Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ghanaian King is Washington, DC Secretary

From today's Washington Post:
Peggielene Bartels lives in Silver Spring and works as a secretary. When she steps off an airplane in Ghana on Thursday, arriving in the coastal town her family has controlled for half a century, she will be royalty -- with a driver, a chef and an eight-bedroom palace, albeit one in need of repairs she will help finance herself.

"I'm a big-time king, you know," said Bartels, seated at her desk at the Ghanaian embassy just off Van Ness Street NW, where she has worked for almost 30 years.

In the humdrum of ordinary life, people periodically yearn for something unexpected, some kind of gilded escape, delivered, perhaps, by an unanticipated inheritance or a winning lottery ticket.

In Bartels's case, that moment arrived 15 months ago. The phone in her condominium awoke her at 4 a.m.

"Hello, Nana," said the overseas caller -- a relative, as it turned out -- employing a title Ghanaians use to refer to people of stature, from kings and queens to grandparents.

"What you mean, 'Nana?' " answered Bartels, 55, who has no grandchildren -- or children, for that matter. Her husband lives overseas. She thought the call was a prank.

The 90-year-old king of Otuam, a town of 7,000 residents an hour's drive from Ghana's capital, had just died, the caller said. The king, as it happened, was Bartels's uncle. The town elders had performed a ritual to choose his successor, praying and pouring schnapps on the ground and waiting for steam to rise as they announced the names of 25 relatives. The steam would signify which name the ancestors had blessed as the new king.

Bartels, the caller said, was Otuam's new Nana, with power to resolve disputes, appoint elders and manage more than 1,000 acres of family-owned land
It turns out that my Facebook friend Eleanor Herman is writing a book about her:
The king already has a biographer, Eleanor Herman, a historian whose published works include, "Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge," and "Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics." Herman met Bartels at a reception at the Ghanaian embassy and became intrigued when Bartels described herself as a secretary, but added, "I'm also a king."

"A king of what?" the writer asked.

That led to a lunch, and more lunches, and now Herman is accompanying the king to Otuam. "You have an average human being who suddenly finds herself in a position of power," Herman said. "It's a story that brings into play all the human elements of life: you have power, she's going to have deal with male chauvinism, there may be cases of greed. How is she going to change it?"