Written by Osayi Endolyn Tuesday, March 27 2012
The word “king” tends to bring about a particular point of view. Most envision a man situated in a grand, European palace. Most would think of the gardens at Versailles or the Tudor dynasty. Few would consider that the word king could apply to a woman — much less a Ghanaian woman residing in Silver Springs, Md. Of the many things King Peggy is out to accomplish, redefining just who can be a king is one of them.
Four years ago, a 4 a.m. phone call from the coastal fishing village of Otuam alerted Peggielene Bartels that with the approval of the ancestors, she’d been chosen to continue her family’s reign as the village’s next king. The challenges and successes of her new role are detailed in the book, “King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village.” (The book was co-written with Eleanor Herman, New York Times bestselling author.) Officially, her title is Nana Amuah-Afenyi VI, and in conversation, she goes by Nana (“nah-nah”), the traditional term of respect. King Peggy has approached her kingship with the humility generally attributed to the Ghanaian spirit, mixed with the can-do, against-all-odds tenacity native to her adopted American land.
“The past four years have been really, really wonderful and at the same time very stressful,” King Peggy says via phone from her Maryland home. “But due to my faith, I don’t let things get in my way. Being responsible for 7,000 people means that I have to really better their lives.”
It’s not a job she takes lightly. Some presume that a small West African village has no real use for such a figure. That a king is largely a ceremonial gesture inspired from centuries of pre-colonial tradition. One look at the many accomplishments King Peggy has achieved in the past few years would quiet such criticisms.
“The town was really in a mess,” she recalls. King Peggy was accustomed to a certain quality of life. She had moved to the United States in her early twenties (she became a citizen in 1997) and was working as a secretary in the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington, D.C. During her coronation in Otuam, she was confronted by the village’s lack of basic amenities like clean, flowing water.
“The water that they were drinking wasn’t really good, so with help from the Shiloh Baptist Church in Landover, Md. and their pastor, I’ve been able to bring about water.” Three boreholes worth. Before King Peggy’s actions, the village’s children would rise up at 5 o’clock in the morning, walk for hours to fetch buckets of unclean water, then go to school where they were considerably too exhausted to learn anything.
“I’ve been able to take that off from their shoulders,” King Peggy says. She kept her job at the embassy and continued driving her 1992 Honda Accord, using what money she could spare to help repair Otuam’s palace, which had fallen into near ruin. She has set up a nonprofit organization, the Otuam Community Development Corporation, to help raise money for things like more boreholes for clean water, student scholarships and an ambulance -- especially an ambulance.
“People die along the way [to the hospital] when they’re going to the bigger cities to have children,” she explains.
In the beginning, the difficulties she encountered included more than the village’s structural problems. The council of elders, a group of men in their eighties, weren’t exactly keen on taking orders from a middle-aged lady who spent most of her time stateside.
“Before, they really battled me,” she reflects now. “I was trying to change things, like for instance, bringing about a bank.” The men often refuted her ideas, dismissed her suggestions and in some cases, even undermined her explicit instructions. In one noted dispute in the book, King Peggy challenges that as a woman, she has the strength to lead just like in a man. In frustration she says, “Maybe I don’t have balls like the rest of you, but I am a man with breasts!”
Ideology, she eventually discovered, would not win them over. Her actions, however, did. “Seeing me bring about water and taking care of the children, you know, they come to me and say, ‘Nana, you have really done well. You have proved us wrong.’ So now, they really love me.”
The feeling is mutual. Part of the book discusses King Peggy’s earlier desire to mother children, and her inability to have any. It was a painful, emotional point of contention between she and her husband. So much so that it resulted in their estrangement. Now, it’s not uncommon to hear King Peggy refer to the 7,000 citizens of Otuam as her children — not in a superior sense — but in one that embodies the sense of accountability she has for their welfare.
“I’m beginning to also love them more than anything that I can think of,” she says.
King Peggy says her kingship has affected her many positive ways, but perhaps most obviously in the way she presents herself. There are rules kings must follow — no visiting the restroom during official business, no eating in public and absolutely no public disputes. The latter was a complicated one for King Peggy.
“Before, I could argue with you for even one year,” she laughs heartily. If Peggielene thought you had wronged her, you better watch out. But King Peggy operates on a whole other scale.
“Now I have to use my energy to do better things for my people. I try to be patient and listen to the person. If I’m at fault, I just explain myself, and then we have peace.”
One would imagine it’s hard to behave so regally living in the United States, particularly in the nation’s capital. But King Peggy takes no shortcuts in spite of the ocean that separates her from her kingdom.
“We do have some people, citizens of Otuam, that live in the United States. So if I’m not careful and do things that I’m not supposed to do, they can report me, and I’ll be in trouble. So I take it very seriously even though I’m over here.”
When King Peggy was first considering the news of her kingship, she relied a lot on signs - or what she calls “the noise”- to help guide her decisions. Those intuitive indicators, stemming from cultural beliefs in both Christianity and a traditional acceptance of the presence of ancestors, have helped her down a road full of unknowns and towering obstacles. She says even now, she still listens for it.
“The other day I was sitting down here and thinking about how I’m going to help [my people] bring about an ambulance. Because ambulances are expensive. And then in my living room, the noise came very distinctly. It said ‘Nana, don’t worry about it. Don’t think too much; everything is under control. You’re going to have help.’”
Soon after, King Peggy learned of new significant donations from the church and other individual donations. Sometimes, the noise comes in a dream when she’s sleeping, she says. As she drives to work in her 1992 Accord and answers the phone at the Ghanaian Embassy, in the back of her mind remain her people in Otuam. She visits several weeks out of the year and stays in close communication via phone.
Four years in, she’s settled down, but still works hard to achieve what she can for her community. She hopes that the nonprofit and her new book will inspire people to learn about Otuam, her people and what they need there. But in general, she’s very happy. She’s fulfilled. “It’s really a peaceful life.”
Check out some more stories about women in unconventional roles:
First a teacher, then a public relations and marketing specialist, Marjorie Perry is now holding her own as the head of MZM, a construction and management company.
Susan Slusser's career as a sports writer has been a home run, and this year she will become the first woman president of the Baseball Writer's Association of America.
Armed with a lifelong dream and and extensive engineering background, Sandra Magnus has traveled to outer space four times since 2002.
Osayi Endolyn is a California native living in Atlanta, GA. She received her BA in French from UCLA and is earning an MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her work has been featured in Atlanta INtown Paper, SCAD’s graduate writing journal Document and Quilt Stories, a podcast series inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Her art criticism essay was selected for publication in Feminist Art Workers: A History, slated for 2012 publication. Endolyn was recently awarded a writing residency from the Grinnell Area Arts Council in Iowa, where she continued work on her first book, a creative nonfiction look at the culture of the US Marine Corps.