When Peggielene Bartels went to bed on a summer night in 2008, she was an ordinary administrative assistant living in a modest one-bedroom condo just outside Washington D.C.
But a few hours later, when a persistent ringing phone woke her up in the dead of the August night, the 55-year-old found out she was much more than simply a secretary.
At the other end of the line was Bartels’s cousin, from Otuam, a small fishing village on the coast of Ghana. Excited and humble, he congratulated her on being the new king of Otuam.
“I said, ‘listen, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning in the U.S., I am very tired, let me sleep,’” remembers Bartels. “I thought he was trying to really play games with me.”
But this was no time for games.
The previous king of Otuam, who was Bartels’s uncle, had just died. The village elders, who remembered Bartels from the times she’d visited with her mother, had decided to anoint her as their new ruler.
After the initial shock, Bartels decided to accept the kingship. Over the course of a few days, she went from being plain old Peggielene Bartels, who had worked for nearly three decades at the Ghanaian Embassy in the United States, to becoming King Peggy — the first female king of Otuam, reigning over approximately 7,000 people.
“It never ever occurred to me [that I’d be Otuam’s king],” says Bartels, who’s been living in the United States since her early 20s. “I realized that on this earth, we all have a calling. We have to be ready to accept it because helping my people has really helped me a lot to know that I can really touch their lives,” she adds. “I would have really regretted it if I hadn’t really accept this calling.”
Although she still works at the Ghanaian Embassy, Bartels uses all her holiday every year to spend a month in Otuam.
King is the traditional title of Otuam’s ruler, and Bartels says she’s happy to be called a king, rather than queen, because it means she can achieve more.
“Most of the time, a king is the one who has all the executive power to do things, while the queen is mostly in charge of the children’s affairs and reporting to the king,” she says. “So I really love this.”
King Peggy was born in Takoradi, southern Ghana, in 1953. She studied in England before moving to the United States, where she became an American citizen in 1997.
But after inheriting the throne, Bartels has been living two very different lives in two different continents.
In Washington, her secretarial duties include typing letters, answering phone calls and booking appointments. In her little apartment her life is far removed from the luxuries of her royal roots.
“When I am in the United States I do everything by myself,” she explains. “I do my own laundry, I do my own cooking, I do my own driving and I do my own bed when I wake up in the morning.”
But back in Ghana, she stands out as a gold crown-wearing, scepter-holding king who lives in a refurbished palace. Otuam residents usually address her as “Nana” — an honorary title given to royalty but also to women with grandchildren — and bow when they see her.
“When I am back home they see me as their king and they want to pamper me,” she says.
“They have to cook for me, they have to carry me around and they have to protect me from people. They want to do everything for me which I usually refuse … Sometimes I say to them ‘please, don’t bow.’ I just want them to be free and comfortable so that way we can really address issues.”
But beyond the bows, the royal attire and certain luxuries that come with her title, being a king in an impoverished place like Otuam is all about dealing with the pressing needs of the community and improving the lives of the people, says Bartels.
“To be a king in an African village or some places like this, it’s not like European queens where everything is on a silver platter for them,” she says. “I have to really work hard to help my people. I have to give myself to people to better their lives.”
In the last few years, she’s helped poor families pay school fees for their children and brought computers to classrooms. With the help of other Americans she’s also provided Otuam with its first ambulance, as well as access to clean, running water. Her next priority, she says, is to bring state-of-the-art toilets to Otuam.
And even when she’s not in Ghana, her royal duties do not stop; she wakes up at 1am every morning to call Otuam and be informed about what’s happening in the community.
“I talk to my regent, I talk to my elders,” Bartels says. “If there is something that I want to know, they tell me. If there is something that I want them to do, I tell them.”
Last year, King Peggy’s real-life fairy tale was documented in a book written by her and author Eleanor Herman. And now she says her amazing life journey from secretary to king will be told in a film, after Hollywood star Will Smith bought the rights to the book.
“Next year, God willing, we are going to have a movie out there,” says King Peggy. “Queen Latifah is going to play me and I’m so happy to at least let the whole world know that a secretary can become a king and lead wisely and help the people.”