RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Peggielene Bartels had settled into her life. She'd been in America for more than 30 years. She'd built a life here with a great job at Ghana's embassy in Washington, friends, a sense of purpose. But she had no idea destiny would intervene and make her one of the most unlikely leaders in West Africa.
KING PEGGIELENE BARTELS: If somebody had told me we were that one day I'll be a king, I'll tell that person you that your crazy.
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BARTELS: But that's exactly what happened to Bartels and life hasn't been the same since. We went to visit King Peggy, as she's known, at her home just outside Washington, D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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MARTIN: It's Rachel Martin with NPR.
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BARTELS: Hi. How are you?
MARTIN: I'm well. Nice to meet you.
BARTELS: Nice to see you too.
MARTIN: It's a modest one-bedroom condo, with floral carpet, ornate furniture and West African art. Pictures of her coronation hang on the wall. In them, Peggy is dressed in the colorful robes of a king and, of course, a crown. And along with the special clothes comes a special name.
What do I call you? Peggy? Nana?
MARTIN: Nana is OK?
BARTELS: Yes, Nana is OK.
Nana is the title given to elders in her native Ghana. The first time someone called her that was four years ago. She was woken up at 4 A.M. with a phone call - one of her cousins back home.
BARTELS: He said Nana. I said Nana? What are you talking about? You know, I'm not a king. I'm not a queen. So, I thought he was trying to con me and so I said, listen, it's 4 o'clock in the morning in the United States. What do you want? So he said, your uncle went to the village.
MARTIN: He's gone to village.
BARTELS: Yes, and he's not coming back anytime soon.
MARTIN: Going to village is what people in Peggy's hometown say when someone has died. The cousin went on. He told Peggy that village elders had carried out a sacred ritual to choose a successor for her uncle, the king. And they had chosen Peggy.
BARTELS: I said a king?
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BARTELS: A woman king, are you kidding me? He said, No, I'm not kidding you. And in Ghana, it's very rare because at the moment we only have three women kings and I'm the third one.
MARTIN: In the whole country.
BARTELS: In the whole country. And then I said why in the world would they take a woman far away, so many thousands of miles away; that I'm not going to be there full-time right now? Why me?
MARTIN: What convinced you in the end?
BARTELS: I kept on hearing voices and the voices would just say nana. That voice called me nana. It's your destiny. Go for it. So, I said, is it because I'm tired, I haven't been sleeping? What is this, you know?
MARTIN: Peggy agreed to become king. How could she not? But it hasn't been easy. She remembers her first trip back to Ghana. When she met with a group of male elders, one of the men stood up and said...
BARTELS: Shut up. You are a woman. And you have to do what we have to tell you.
MARTIN: This was the first big meeting that you had...
BARTELS: Yes, yes, yes.
MARTIN: ...with the tribal elders.
BARTELS: That's when I stood up. And I sudden, I say, oh, so, you people wake me up 4 o'clock in the morning thinking that I'm a woman that you're going to really intimidate and I'm far away and then you are going to rule me and then have me there as a public figure. I said not me. I want to tell you all that I'm serious. Don't look at me as a woman. I'm a man. So, if you really understand me as a man and then we can go on well. But if you think I'm a woman we're not going to work.
MARTIN: You ended up - and you are currently - fighting a lot of corruption.
MARTIN: When did that first become apparent to you that this was a problem in the village?
BARTELS: The first time that they were installing me.
MARTIN: Like a coronation.
BARTELS: Yes, a coronation, yes. Americans, you know, and the Europeans call it coronation but we call it installment. The time came for me to be installed, and then I said who is going to buy the drinks, you know, be responsible for the other stuff? Then I asked the treasurer and he said we don't have money and shrug his shoulders. Then I said, hey, wait a minute. We have a beach. We have a long day that we have fishermen that they always give us money like a land fee and fisherman fee.
MARTIN: Like taxes.
BARTELS: Yes. You know, and I said what happened to it? They said we don't know. They kept on shrugging their shoulders. And then this one would be fingering at this one, pointing at this one. I said, wow, I'm in trouble but I'll fix it.
MARTIN: So far, she has helped bring clean water to the village, renovated the king's palace, opened the village's first bank and she's recruited a church to help sponsor more projects, like a secondary school. It's work that has given Peggy a new kind of satisfaction, a new kind of purpose. How has it changed how you walk through life when you're in America, when you're in Washington, D.C.? I mean, you're a king.
BARTELS: I know. But you know what, sometimes, you know, I don't let it get to me. I always want to be humble.
MARTIN: Is it hard to be humble sometimes?
BARTELS: Oh, it's hard, it's hard. Sometimes I'll be in the shop and someone will say, hey. And I said if it was before I will yell back. But this time I say, hey.
MARTIN: You've learned patience.
BARTELS: Yes. But before, if you say something, maybe, you just say it without knowing what you were saying. Oh, Peggielene will really show you. But now it's not like that anymore.
MARTIN: Is there a part of you these days that ever just wakes up and you just think, oh, I just want to go back to when I was just Peggy working at the embassy, living my life?
BARTELS: Not at all.
BARTELS: Not at all. I love every bit of what I'm doing. So, I don't reflect on the (unintelligible) at all. All that I really care about is to move forward with them.
MARTIN: Thank you so much for talking with us.
BARTELS: You are quite welcome.
MARTIN: It's been a pleasure.
BARTELS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Peggielene Bartels's new book is called "Team Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village."
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MARTIN: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.