Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday
Top left: Peggy and her brother, Papa Warrior, 1959. Top right: Pre-king Peggy in her Washington, D.C., office. Bottom left: The king and Papa Warrior. Bottom right: Peggy's beloved mother, Mary Esi Vormoah.
Several hours later, Peggy was jerked awake by a ringing phone. She flung off the blanket and looked at the clock. It was a few minutes past 4 A.M. Peggy picked up the phone. "Hello!" she barked.
"Hello, Nana!" said a male voice on the other end. And then, in Fante, one of the languages of Ghana: "This is your uncle, Kwame Lumpopo."
Kwame Lumpopo. She remembered him. He was her mother's sister's son, technically her cousin. But Africans weren't too technical about family relationships. They called their great-aunts mother and their distant cousins brothers and sisters. For some reason, Kwame Lumpopo always referred to himself as Peggy's uncle, even though he was about her age.
"What do you mean, 'Nana'?" she asked groggily. Nana literally meant "ancestor" and was an honorary title reserved for royalty and people of stature.
"Congratulations!" Kwame Lumpopo boomed. "You are the new king of Otuam!"
She rubbed her eyes.
"Kwame Lumpopo, you'd better stop your nonsense. You have woken me from a sound sleep," she said briskly. "I have to go to work in a couple of hours to arrange the ambassador's coffee cups, and I don't appreciate this foolishness." She started to put down the phone.
"No, no, please! Don't hang up!" Kwame Lumpopo protested loudly. "Nana—I'm serious! This is no joke!"
She put the phone back to her ear.
"Your uncle, the king of Otuam, will not be coming back from the village anytime soon," he said quickly.
"Your uncle always wanted you to be the next king," Kwame Lumpopo went on. "He was so proud of you."
But Peggy knew there was more to the process of picking a king. As Kwame Lumpopo explained, the king's elders had to propose names to the chief priest, Tsiami, who then said each person's name while pouring schnapps into the ground. If the schnapps was absorbed, it meant the ancestors did not want that person to be king. If the schnapps steamed up, it was a clear sign they wanted that person to rule.
"And when Tsiami said my name, the schnapps steamed up?" Peggy asked.
There was a long pause.
"The ancestors picked you, Nana," Kwame Lumpopo said earnestly. "Will you take it?"
Would she take it? Peggy had no idea. Here it was the middle of the night, she was still groggy, and this person was telling her that her uncle was dead and she was an African king because the schnapps had steamed up.
"I'll have to think about it," she said. "I'll call you later."
Peggy slowly hung up the phone. She walked out into her living room and sat down on the sofa. How can a woman be a king? she asked herself. How can a secretary be a king? It was all highly unusual, to say the least.
Peggy loved Ghana because its 24 million inhabitants were known as the friendliest people in Africa and probably in the whole world. But life in Otuam was difficult. The townspeople were very poor and the village itself had little industry. There were no gold mines or factories as in other parts of Ghana. There were no large Ghanaian cocoa plantations owned by Nestlé or Cadbury. Many residents were farmers, but it was fishing that brought the town its only measure of prosperity. Six days a week, fishermen hauled in heavy nets of mackerel, herring, red snapper, tilapia, and salmon from hundreds of feet out at sea, sometimes pulling for eight hours straight, while their wives cleaned the fish and sold it on Main Street from large silver buckets on their heads.
Peggy suddenly remembered a day long ago when she was visiting her mother. "I'll be going to Otuam," Mother said. "There's trouble afoot between Uncle Joseph and the late king's brother James about how Joseph is letting the palace run down. So the family is meeting to try to resolve the dispute. Do you want to come?"
Peggy yawned. What did she care about falling-down palaces and the arguments of old men? "I'll stay here," she said.
And now, ironically, if she accepted the kingship, the falling-down palace and the arguments of old men would land squarely in her own lap.
But would she accept the job? For three days, Peggy couldn't decide. She began canvassing her friends at the embassy. "You have to take it," said her coworker Elizabeth, slapping her desk so hard that a stack of visa applications fell over. "God alone makes kings. He must have chosen you."
"You would be a damned fool to take it!" cried Gladys, her huge gold earrings clacking as she shook her head. "It will be a lot of responsibility and cost you a pile of money."
Finally, while driving on Rock Creek Parkway, she heard a voice in her ear. "Nana, this is your destiny," it said. "Not all human beings are born to be kings and queens."
That settled it. She called Kwame Lumpopo and declared herself the new ruler of Otuam. As she told the ambassador, who was at first openly skeptical about a woman becoming an African king, she would keep her job but take her month's vacation time (and accumulated leave) in Ghana. "Very well," he said finally. "Congratulations."
We Hear You!