King Peggy : An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village
The charming real-life fairy tale of an American secretary who discovers she has been chosen king of an impoverished fishing village on the west coast of Africa. King Peggy has the sweetness and quirkiness of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series and the hopeful sense of possibility of Half the Sky.
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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February 21, 2012
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Excerpt from King Peggy by Peggielene Bartels
1 Is the king dead? Peggielene Bartels wondered as she stood in the small mail room off the lobby, rubbing her thumbs across the front of the envelope, the ugly red stamp--�undeliverable--�splayed across the blue ink of 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 opened his mailbox, but Peggy just kept staring at the letter.
Uncle Joseph was her mother's brother, and for twenty-�five years he had been king of Otuam, a community of seven thousand souls where Peggy's family had originated hundreds of years earlier. Periodically, when she had returned to Ghana to visit her mother, the two of them would drive to Otuam to see Uncle Joseph, known there by his royal title Nana Amuah Afenyi V.
The king of Otuam was a tall man with heavy-�lidded eyes, the lower lids revealing a great deal of white below the iris. He had been director of all the prisons in Accra, Ghana's capital. In 1983 at the age of sixty-�seven, he had retired and, upon the unexpected death of his sixty-�three-�year-�old cousin, Nana Amuah Afenyi IV, was chosen the new king.
Peggy remembered Uncle Joseph as a gentle, smiling man who never raised his voice. A man always ready to forgive. A man everybody liked. Sometimes Peggy wondered how such a man could be a king when kings were supposed to be tough and strong. If she had been in his position, she wasn't sure she would have been so kind. She wouldn't have cared if some people disliked her as long as she was a good king, punishing evildoers who took advantage of the weak.
The last time she had seen Uncle Joseph was at her mother's funeral in 1997. He had arrived at her mother's home in Takoradi with a group of his elders, a kindness that even in her overwhelming grief Peggy had appreciated. 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 the money to her uncle out of respect. It was only one hundred dollars a month, but it went a long way in a Ghanaian town where many people lived on a dollar a day. And Peggy knew that even though Uncle Joseph was a king, he was not rich. His palace was falling down around his head, with a leaking roof and mildewed walls begging for spackling and fresh paint. And she worried that he might need medicine.
He had been grateful for the money, and the two had kept in touch in the eleven years since her mother's passing. Earlier that year--�had it been January?--�he had had a stroke and been hospitalized, but he had seemed to be recuperating. She had spoken to him on his cell phone now and then during his months-�long stay in the hospital in Accra, and someone had picked up his mail for him at his post office box in Winneba, the city nearest to Otuam with mail service.
But for the past three months, her letters had come bouncing back. Nor had he collected her Western Union wire transfers. She had tried calling Uncle Joseph on his cell phone, but it was disconnected. How old would he be now? Ninety? No, ninety-�two.
Truth be told, if he was dead she probably wouldn't hear 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.
When they said, He'll be in the village a long time. He won't be coming back anytime soon, that's when you knew he had died.
But a king's elders didn't even say that right after the king died. They waited for weeks, even months after his death, before they said he wouldn't be coming back anytime soon from the village.
The funny thing was that at a king's funeral, the embalmed body sitting stiffly on a royal chair, even then nobody talked about him as dead. People said, We hope the king is getting a good cure in the village, but we probably won't see him for a good while.
How had this strange custom started? Peggy wondered. Maybe kingship raised kings above mere mortals, rendering it disrespectful to talk about them as dead or dying like the rest of humanity, just as royalty wasn't supposed to be seen eating and drinking in public or running off to the toilet. Perhaps it was because kings, even after death, were thought to still rule over their kingdoms from the Asamando, the place of good ancestors.
Or maybe it was because the villagers, knowing the king was dead, would start to misbehave. Especially the men, she thought, because it was well known that men misbehaved a lot, drinking and fighting and beating their wives. So it was better if they didn't know for sure where the king was, and whether he would be coming back to punish them for their bad behavior. This tradition kept misbehaving men in line, and in this world of misbehaving men anything that kept them in line was a good thing.
Peggy roused herself from her reverie and walked to the elevator. The doors opened and she stepped inside, still staring at the letter. Well, she figured, if Uncle Joseph was in the village for good somebody would call her. She had dozens of close cousins in Ghana, and though none of them lived in Otuam they had an informal network of gossip and news that eventually reached everybody. Indeed, gossiping cousins seemed to be the liveliest form of communication throughout Africa.
Stepping out on her floor, she walked down the long narrow corridor to her one-�bedroom condo and unlocked the door. For years she had saved money for a down payment, for the chance to own property and have her slice of the American dream. She would never forget the enormous pride she felt at the settlement a year earlier when she realized she actually owned her own place. It was in an old building from about 1960 shaped like a giant block with hundreds of units and a laundry room in the basement. It wasn't in Washington, D.C., but in the less expensive suburb of Silver Spring, just north of the Maryland line. Still, the condo was hers.
The down payment, closing costs, renovations: Peggy knew before she made the deal that the costs would wipe her out. "Property values are rising rapidly," the real estate agent had told her with a smooth smile. "Once you redo the kitchen and bathroom your unit will be worth more. Then you can refinance and get a load of cash back."
But as soon as she had bought the place and made the improvements real estate values plummeted. Almost immediately, Peggy owed more to the bank than the condo was worth. Then they raised her monthly condo fee by $150. Old buildings like hers, she was told, needed a lot of maintenance.
Because she didn't earn much working as a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy, for the past few years she had supplemented her income by working Saturdays and Sundays as a receptionist at a local nursing home. Working seven days a week also filled up the pockets of time that would otherwise have been empty.
Periodically she asked someone to cover for her at the nursing home so she could sell Ghanaian art and handicrafts at weekend expos and church bazaars, which brought in much more money than her hourly wage. But as the U.S. economy began to tank, her African art customers became more careful in their spending. Sometimes she sat there all day and didn't sell a single thing, and the booth space cost her hundreds of dollars. Soon she stopped going altogether.