Eric Don-Arthur for NPR
King Peggy, who is wearing traditional red funeral fabric, is being fanned by attendants. She is the first woman ruler of Otuam, Ghana.
King Peggy, who is wearing traditional red funeral fabric, is being fanned by attendants. She is the first woman ruler of Otuam, Ghana. Eric Don-Arthur for NPR
It was two years ago, at 4 a.m. at her apartment in Maryland, that Peggielene Bartels got the news from West Africa. A relative called from Ghana to say that her uncle, the king of the fishing village of Otuam, had died.
The news didn't end there. She was also informed that she had been anointed his successor: King Peggy.
"He said, 'No, no, no, no, Nana, don't hang up,'" Bartels recalls. "'We chose so many names, male and everybody, and somebody suggested that we choose your name, also. And when we poured libation and did the rituals, as soon as we mentioned your name, it started vaporing and we were surprised. So we did it three times. So that's when we got to know that you are the king.'"
Nana Amuah-Afenyi VI is Bartels' new title, but she is better known as King Peggy. This straight-talking, 57-year-old is the first woman in her fishing community of 7,000 people in Ghana's Central Region to be anointed a king, or "nana."
She now juggles two lives — from the palace in Otuam and from a modest condo outside Washington, D.C. Since the 1970s, Bartels, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has been a secretary at Ghana's Embassy in Washington where she still spends most of her time, running royal affairs back home in Otuam over the phone and on trips to Ghana.
"So, when they told me, I was a little bit reluctant to accept it, because it comes with responsibilities. And here is a secretary in the United States, I have my own obligations, bills and stuff and becoming a king, you have to be really rich," she says.
"And then, as if someone was talking to me, a voice said, 'Accept it, it is your destiny and you will be helped to help your people.'"
With help from her friends and scraping together her own savings, King Peggy says she is determined to help her people in Ghana to progress.
Eric Don-Arthur for NPR
During the traditional funeral ceremonies for her late uncle, "King Peggy" is required to get up and dance. In her other life, American Peggielene Bartels is a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, D.C.
During the traditional funeral ceremonies for her late uncle, "King Peggy" is required to get up and dance. In her other life, American Peggielene Bartels is a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, D.C. Eric Don-Arthur for NPR
On a sweltering day in Ghana, Peggy is overseeing her uncle's funeral. A slight breeze is blowing in from the Atlantic Ocean and the freshly painted blue and white royal residence gleams. In the sandy courtyard, drums are beating while a man in a trance performs a frenzied dance before a sea of red and black — mourners dressed for a royal burial.
The former king died in 2008, but his body was kept in a mortuary until King Peggy could save up enough money to give him a proper send-off. She's dressed like a king — albeit with a touch of lipstick — wrapped toga-style in regal red traditional fabric and seated upon a royal stool.
Dignitaries attending the funeral include another royal, Nana Boakye Asafo Adjei, the Sanahane, or ruler, of Asamankese Traditional Area in eastern Ghana.
He said he had nothing but respect for King Peggy.
"I've been really surprised by what she has done because I thought being a woman, she can't," he said. "But she has competed with the men, so I give her congratulations. She is now a king, so she has a lot to handle."
Bartels says most people are willing to work with a woman as their traditional ruler.
"The women are so happy for me, they are really on my side," she says. "But it's only a few elderly men — because they are used to bossing females around. And I don't give them the chance. They are the people resisting me."
She adds that during meetings, if they feel she is coming on too strong, they say: "'Listen you're a woman, so you listen to us.' Then I also say, 'I'm in the States, I'm a woman and, in the rituals with the ancestors, you chose me in the name of God, so shut up and sit down.' And they will sit."
Back in the U.S., King Peggy is on the lecture circuit, talking about Ghana, its traditions and her fishing community. While she's in Otuam, she presides over fisherfolk and has confronted many hurdles, including, she says, tackling graft and dishonesty within the royal circle.
"At first when I started, it was a tough challenge because they were just collecting our family fishing fees and they were misusing the funds. But I came on so strong," she says. "So I had a tough time straightening that out."
Eric Don-Arthur for NPR
Dressed in customary black and red funeral clothing, villagers from the Otuam fishing community carry the casket of their late ruler Nana Amuah-Afenyi V, who died two years ago. He is succeeded by his niece, King Peggy, a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, who says she had to save up to give her uncle a fitting send-off.
Dressed in customary black and red funeral clothing, villagers from the Otuam fishing community carry the casket of their late ruler Nana Amuah-Afenyi V, who died two years ago. He is succeeded by his niece, King Peggy, a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, who says she had to save up to give her uncle a fitting send-off. Eric Don-Arthur for NPR
King Peggy insisted future proceeds go directly into an account in a rural bank they opened in her village. She rejuvenated her royal council to include people she trusted, and has turned her attention to improving the lives of her community.
The next project is to build a high school for students who have finished ninth grade, she says.
A villager, carrying a large basin upon her head, gives King Peggy high marks for her rule. Aba Nyame Bekyere, 51, a former fishmonger, says she's pleased with what she hears Bartels is doing for Otuam, especially for women and children.
"Those of us who didn't go to school, particularly the women, we'd like to learn," she says through a translator. "And we need a high school here, so that our kids don't have to go so far away to study."
King Peggy is getting help from donors in the U.S., including the Shiloh Baptist Church in Landover, Md. Pastor Be Louis Colleton and his congregation heard about Bartels, met her and committed to helping her fishing community.
Colleton and more than a dozen other Americans accompanied her from Maryland to Ghana this fall and traveled to palm tree-lined Otuam, along the shores of what used to be part of West Africa's Atlantic slave coast.
"We have covenant with Nana, the king — we as a church — to help her to better her community of people to bring fresh water," he says. "Now we're moving toward the possibility of establishing a school."