Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday
Top left: Canoes are central to Otuam's fishing economy. Top right: Main Street, Otuam, 2009. Bottom left: Otuam's palace after Peggy's restoration. Bottom right: Before restoration.
About three weeks later, when Peggy arrived at the airport in Accra, tall, charming Kwame Lumpopo was waiting for her; after piling her bags into his old SUV, they set off on the 60-mile drive to Otuam. It was a trip that could be long or short, depending on the traffic and the state of the roads, which were at least as bad this time as Peggy remembered from years ago; today it took them almost two hours just to get out of Accra. Finally, they turned onto a sandy path that ran behind the palace. But Peggy wouldn't be staying at the palace because, according to Kwame Lumpopo, it was completely uninhabitable. Instead, he had arranged for her to visit the home of a distant cousin just a few hundred feet away.
Suddenly, the SUV stopped in front of a one-story concrete block house. "Welcome, Nana!" cried a group of six women on the porch. Peggy recognized only three of them: Auntie Esi, who at 85 held the status of eldest female in Peggy's family; 76-year-old Cousin Comfort; and 50-year-old Cousin Aggie. "We couldn't believe it when you were made king," Auntie Esi said, hugging her enthusiastically. "This is a new day for Otuam."
Peggy couldn't help feeling the love, the comfort of being accepted into her African family, something she hadn't felt since her mother's funeral. And she wondered, suddenly, how she could have stood to live without it for so long: the shining eyes, the kind words, the laughter and stories and humanness that bound them all together. In the United States, she did her job and came home to her condo. Sometimes she feared that if she died or had a stroke at home, no one would find her for weeks. That would be impossible in Ghana: There would always be relatives calling to see how you were, banging on your door, bringing you plates of fish and rice, inviting you to church and family events. They wouldn't leave you alone.
As if to prove the point, Auntie Esi turned to Peggy and said, "We will be sleeping with you. Just as a pride of lions sleeps surrounding its leader, as a king you must have attendants in your room at all times."
Peggy frowned. Suddenly the warm embrace of family did not seem so desirable.
"But I am an American," she replied. "I need to sleep alone, not with a bunch of people."
The aunties roared with laughter and shook their heads. "You are a king now, and you need our spirits to protect you."
Auntie Esi explained that Cousin Comfort would share the bed with her while the other four would sleep on mats on the floor.
There was no arguing with them. As king, it seemed, Peggy would have to give up certain things.
The next day, the aunties took Peggy to meet her royal council. Nervous but excited, Peggy inhaled sharply. Suddenly, this was no longer merely an amazing story. The reality, the responsibility, was here.
She stood up straight and squared her shoulders. She was a king. She had lived alone in America for decades, no easy thing for an African woman. I can do this, she thought, touching her mother's little gold bracelet on her wrist for luck.
She glided down the corridor and found the council seated in the parlor.
"Akwaaba," she said, smiling cordially and nodding at each one as she took her seat. Welcome. They greeted her and smiled back. Peggy recognized some of the men from her mother's funeral and her previous visits to Otuam.
Peggy's chief elder and priest, Tsiami (as everybody called him), was sitting at her right hand. In addition to being a priest, a tsiami was the king's official spokesman. On grand official occasions, such as royal funerals, the king whispered into a tsiami's ear and it was the tsiami who spoke, holding the royal speaking staff, while the king sat silently and serenely, too majestic to utter a word. Next to him was Uncle Moses; then his good friend, Isaiah the treasurer. Across from Peggy, Uncle Eshun reclined on the overstuffed sofa, next to Baba Kobena. As they exchanged small talk about her journey, Peggy decided she would give it to them straight.
We Hear You!