The King of Otuam, Ghana and co-author of King Peggy discusses the changes she’s made to her home village since becoming its first female ruler and shares the impact she’s had on young girls.
King of Otuam Peggielene BartelsOriginally aired on February 23, 2012
Tavis: In 2008, Peggy Bartels got a phone call that she could only assume was some kind of joke, some kind of prank. Working as a secretary at Ghana’s embassy in Washington, Peggy’s cousin back in Ghana called to say that her uncle, the king of a small village in Ghana, had passed away, and that she had been chosen as the new king.
So weeks later, she traveled to Ghana to begin her new duties, only to find a litany of problems and political realities. Remarkably, she continues in her role as a secretary in Washington and travels frequently to Ghana.
The new book about this remarkable and true story is called “King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village.” King Peggy, an honor to have you on this program.
King Peggy Bartels: Thank you, Tavis; it’s very nice to be here with you.
Tavis: Let me start by saying that I have been to, I think now, 16 African countries in my life – maybe 16, 17. The first one I went to is still the one that I regard as having the friendliest people, and that’s Ghana.
Bartels: Thank you so much.
Tavis: I’m sure I’ll get hate mail for that.
Bartels: Oh, no. (Laughter)
Tavis: But all the people in Africa, and maybe because I haven’t gone to the other countries yet, but the Ghanaian people are the nicest people in Africa, I think.
Bartels: Yeah, really beautiful people inside and out, and we always welcome people to our country and we’re very humble people, and we really, really love people to come and invest also in Ghana.
Tavis: Yeah. They’re beautiful people.
Bartels: Yes, yes.
Tavis: I love going back as often as I can.
Bartels: We’re really welcome to have you there.
Tavis: But I have not been to Otuam, so I’m going to have to get there.
Bartels: You should be there. You would love Otuam.
Tavis: Well, now that I got the hook-up knowing the king, (laughter) that might be on my stop this summer. I can go somewhere where I can get hooked up.
Bartels: That would be really wonderful. That would be wonderful.
Tavis: I might come to Otuam this summer.
Tavis: You were born in Ghana, Cape Coast.
Tavis: You stayed there for how many years before you came to Stateside.
Bartels: I was in Ghana for all my teenage years and then I went to London because I was with my mom after her divorce. I was very close to my mom, and mom was afraid that the more I got closer, and if she stayed on this Earth anymore I may not be able to function, so she threw me out.
She said, “You have to go out there and experience some things for yourself. I’m going to educate you on what you want to do.
I said, “Well, since I love food, I want to be a caterer.” So she sent me to England to study catering, and I went to England, and after England my father had a friend here who used to be an Ambassador (unintelligible) may he rest in peace.
I came by here and then we went to see him, and then he helped me to get a job at the embassy and I’ve been there since.
Tavis: You’ve been at the embassy how many years now?
Bartels: I’ve been there over 30 years.
Tavis: Over 30 years at the embassy.
Bartels: Yes, yes.
Tavis: So how often were you going back to Ghana prior to this phone call?
Bartels: Well, when my mom was alive I used to go like every other year. But my mom has been gone for about 13 years now, and since then I have never been home, since she passed away 13 years ago, I stopped going back.
Before then I used to go like every other year.
Tavis: Okay. So you are born in a place that you hadn’t been back to for over a decade and the phone rings one day and you hear what on the other end of the phone?
Bartels: Well, it was 4:00 in the morning in August of 2008, and then the phone rang and it was 4:00 in the morning. Usually my brother in Australia tends to call me around that time of the day. Then I said, “Oh, that’s my brother.” I wasn’t going to take it, but the phone kept on ringing.
Then I woke up very grouchy and then picked up the phone. When I picked up the phone and I heard my cousin saying, “Nana.” And I said, “Nana?” because I’ve never had a child before, and “Nana” is a name given to either your grandmother or a woman of stature or a man of stature, with (unintelligible) a queen.
Then I said, “Nana? What do you mean, nana?” He said, “Nana.” I said, “Listen. It’s 4:00 in the morning in the United States, and if you don’t hang up I’m going to hang up on you.” He said, “Oh, no, no, no, don’t hang up.” Then I realized that he was very serious, and I said, “What is it that you need?”
