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The first female king of Otuam, Ghana

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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Eleanor Herman
Monday, March 15, 2010; 12:00 PM

Peggielene Bartels had been a Washington secretary for almost 30 years when the elders of an African village anointed her to be their king. They had no idea what they were in for.

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Eleanor Herman, who chronicled Bartels's rise to ruler of Otuam, Ghana and her early battles against corruption and sexism in a story for The Washington Post Magazine, took questions and comments. The transcript is below.

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Washington, DC: Is this supposed to be an inspiring story of female empowerment? I just don't see it. She yells at men and 'scares' them, but there is no behavior change. Got to actually do something before the made for tv movie people come calling.

My actual question: is there a Government affiliated person who oversees this town/region, like a mayor, governor, etc? It would seem that person would be responsible for the infrastructure needs.

Eleanor Herman: Yes, there is a MP, Member of Parliament, whom we met. And there is a Regional Minister, a woman in Cape Coast about 90 minutes away, whom we also met. When we ask about fixing the water lines, the roads, the schools, they shrug and tell us there's no money.

In terms of yelling and screaming, I think it's important for her to get across to these old chauvinistic guys that things are changing. They had hoped she would be a meek woman and continue to let them steal the town's funds, and she needed to make it clear again and again that this was not the case. We all have our own ways of dealing with situations, and I think, given what she's up against, hers is effective. As far as she can tell, there has been no more stealing the fishing and farming funds since her return in November. And the movie people have already called her!

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Eleanor Herman: Hi there! This is Eleanor Herman, author of the Washington Post Magazine cover story that came out yesterday. From mid-September to mid-October, I spent a month in Ghana at the side of Peggielene Bartels, the Silver Spring secretary who was named king of an African village.

I've already received many great questions and am happy to be here.

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Arlington, Va.: How did the village's women fare before this appointment? And how have things changed since this woman became "king"?

Eleanor Herman: African village women have it tough, believe me. They have to deal with a great deal of chauvinism: the men often have several wives, girlfriends, whatever. Beating wives is common. There is little or no birth control so the women have more kids than they can afford. Peggy wants to bring microfinance to Otuam. Many of the women own little shops on Main Street. One sits there under a shed with a little sewing machine. Others sell phone cards. They are very enterprising and could do a lot to expand their businesses for a couple hundred dollars.

The one change she instituted immediately was at her enthronement where she announced wife beaters would be thrown in jail for a long time, until they were half rotten (in a dark concrete cell with no toilet,light, or furniture) and then kicked out of town for good. Until then, wive beaters had nothing done to them or paid a small fine. The chief of police told me that since her speech, wife beating has dried up to a mere trickle.

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Miami, Fla.: How did the rest of the town react to the "firing" of the elders who were allegedly thieving? Did they support it? And has she appointed new council members yet? The story said she would seek younger advisers.

Eleanor Herman: The townspeople are ecstatic,especially the women and younger people. They feel strongly that God put a woman, and an American, in the position of king to bring change to that community. She's the Obama of that place, you know!

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Washington DC: How did the village elders and supplicants react to your presence (a white woman from America) when they came to meet with "King Peggi"? Do you think it affected the interaction?

Eleanor Herman: Good question. Peggy was thrilled to bring a white woman to Otuam because she knew it would impress the elders and her subjects. Which sounded really racially strange to me. In her gazetting ceremony, the king of kings on the platform, said, "We know our sister Peggy has lead an impeccable life in the USA. Otherwise how could she persuade a white woman to come HERE?" I nearly fell over when my interpreter said that. Peggy's enhanced status aside, I felt that they quickly got used to me sitting in the corner with the interpreter and forgot about me. Otherwise,the dialog I recorded wouldn't have been so frank.

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West Palm Beach, FL: How can someone get in touch with the King in order to help her raise funds and/or give donations for her Kingdom?

Eleanor Herman: Thank you for your kindness. You can contact her at the Embassy of Ghana, 3512 International Drive, NW, Washington, DC 20008.

