Mel Brooks once quipped, “It’s good to be the king.” He might have thought twice if he’d encountered the overwhelming challenges that Peggielene Bartels faced, which she recounts with the help of writer Eleanor Herman in King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village (Doubleday, $26).
Four years ago, Bartels was a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy in Washington, D.C., when a 4 a.m. phone call changed her life: A cousin back home in Ghana rang to inform her she’d been selected as the new king of Otuam, her impoverished village along the Atlantic coast. “I thought it was a prank,” Bartels tells American Way.
But it was no prank. So in September 2008, she returned to Otuam for the first time in 13 years for her coronation. She found Otuam in dire straits: ramshackle roads, a crumbling palace, poor schools and no clean water for the 7,000 residents. And the male village elders who were supposed to advise her not only ignored her, they continued to drain the town coffers dry.
“They thought by having a woman king, I would sit down and listen to them tell me what I should do,” says Bartels, 59. “But I turned around and said, ‘No. You don’t rule me; I rule you.’ ”
During monthlong visits over the course of three years, Bartels comes into her own as king. Readers can’t help but cheer for and admire the determined ruler as she overcomes the elders’ shockingly devious ways and finds allies to come to her — and her people’s — aid. “I am so proud of what I’ve achieved for my people within a few years that my predecessors just couldn’t get done,” she says now.
On the book’s cover, Bartels is pictured wearing her sparkling golden crown. But it’s her proud smile that glows the brightest. “I look at that picture,” she says, “and I think, ‘This is a woman that is on a mission.’ ”