He said, “Nana, your uncle had gone to the village and he’s not coming down any time soon,” meaning in Ghanaian royal culture, my uncle is dead and that he’s not coming back, and we have done all the rituals by pouring libation to pray to our ancestors. “Then your name came up and you have been chosen as king.”
Tavis: You went past that story right fast. Let’s back up. (Laughter) There are two or three things that make the story fascinating for me. Speaking of the Ghanaian culture, there is a process by which the new king was selected in your village.
Tavis: It involves the pouring a libation, but there’s something that has to happen for the person whose name has come up to be selected as the king.
Tavis: So back up and tell me that story, because that’s a fascinating part of the story.
Bartels: Yes. Before they will do that, they really gather with the elders of the family and then will mention and take the data of all the young ones who are a little educated or educated with very high-quality morals in terms of not being a bad person, stealing, or know how to really relate to people.
Then after that they will sit down and make sure that this person is from the royal family, the mother is here, the mother is here. So it’s like if they have three sisters, all the three sisters will come in with all the ancestors that are gone, their children will also come in.
Then after that they will go and pour the libation in the shrine and then pray to our ancestors to guide them to pick out the right person.
Tavis: What has to happen on the ground when they pour the libation to know whose name that has been called is in fact the new king?
Bartels: What I was told by my cousin was that whenever they went to the shrine they have to pour the libation, and then they will mention your name. For instance, they would say, “Cojo.” We had really wanted to choose Cojo as a king, and they pour the libation.
If it sank to the ground it means it’s not meant to be. It has to steam up. They did all that with about 25 male – I was the only female. Why they added me as a female I have no idea, because my family had never chosen a female before.
So they mentioned my name and it steamed up, and they look at each other and then they did it again (laughter) and it steamed up, and they looked at each other. Then the third one, (laughter) then they said, “Oh, that’s it,” and then I was chosen.
Tavis: Yeah, so it took them three times to believe that you were – that this woman was the king.
Bartels: Yeah, the king. Yes.
Tavis: How rare in Ghanaian culture, how rare is this, a woman being the king?
Bartels: It’s very rare, and this is a very unique position. It’s very rare. At the moment (unintelligible) we’re only three, and I’m the third one. The first one is in Takoradi, and we have one in the Volta region, and now they have one in the central region, which is me, and it’s very, very rare.
Tavis: What is the role of a king in Ghana? What are your official responsibilities and duties? What do you do?
Bartels: My official responsibility is to bring improvement to the town, to make sure that if there is no education to help them to have education. If the water is not that of great quality, to help them to have water. The infrastructure, library, and also to make sure that everybody is under control, and that’s the most part the king is supposed to do, to make sure that his or her town is really up to par with the world.
Tavis: How does the king of a village, which obviously is a very, very high honor in Ghanaian culture, but how does the king of a town engage the actual elected officials? Because Ghana, thankfully, is a wonderful democracy.
Tavis: One of the best on the African continent. How do you engage officially with the elected leadership of Ghana?
Bartels: Actually, being a king, you’re not supposed to mingle with the politics. You have to be neutral. So if a politician is coming to ask you for a favor, you have to be very, very careful.
Tavis: But if you’re trying to get water for the village – there are some issues I would imagine that connect to the running of the state.
Bartels: Yeah. For that one, you, being a king, and if you can’t solicit for funds to do for your people, you can either go to the minister of water and works to talk to him about your people needing water.
So you normally have to go to the ministry part to ask for help. But if for any reason you can also help, they’ll be more than happy to welcome that help.
Tavis: Your village of Otuam is about 7,000 persons.
Bartels: Yes, we’re about 7,000 people.
Tavis: What were the greatest challenges – you’re talking about now some examples of the kinds of challenges kings might have. But specifically in Otuam, what were your great challenges when you became the king?
Bartels: My great challenges when I became the king was there was no running water, the schools were up to 12th grade. In other words, the children have to travel out of Otuam when they want to go to high school, and most of the time the children, especially the girls, they go out of the town to the bigger cities which they are not used to, and most of the time they come home pregnant, meaning a child education is lost, coming home pregnant with no child.
Also the infrastructure, the library. They don’t have a library. You know that English is the official language in Ghana, and they don’t have enough books in the schools to read, they don’t have computers.
But these days, you need to have very good computers for the children to be able to mingle with the world, but without that, it’s not (unintelligible) really challenging part for me, the water that they were drinking wasn’t good.
