King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village - Peggielene Bartels, Eleanor Herman

King Peggy chronicles the astonishing journey of an American secretary who suddenly finds herself king to a town of 7,000 souls on Ghana's central coast, half a world away. Upon arriving for her crowning ceremony in beautiful Otuam, she discovers the dire reality: there's no running water, no doctor, and no high school, and many of the village elders are stealing the town's funds. To make matters worse, her uncle (the late king) sits in a morgue awaiting a proper funeral in the royal palace, which is in ruins. The longer she waits to bury him, the more she risks incurring the wrath of her ancestors. Peggy's first two years as king of Otuam unfold in a way that is stranger than fiction. In the end, a deeply traditional African town has been uplifted by the ambitions of its headstrong, decidedly modern female king. And in changing Otuam, Peggy is herself transformed, from an ordinary secretary to the heart and hope of her community.

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In 2008, Peggielene Bartels was working as a secretary at the Ghanian Embassy in Washington D.C. when she got a phone call from her cousin in Ghana notifying her that she had just been chosen as the new king of Otuam. Prior to this call, Bartels had spent decades in the United States (becoming a US citizen in 1997) living the common paycheck to paycheck way of life -- along with her job at the Embassy, she also worked part time as a receptionist at a local nursing home AND sold Ghanian arts and crafts at craft show expos and church bazaars on weekends. {Bartels studied culinary arts in Ghana and England before deciding to try out the US for a couple years, her idea being that she would experience American life for a bit before returning to Ghana to take up a culinary job. A family friend got her the job at the Embassy and she just... kinda never left...}

 

It was 4am, just hours before she was to be in to work at the Embassy, when this life-changing phone call came in, so she wasn't sure what to make of the news or whether she should take it seriously. While there had been female kings in Ghana in the past, she couldn't recall any being in her family's line in Otuam. Peggy is asked if she even wants the job. She debates back and forth, but given the name of this book you can guess her ultimate decision. 

 

The coastal town of Otuam was the hometown of Ghana native Bartels. Bartel's uncle Joseph was the reigning king for 25 years. When the king became ill and death seemed imminent, the council of elders put together a list of all the king's healthiest family members under the age of 60. Peggy's name was the very last name on a list of 25 people. The list was taken to a local shrine where a priest performed a ceremony where schnapps was poured on the ground at the reading of each person's name, the belief being that if the fluid steamed then that would be the ancestors' (in the afterlife) choice of successor. Peggy's name was the only name to cause the schnapps to steam. To be sure, the ritual was performed twice more, twice more the same results. 

 

Eleanor Herman with King Peggy

in Otuam, Ghana (Africa)

 

 

Upon arriving in Otuam shortly after being named king, Peggy gets the full force of her kingdom's financial reality. Her own family's palace is in shambles, her uncle has yet to be buried (some weeks since his death and that phone call) because no one has the money for a proper burial befitting a king and no one wants to bury him with anything less, for fear of angering the ancestors from the other side. Peggy fears being haunted by her uncle if he feels disrespected. There's also her impoverished people who are fighting for the most basic needs like clean water sources. The local pond is highly contaminated. The local government did install boreholes (water taps) for clean water but charges each family a few cents per bucket of water. The families who can't afford the fee have no choice but to drink the contaminated lake water. Peggy also discovers that many homes don't have working plumbing, the children getting up ridiculously early to make multiple trips for water (sometimes walking for up to 6 hours each morning) before even starting school each day. 

 

In the early days of her reign, King Peggy feels out of her league. How is she to run a kingdom when she's never even had retail management experience, she asks herself. She struggles against a growing realization that the majority of her council of elders is made up of men secretly stealing from her directly or from the town coffers. She also begins to suspect that she was "chosen" because the elders thought her inexperience and distance (after she decides to continue living in US for most of the year) will allow them to continue their money-skimming schemes. How was she to make any headway in these conditions?!

 

"You cannot eat or drink in public. It's unseemly for a king to be shoving things into her face. Plus, if there is a witch in the crowd watching you she can make you choke to death on whatever you're consuming."

 

Peggy sighed. "In Otuam I will abide by this rule," she said. "But in the US, we all work so much that we have to grab a bite in public sometimes because when we get home it is too late to cook. And no one there knows I am a king."

 

"They know at the embassy. One of them might be a witch. And even if they aren't, it would be undignified to stuff your face even there."

 

Witches. At the embassy. Looking back at her 29 years there, Peggy realized this could explain a lot of things.

 

 

At a particularly low point, Bartels is given strength through the advice of a Otuam friend, "Remember the sparrow that builds its nest one twig at a time." Peggy thinks things over and decides her kingdom would be best served, at least for a time, if she continues to work in the US, sending portions of her income back to Otuam. Her new position brings an unexpected sense of strangeness to the office she had worked in for so many years. Suddenly, her boss didn't know if it was appropriate asking a king to get him coffee! Co-workers shied away from her, unsure of how to address her. Frustrated, she finally announces that yes, she's a Ghanian king but only when she is there, at the embassy she just wants to do her secretarial duties. Eventually things find their proper rhythm again and to this day, King Peggy continues to work at the Ghanian Embassy, sending income back to her kingdom in between multiple visits throughout each year. 

 

This biography mainly focuses on the first two years of King Peggy's reign. No doubt, there's definitely a pretty cool story here, what with Peggy's interesting turn in circumstances. And Peggy herself is pretty inspiring, the way she takes on a mess of a kingdom (financially) and finds ways to give her people a better life, even at the expense of her own personal financial comfort. But something just wasn't quite there for me in the writing. Something about it felt too simplistic and detached. At times it felt more like I was reading a term paper rather than a full fledged biography. Given the fact Eleanor Herman actually spent time in Otuam with King Peggy, getting to know the community and this bio's key players, I was disappointed with the quality of writing, the flatness much of it had. But like I said, a pretty cool story when you take just the facts in... a story that I could see possibly making a pretty fun biopic someday.