Above: King Peggy on her way to the funeral of her predecessor, 2010.
Is the king dead? wondered Peggielene Bartels as she stood in the small mailroom off the lobby of her suburban D.C. apartment building. Rubbing the front of the envelope she'd just taken from her mailbox, she couldn't miss the ugly red stamp—undeliverable—splayed across the address carefully penned in her own hand. For the third time, a letter to her uncle Joseph had boomeranged back from Ghana. Another resident jostled her apologetically as he took out his little silver key and put it in the lock, but Peggy just kept staring at the letter.
Uncle Joseph was her mother's brother, and for 25 years he had been king of Otuam, a community of 7,000 souls in Western Africa. Over the years, when Peggy would return to Ghana to visit her mother, they'd drive to Otuam to see Uncle Joseph, known there by his royal title, Nana Amuah Afenyi V. The last time she had seen him was at her mother's funeral, in 1997, when he arrived at her mother's home in Takoradi with a group of his elders, a kindness that even in her overwhelming grief Peggy could appreciate. For years she had regularly sent her mother money, and once her mother was in a better place where no money was needed, Peggy decided to send it to her uncle out of respect. He had been grateful, and the two had kept in touch for nearly 11 years. But for the past three months, her letters had come bouncing back. Her Western Union wire transfers went uncollected. How old would he be now? Ninety? No, 92.
Truth be told, if he had died, she probably wouldn't have heard about it immediately. In Ghana it was considered terribly disrespectful to say, "The king is dying" or "The king is dead." When the king was very ill in the hospital, people said, "The king has gone to his village for a cure." If it didn't look like the king was going to make it, his elders said, "The king is still in the village taking care of himself." And when they said, "He may be in the village for a very long time. He won't be coming back anytime soon," that's when you knew he had died.
Still gripping the letter, Peggy let herself into her one-bedroom condo, undressed, and slipped under the covers. She was getting home late tonight. Her boss, Ambassador Kwame Bawuah-Edusei, had kept her in the office past 9, typing letters and preparing his schedule for the following day. Though Peggy had worked at the Ghanaian embassy for 29 years in a variety of administrative positions, the two years in the ambassador's office had been her favorite. She loved the excitement—meeting African heads of state and U.S. senators, and planning glittering receptions.
But as much as Peggy enjoyed her work, the best part of her day was when she was at home in bed. Asleep, she didn't have to worry about unpaid bills or undeliverable letters. Nor did she have to ponder how to lose the weight she had been gaining from sitting in a chair 12 hours a day. She didn't have to miss William, her husband, who had returned to Ghana, or resent her body, which had failed to bear them children. She didn't have to question whether her life had a purpose.
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."
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.
"You may be the men and I the woman, but you really have to be ready for me," she said. "I am not going to take nonsense from anybody. You are also much older than I am, but you have given me the power to rule. And I will do the best I can for you, but don't think that you are putting me here for you to rule me. I will be ruling you. I am your king, and the king rules."
They nodded, smiling. Peggy couldn't tell whether they were taking her seriously.
The next topic was Peggy's enstoolment celebration, the Ghanaian version of a coronation. Tsiami said, "You will need to buy many crates of beer and Coke, Fanta, and other drinks for the party we are going to have here after the ceremony. Some whiskey, too, as well as fish, chicken, and rice to feed all the guests."
Peggy had to pay for the food and drinks? She hadn't expected this. "Are there no funds that can be used for the party?" she asked, turning to Isaiah the treasurer. If he was the treasurer, that must mean that money went through his hands, right? "Isaiah, is there no money at all?"
Isaiah shook his head. "Not a penny, I'm afraid," he said, smiling apologetically. Peggy had assumed there would be at least enough cedis in the treasury to pay for her food, the reception, and any other small costs that might arise. While she had stuffed a few $100 bills from her last paycheck into her bra for emergencies, she was now beginning to fear it wouldn't even last her these nine days in Otuam.
It was soon clear that the lack of money was the least of Otuam's worries; the elders and aunties spent the afternoon bringing Peggy up to speed on life in the village, and the picture they painted wasn't pretty. There wasn't much violent crime in Otuam—unless you counted rampant wife beating, which Peggy did—but there was poor medical care, terrible schooling, no trash pickup, and no running water. Peggy had been aware of all this before she accepted the kingship, but now, face-to-face with the harsh realities, she found herself coasting downward. She couldn't help wondering if she had made a terrible mistake.
When Peggy returned to Washington she found herself devoting much of her time to telephone calls with the elders. Things were not going well in Otuam: Peggy regularly made long-distance recommendations and rulings, but months would pass and tasks never seemed to be completed. When, for example, she'd ask the council if they had collected the property taxes fishermen were supposed to pay the king, she wouldn't get a straight answer. Worse, it was becoming clear to Peggy that the one who claimed to be her greatest fan—Kwame Lumpopo—was the most dishonest of all. From a number of sources, Peggy learned that when fees did get collected, at least part of the money tended to disappear down his trousers. This can't go on, Peggy vowed. On her next trip, a year later, she announced that she would be choosing new elders. She asked the town crier to roam about banging his drum to let her people know that anyone who wanted to join the council—including women—should show up at her cousins' house for an interview. One afternoon, as Peggy and Comfort sat at the dining room table sipping beer, the front door swung open and a woman stomped into the house in an old field dress and apron, her tatty headwrap askew, her calloused hands holding a machete.
"Nana!" the woman cried in a husky voice as she approached the table and performed a crooked curtsey. "I heard you want strong women on your council." Cousin Comfort eyed the machete with apprehension.
Peggy looked the woman up and down and considered. She certainly had a commanding presence. And her voice was very loud, loud enough to make herself heard in council when the men tried to drown her out, as they certainly would.
"What is your name?" Peggy asked. "How old are you? What are your qualifications? Can you read and write?"
"My name is Mama Amma Ansabah," the woman replied. "I am 67 years old. I was born in Otuam but moved away with my husband for many years. Last year I returned here to take care of my sick sister. I don't know how to read and write, but I can tell wrong from right, which is more important, and I let everybody know if they are doing well or not. My neighbors said that I am so loudmouthed and nosy and bossy that I should put these qualities to good use and join your council."
"Would you care to have a beer with Cousin Comfort and me?" Peggy asked. Aggie, who had been standing against the kitchen door with her arms crossed, grinning, quickly brought Mama Amma a beer.
Mama Amma plunked herself down in the chair, gulped her beer in a long swig, set down the empty bottle and belched energetically. Then she wiped her mouth noisily with the back of her hand.
"You have a lot of thieving old men on your council, Nana," Mama Amma said. "Dogs, snakes, and crocodiles. They don't care about the children of Otuam. If you let me join the council, I will keep an eye on them. I will keep them in their place when you are not here and make sure they don't steal another penny."
Right then and there, Peggy gave her the job. After Mama Amma left, Cousin Comfort surprised Peggy by smiling broadly and saying, "Nana, of all the applicants, I like that one best of all."
And Amma was as good as her word. At the first meeting the next day, she let loose with her accusations and what she thought should happen to wicked, dishonest old men. Peggy just sat back and watched. She was glad to see that Mama Amma was more like an American woman, self-confident and unafraid to express her opinions.
Peggy's spirits rose. For the first time since this odyssey began, the new king knew that she was really and truly ready to rule. No longer afraid of the problems in Otuam—the angry elders, the dishonest behavior, the vengeful plots—Peggy felt confident. Bring it on, she thought.
Adapted from King Peggy, by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman. Copyright (c) 2012 by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.