Also, the elders were really, really embezzling the funds. This was the most, most challenging. I faced a lot of male chauvinism, which I really kept all off.
Tavis: I was about to ask about that. Since this is so rare in the culture in Ghana, how have you dealt with the sexism and the patriarchy of being a female king?
Bartels: Well, with the help and might of God I’ve been able to (unintelligible) all that because I made them to be aware that I really have the strength of a male, and I can really compete with them. Then we had a big meeting, and then I put everything across the way I want it to be, and I’ve been able to help.
Tavis: So you, as I said earlier, remarkably, which makes this story so fascinating, you still hold your job down at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington.
Bartels: Yes, I do.
Tavis: So you fly back and forth to Ghana?
Bartels: Yes. Normally we are entitled to 1 month vacation every year.
Bartels: So I normally take my vacation in September. That’s supposed to be my anniversary, and also, there will be a harvest festival in the town. So I normally go in September and stay for a month, and I do come back home to the United States, and it’s like when even I’m home I work 24 hours with them by calling them and discuss things, and they discuss issues with me.
I have a regent that also takes care of business while I’m here.
Tavis: How do you manage all this when you’re working full-time at the embassy and responsible for a sizeable village in another country?
Bartels: Let me tell you this – it’s something that God has really blessed me with spiritually, because I don’t get tired. Any time that I get the least time that I can use, I don’t want to sit idle doing nothing. I have to call Otuam to make sure that everything is in order.
If there is something I want them to do, I call my regent or I call some of the elders and we discuss it, and they also call me. So more or less I’m on the telephone 24/7 with Otuam.
Bartels: It helps me a lot, and I love it.
Tavis: Are you Skyping or are you just on the phone.
Bartels: Just on the phone. I haven’t Skyped yet. My brother always tells me, “Get this thing and Skype.” I said, “I’m not going to let them see my face. I want them to hear my voice.”
Tavis: (Laughter) But don’t they want to see the king sometimes?
Bartels: Well, they do, but they said, “This king is really, really serious,” and sometimes they say, “Whenever we hear that you are coming back to Otuam, we get scared.”
Tavis: You’ve laid the law down there. What was the response when you went to your boss at the embassy (laughter) to say, “I’ve been elected king?”
Bartels: When I went to my boss, when they told me and I was having a little difficulty whether to accept it or not, and then I went to my boss one morning and I said, “Boss, I need to talk to you.”
Then my boss looked at me and said, “What have you done now? Are you arguing with somebody in the embassy?” (Laughter) And I said, “No, I’m not arguing with anybody,” and he said, “Okay, come on in,” and then when I went in he just offered me a seat. When I sat down I said, “Boss, I’m going to be a king.”
And he looked at me so seriously. I said, “Why are you looking at me like this, Boss?” He said, “Are you okay? Are you tired?” I said, “I’m not tired, I’m okay. I’m going to be a king.”
Because I think he was really surprised for the fact that we don’t have many women in Ghana who are really kings, and for me to come early in the morning and tell him this, maybe he thought I was tired from going home late at night after work. So I said, “I’m not really exaggerating or I’m really not tired, I’m telling you the truth.”
So one of these days I have to ask permission to go home for my coronation. Then I went to my office and I sat down, and within a few minutes my boss called me again on the intercom and he said, “Are you okay?” And I said, “I’m okay.” (Laughter) I said, “I’m okay, Boss.” He said, “Come in here, I want to ask you again are you serious of what you are telling me? Not a queen, but a king?”
I said, “Yes, because they know I have a very strong personality.” He knows that, and then I’m going to be a king.” Then he said, “You’ll be a good king.” Yes.
Tavis: What was the coronation like? I know in Ghana, because I’ve, again, been there a number of times. This is a nation that’s big on ceremony.
Tavis: So what was the ceremony like?
Bartels: The ceremony takes about three days, with festivities. Your families will be gathering with a lot of food, a lot of drinks, drumming and dancing and then your (unintelligible) will be with you in a room for 10 days, because I asked for permission to be off for 10 days, coaching me how to have the etiquette. How to walk, how to eat, what not to do and what to do.
Then whilst you are in the room for your (unintelligible) coaching you, then your family members and the townspeople will be out there with drums, drinking, eating, and normally it’s quite a big thing for three days, yes.
