Peggielene Bartels
Photos: Courtesy of Doubleday
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.