woman who is a king, a king who is a secretary, a person carried high in a palanquin who drives a 1992 Honda. The proud owner of a one-bedroom condo and an eight-bedroom royal palace in need of repair. An individual burdened by a solemn vow to improve the lives of her people.
"Late in life, God gave me many children," Bartels said. "Now I have 7,000 of them. And I must raise them up the best I can."
Eleanor Herman's latest book is "Mistress of the Vatican." She lives in McLean and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.