Tavis: To the customs that the king is supposed to adhere to, what are some of the things that you can no longer do, or things that you now have to do differently because you are the king? You mentioned eating and drinking and being in public. What are some of those customs, some of those things that you can no longer do now?
Bartels: Well, the things that I can no longer do is strictly speaking, when I’m in Ghana, I can’t eat in public. For instance, I can’t go into a restaurant. If I’m walking in the street and somebody says, “Hey, Nana, are you stupid, or what are you doing,” I can’t say a word. I just have to smile and wave, whilst before, this Nana will fight you for a year.
Tavis: So you can’t even drink in public.
Bartels: You can’t drink in public.
Tavis: You can’t cuss folk out in public.
Bartels: No, you cannot.
Tavis: What about private?
Bartels: Private, I might. (Laughter)
Tavis: Okay, but not in public.
Bartels: Not in the public, because my brother, I used to curse my brother in the room, and he said, “I’m going out there to tell them what you are telling me in here,” and I said, “Oh, please, don’t do that.” (Laughter) So it’s something, I think it’s better for us, because being a king you don’t want to really disrespect your family and your (unintelligible). You have to be really dignified.
For the eating part, they have a notion that maybe there are so many people with evil eye, being a woman king or any king, they may be jealous of you, and somebody might choke you whilst you are really swallowing something. That’s what I was told, because I asked them why. They said, “Well, it’s better for you not to eat in public.”
Tavis: So you can’t get poisoned by somebody.
Bartels: Yes, yes, and also when you are there, and for instance if I’m sitting down in public and I’m drinking water, once I leave that water and I come back, I can’t drink the water anymore. Yes, yes.
Tavis: So it’s been four years now, 2008 you got the call.
Tavis: How is this process working out for you? How’s the journey so far?
Bartels: The journey has been so wonderful for the fact that I’ve been able to help them with the help from generals Americans, from Shiloh Baptist Church of Landover, Maryland, with the pastor (unintelligible). They’ve been able to help me to bring them about three new (unintelligible) water and my (unintelligible) Ms. Helena Diamond (sp) shelled out $7,000 out of her own pocket, also helped us with one (unintelligible) water.
Then the Shiloh Baptist Church of Landover, Maryland, had taken 20 children that their parents cannot afford to take them to school and they’re educating them at the university level.
So they paid their school every year, and this has really made me happy that I’m really a good king and I’m helping my people. It has also transformed me.
Tavis: Today you have on your official African king’s attire.
Tavis: Are you in this most days at the embassy, or?
Bartels: Oh, no. (Laughs) I put on regular African dress. Because if I dress like this and I go to the office, I wouldn’t be able to really function and they wouldn’t be able to send me the way they want a secretarial duty to be, because they will look at me that here is a king, how can we send her, how can we ask her to type our letters?
So to make things easier for me I really always think of how I was before I became a king, and then be humble and do my secretarial duties. So I dress normally, like any other African woman in office.
Tavis: How do your coworkers treat you now that you are a king? Because when I walk in here and I say something, they say to me, “Who do you think you are, the king?” (Laughter) That’s how I get treated here. So how do your coworkers treat you now that you really are the king?
Bartels: Well, especially with my ambassador, he is an Ashanti, and they treat the kings very well. He respects me a lot and I respect him a lot.
Tavis: Because he respects the tradition.
Bartels: Yes, he respects the tradition and he respects me a lot and he calls me Nana, and I also give him that respect being my ambassador. Then my coworkers, I also treat them with respect because I was with them before I became a king, and I always want to stay humble, as my mother taught me.
I don’t want them to look at me as a king. So my role, I try to do it in a way that I block my mind when I’m in the office that I’m a king, but at the same time I’m a secretary, and the truth is that I was chosen in helping my people, so I have to be very humble to be able to really relate to my coworkers.
I don’t want them to think that oh, it’s gone to her head. They know the culture and they know what a king is all about. They give me that respect and I give them the respect also.
Tavis: See, this is why I say the Ghanaian people are the nicest people in Africa, because I don’t know a single American, I can’t think of one, who could one day be a secretary, the next day be named a king and go back to that job, continue to work it, and not just do the job but do it well and be happy doing it, find joy in doing it.
I’m just trying to process how it is that you are still doing this job as secretary and loving, obviously, what you do when in your native country you are royalty.