She is looking for laptops, used ones in good working condition would be great. Each school has one computer where thirty kids crowd around to learn word processing. Projectors would be helpful, too. Even if there aren't enough computers, the teacher could project the screen onto the wall so kids could learn.

She is also looking for hospital beds and equipment, and a used ambulance. Anyone who knows how to dig bore holes could advise her on getting the water situation straightened out. She is incorporating and all cash donations will be used to improve Otuam.

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Washington DC: Do you think that the elders will stop stealing tax $$? What will be penalty for this crime?

Eleanor Herman: The elders stopped stealing the farm rents and fishing fees because she hemmed them in on all sides. But there is a new problem of land titles. Sammy the Treasurer has been selling land that isn't his, thirty lots, to open his taxi business. So now land ownership is in great disarray. Who owns what? She is working with her regent to deal with this and say she will thrown Sammy in jail.

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Washington, D.C.: What was your take on the man who would act as Peggielene's proxy while she was in America?

Eleanor Herman: Her regent, Nana Kwesi, is the kindest, most generous person. Space constraints in the article didn't let me run on, as I like to do when writing a 400-page book. But he donated his own money to put a new roof on the royal palace. He paid for much of the food and drinks we ate while over there, and offered to the never ending stream of guests. There is something about him that is angelic. I feel certain the kingdom is in good hands in Peggy's absence.

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Temple Hills, MD: You go girl! You know it takes a woman to get things in order! You sound like a force to be reckoned with. Wishing you the best in your new life.

Eleanor Herman: Peggy is so happy to hear of good wishes. If you are of a religious bent, she is also asking for prayers.

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Arnold, MD: Are there kinds of books we can donate for the new library? Is she looking for any kinds of reading material or more specific? I have stacks of National Geographics I was going to donate to a school or Good Will, as well as several stacks of novels - Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, as well as classics and unknowns. Sadly, no kids books. Times being what they are, I have goods to offer, but no funds. Can the king get diplomatic assistance getting goods there?

Eleanor Herman: Peggy is looking for all kinds of books, though kids' books are a priority. A church has committed to building a library with internet service, and Peggy has started collecting books which she will ship over in a container. You can contact her at the Embassy of Ghana. She will have to pay for transportation. I don't think the embassy would.

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Eleanor Herman: Wheaton, Md.: I enjoyed reading this story more than anything I can remember! The King seems like a force to be reckoned with, in a kind and unpretentious way. I would love to submit the idea that we make silver spring the sister city of the King's village, and we can have community fundraising activities to share with our sister city and help with such things as fixing the pipe for the water and other necessities. I'm sure they have wonderful stories and recipes they can share with us in return. I'd love to read about the King and her village on a regular basis.

Eleanor Herman: That is a great idea! I don't know how to go about it. Contact the mayor's office? It's not every American suburb that has a king living there! And an American, female one at that!

I am putting together a book proposal and hope that in the next few weeks I will get a contract. There is so much more to Peggy's story that I couldn't fit into the 4000 words of the magazine article. It's a story of a person who has lived an unremarkable life and then is raised to a remarkable position, where she has to dig deep to find her true greatness. It's an inspiration to us all. It was such a privelege to go over there and witness these events first-hand. Even made bathing out of a bucket bearable!

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Freising, Germany: The encounter between the taxi-driver and the policeman at the beginning of the story is a good example of daily low-level corruption in Africa.

Ghana is considered to be one of the most functioning governments in Africa, and with the discovery of oil, the future looks bright. I've talked with ex-patriot Ghanaians who are considering moving back to partake in the newfound potential.

There are, however, some people who fear that oil could turn Ghana into another Nigeria. Did oil and corruption come up in any of your conversations in Ghana?

Eleanor Herman: Guten Tag! Germany, wow.

Yeah, the sad thing is that Ghana, for all its problems, is one of the most efficient countries in Africa. Sometimes I looked around and asked myself, This is efficient? At least there is relatively little crime. In Otuam the chief inspector of police is like the Maytag repairman, waiting for work. Except the police station doesn't have a phone.

