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Her majesty the king
Ever since the Rosie the Riveters of WWII blew the lid off of what was considered “women’s work” and moved with skill and determination into “men’s jobs,” women have been making strides into traditionally male-dominated positions. Today, no one raises an eyebrow at seeing a female doctor, police officer or CEO. But a female king? Yet that is exactly what Peggielene Bartels, for more than 30 years a secretary at the Embassy of Ghana in Washington, D.C., is asked to become by the elders of Otuam, a small Ghanaian village. Though it sounds the stuff of fairytale and legend, King Peggy is the fascinating true story of her courageous acceptance of this difficult role and her unyielding resolve to help the people of Otuam.
An American citizen since 1997, Bartels did have ties to Ghana beyond her work at the Embassy. She was born and raised in Cape Coast and still had relatives there, and her uncle had been king of Otuam until his death at age 90 in 2008. Still, going back for centuries, all the kings had been men, and the idea had never crossed her mind to aspire to become one. So it was quite a shock when an elder called to tell her she had been one of the final 25 candidates chosen (and the only female), and that when they poured the libations, it was her name which had “steamed up” from the schnapps. The ancestors had chosen her; would she accept?
Written with Eleanor Herman, King Peggy reveals how Bartels made her difficult decision and how it not only changed her life, but those of the 7,000 people she came to rule. Faced with daunting obstacles—lack of running water, a crumbling palace and a late king “in the refrigerator” until he can be properly buried (a problem compounded by Ghana’s dicey electricity)—Bartels rises to each calamity with tenacity and dignity. She vows to rule “wisely, with compassion and justice, and to spare no effort in helping Otuam” as she struggles to upgrade the community’s education, healthcare and infrastructure, despite the entrenched corruption she encounters. Full of pathos, humor and insight into a world where poverty mingles with hope and happiness, King Peggy is an inspiration and proof positive that when it comes to challenging roles for women, “We Can Do It!”