Bartels: Well, I’m a secretary before I became a king, and I’m not in my retirement age yet. Whilst I’m here, it’s helping me to help my people, and that doesn’t give me the chance to come to the office and disrespect anyone.
I have to look at myself as a secretary, because I get my salary and my salary helps me to help my people, because I do normally send them money like Christmas gifts, Easter gifts from my little salary I make.
When I was really renovating my palace, if I wasn’t a secretary earning a salary, there was no way I’ll be able to renovate –
Bartels: Yeah. (Laughter)
Tavis: You just lost me. See, that’s what I mean, you can’t put that together. “As a secretary, when I was decorating my palace,” that just – (laughter) that just doesn’t fit. So how is the palace back in Otuam?
Bartels: Oh, the palace is wonderful looking. I renovated it because after my coronation it was really in a mess. I remember during my coronation I was sitting down, they were talking, and then I saw the paint coming down. Even if we sneeze, it falls on our head.
I said, “Do you expect me to come and live here?” They said, “Nana, you have to try.” I said, “Not here.” So I had to help them to renovate it, yes.
Tavis: Yeah. So what do the young girls in the village now think about their future, about their life, now that they look at a king every day who’s a woman?
Bartels: They’re happy, and I have on a couple of occasions had a talk with them that they should really concentrate on their education and I’m happy that the Americans are here to help us. They should be very serious with it.
They look at me as a role model and I always tell them that you have to be really serious of what you do and then become something. You may not become a king or a queen, but you may become something – you can become a doctor, a politician, a lawyer.
So really, they look up to me highly and most of the time when I go to the village they come and visit me and talk to me, and I always advise them to be very serious about their life, so they can be called to be something someday.
Tavis: I’m going to go back right quick to something you said earlier in the conversation, something I said you went right past. You mentioned that you don’t have children, you’ve never had children.
Tavis: You tell the story in the book, that’s why I ask about it. You were at one point married.
Tavis: I’ll let you tell the story about why you’re not married now and what kids had to do with that.
Bartels: Well, I was married and I loved to have about 10 children at that time, and we tried all we could. With all this modern technology in the United States, we couldn’t do it.
Then whilst I couldn’t do it I was very sad about it, when my husband’s family had him to go home to have a family business. I know that he didn’t go because I wasn’t having a child, but they wanted him to come and help the family business.
But at the same time it dawns on me that for instance if we had a child there is no way he would leave me and my children to go back home to be with the family business, and I was very sad about it.
For some time my mom kept on telling me, “If God can’t give you (unintelligible) and you have tried all you could, stop. Stop. Don’t do anymore technological issues, or else you bring a child who is sick onto this Earth, and you won’t be happy. So leave it alone and pray to God,” and that’s what exactly I did.
So when I had this call and then I accepted it and went to Otuam to see all these people, then I said, “This is what God has for me. That’s why I wasn’t able to have a child.” I know God wants me to have it, but for some reason it didn’t happen. But now I have 7,000 people that I’m really taking care of. (Laughter)
Tavis: You’ve got 7,000 subjects now.
Bartels: Yes, yes, yes.
Tavis: Is your ex-husband still alive?
Tavis: What did he make of the news that his ex-wife was now the king?
Bartels: Actually, I haven’t given him a divorce yet. I told him I wouldn’t give him a divorce (unintelligible) and when they were about to install me, my eldest went to him in Accra, Ghana, and they said, “Your wife is going to be a king.” And he said, “A king? Oh. You people are going to really – you know what you’re getting yourself into?” (Laughter)
Tavis: I love the sense of humor, I love the humility, I love a good story, and to be sure, this is a good one.
It’s called “King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed, “and I might add is changing still, “An African Village.”
King Peggy, I am honored to have you on this program, and I may meet you in Otuam this summer, in September, when you go back.
Bartels: Okay. And also I want people to know that I have 501(c) and if they want to donate they can go to KingPeggy.com and then donate through my 501(c).
Tavis: To help the people.
Bartels: Yes (unintelligible) people and everybody that wants to help us. So that’s how we’ll use the money for the Otuam project. I’ll be happy to have them. The book is out already, and they can go out and buy some and read it.
Tavis: I’m delighted you said that. Good to have you on the program.
Bartels: Thank you so much for having me.
Tavis: I’m delighted to have you.
Bartels: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for tuning in to PBS and keep the faith.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.