Ghanaians are very friendly and hospitable with a great attitude. We are so spoiled in Western society, and they seem truly happy with the little they have.

Yes, there is some fear about Ghana turning into Nigeria. I don't think the national temperament is as violent, though. There have already been allegations of major corruption with the oil deal, and the new president refused to honor the $4 billion agreement with, was it Exxon? Anyway, the whole thing was riddled with corruption. So they are starting from scratch.

I think Peggy can rid Otuam of corruption, because it is so small and she's king. But ridding Ghana of corruption might be pretty well impossible. I don't know if the corrupt people even see it as corruption. Since most people do it, they might think it is a justified tip which will help their families.

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Fairfax, Virginia: Can you talk more about how Obama's election here may have influenced the people who chose this woman as "king"? This is an interesting and surprising twist. Has it had similar effects in other African towns, or just this one?

Also, I think a lot of the news appeal of the story is that she is called "king" in your English vocabulary, and that makes it seem a little comical, since in normal English a man can be a king and a woman is a queen. Is that really a fair translation, or would "mayor" or "chief" be more accurate?

Eleanor Herman: She was chosen king in August 2008, three months before our presidential election. She is the third female king in Ghana, out of thousands of kings. All the Africans I met are delighted with Obama, and it certainly added to

Peggy's resume that she was an American citizen.

Kings and chiefs are pretty much the same thing. But we usually call them kings -- they have crowns and scepters and royal robes and sit on thrones and can throw people in jail or fine them.

It wouldn't be right to call her a queen, as in her tribe that person looks after the affairs of women and children, and the king or chief wields executive power. Therefore she is indeed the king.

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Springfield, VA: I'd like to donate money to Ms. Bartels. How may I do so?

Eleanor Herman: You are very kind. You can contact her at the Embassy of Ghana, 3512 International Drive, NW, Washington, DC.

If I get a book contract, I will give the first chunk of money to digging a new bore hole, maintained for free, so the kids don't have to drink that yellow water.

Being over there a month, seeing how they live, has really made me reexamine my own priorities. In term of what I've learned, that single month beats a college education!

In Ghana, many people live on $1 a day, so money goes a long way over there.

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Washington DC: What is proper way to address her title when writing a letter.

Eleanor Herman: Good question. I would address the envelope to Peggielene Bartels, but inside address it to

Nana Amuah Afenyi VI

King of Otuam

Your Highness:

That would be the proper etiquette, I believe.

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Metro DC male: I really liked this article. I don't know what the other commenters are talking about. In other cultures, other than western culture, women are normally seen as inferior (I know a case can be made for this being the case in western culture too). That this woman has the ability to affect change - including yelling at the male elders who are not doing their job - she should use it! Kudos to her and good luck to her in the future. When will she move to Ghana full time? Did I miss this in the article?

Eleanor Herman: I think because Peggy so well understands the chauvinism of her own culture, she had to work extra hard to convince them that kinda thing wouldn't be happening with her. So she was more fierce than she would have been, say, in a meeting in the US with a bunch of guys. I grew to see a grand strategy over the four weeks I was there.

She plans on living there most of the time when she retires in a few years, but keeping a place in the US. She is such a mixture of African and American.

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Silver Spring, MD: Your Highness, congratulations and best wishes for a successful reign. I applaud your efforts to root out corruption in your kingdom. Corruption is at the root of the deplorable situation in many African nations. The people cannot prosper when all resources are skimmed off the top. Changing the old ways may be slow and challenging but you have been sent for such a time as this! I am incredibly proud of you and wish you God-speed!

Eleanor Herman: Peggy believes she was indeed sent by a higher power to help the people of Otuam. When she first got that four a.m. phone call, she had no idea if she should accept. An African kingship is very expensive, and she could hardly pay her mortgage. She also wondered if she would have the strength. Three days in a row, she said, driving to work on the Rock Creek Parkway, at a particular stop sign, she heard a voice in her car telling her it was her destiny. That's what made her accept, and what gives her strength when she feels it's just too much.

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Washington, DC: I loved this article. WHile at times it made me double-over with laughter - not sure if that was the intent of some of the quotes. I laughed at the familiarity of sexism that still permeates West Africa (as well as other places). It's a differnt sort of sexism, a neglectful almost disregard for women and therefore the assertion of someone like the new woman King is a shock to their system - personally and society wise. They need it. Ghanians in my experience are a warm and honest people that keep a high moral code, but maybe sometimes fall into the trap of providing for themselves before the good of the community - something many around the world are guilty of. Again, great article!

Eleanor Herman: Thanks so much. The story made me double over with laughter too, as my interpreter was whispering in my ear, and I didn't want to guffaw and stop Peggy or Uncle Moses or Tsiami from delivering their fabulous lines.

Most Africans with any money do carry a lot of relatives, orphaned nieces and nephews, widowed cousins, etc. So maybe, to be charitable, that is the reason for some of the corruption. Though Peggy's elders admitted they spent theirs on "women and liquor."

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Washington DC: Does the governmental structure of Ghana allow for a King to move on to the national political scene? Could Peggy gain a higher office, and does she want one?

Eleanor Herman: Interesting question. Kings and political office are incompatiable. Kings are supposed to be above politics. They are not allowed to campaign for any candidates, for instance. Kings work with government officials in terms of trying to get services for their villages, and government officials respect kings for settling many disputes and keeping court dockets clear. They usually have a good working relationship. Most villagers, however, look to the king as the official power. The advantage is you can walk up to the palace and knock on the door. If the king is away, the regent and elders will help you. You don't have to file papers or pay a lawyer or drive to a distant town for justice.

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Rockville, MD: How did Peggy develop her skill, to be such an iron lady with the village elders?

Eleanor Herman: I think Peggy always had a strong personality and an amazing sense of justice. As a child and young woman, she experienced many disturbing things. In a coup, her best friend was raped by 10 soldiers and has been catatonic ever since. She has always gotten very angry when witnessing any injustice, even a man yelling at a woman on a US street. She would jump in and tell him to shut up!

Her remarkable fate has put her in a position where she can use her sense of justice, and her anger against abusers of all stripes, to help thousands of people. Before her kingship, her talents were wasted in a way.

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Rockville: So did King Peggy actually report the corrupt bribe-taker at the beginning, or did she drop the matter? I hope she reported him.

Eleanor Herman: No, that guy disappeared real fast. And frankly, I doubt it would have done any good.

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Washington DC: What has been the reaction of Ms Bartels' colleagues at the Embassy? Does her new status in Ghana affect her job in Washington, positively or negatively?

Eleanor Herman: The reaction has been positive though it may be a bit strange to ask a king to type your letters!

The good news for the embassy is that Peggy's story spotlights Ghana, with its incredible people, fascinating tourist destinationslike the slave castles on the coast, amazing cuisine, and its many challenges. I know she wants the publicity to in some way help her country of birthy, which she loves dearly despite its problems.

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Washington, D.C.: While the new king seems to be making things better, is there any talks of reforming the overall system? A king who can just decree that wife beaters are thrown in jail until they "half rot" may be helpful now, but if next time the cup of schnapps picks a king not as kind, then all previous good moves can be undone in an instant.

Eleanor Herman: True. Those who will choose the candidates for the next king will be her elders, and she is retiring the corrupt ones and appointing younger, honest ones, who are very much invested in the town's prosperity. She will probably start putting together a list of honest relatives who she thinks would be a good king. Her uncle, the late king who is in the fridge, asked that Peggy be on the list, which is why they put her there, although she is female. So I think she will have some say, though changing the whole system? I don't know where you would start.

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Eleanor Herman: Thank you so much for all your great questions! This has been fun. I am sure we haven't heard the last of King Peggy.

Eleanor Herman: I do hope there will be a book. You can contact me through my author website, www.eleanorherman.com. I will keep you all updated on Peggy's story.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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