How This Woman Became King (And Rebuilt a Village in the Process).

What's the Big Idea?

Peggielene Bartels was an administrative assistant in Washington D.C. when she got a phone call informing her she’d been elected King of Otuam, the Ghanian fishing village where she was born. 

Her uncle had died in the middle of the night, and sacred rituals revealed that she would be the next leader of Otuam. The call was particularly shocking for two reasons: before the death of her uncle, she’d only ever been to her hometown as a visitor, accompanying her mother on family reunions. If she accepted, she would also be the first woman in the village to be King.

Which is why village officials never actually thought she’d try to serve. They’d intended to rule in her name, she told Big Think in a recent interview. They’d underestimated her. She flew to Ghana as soon as possible, and was surprised to find the community’s infrastructure in ruins. Government corruption was rampant, and villagers had no access to running water. “When I went first, it was really a battle,” she told Big Think in a recent interview.

What's the Significance?

“With my little resources being a secretary, I tried as much as possible to renovate [the palace], because I had my uncle in the morgue at that time and there was no where I would be able to bury him. I struggled hard. I was doing part-time jobs here and there to subsidize my income.” For months, she commuted back and forth between life in Otuam and life in D.C., her work as a secretary and her work as a leader.

Why not call herself queen? In Ghanian society, Queen Mothers have no decision-making power. They monitor the wellbeing of women and children and report back to the King. So Bartels decided to call herself King. If she was a queen, she’d have to “go and see things, for instance, the water part, where I saw the children going to get water 5:00 in the morning and they go to school sleeping, and I just come back to the king and say, listen, we have to do something about this thing. We have to go and solicit for funds to help the town. There is no running water, the children are suffering and the hospitals are really bad.”

But she’d have to say to the king, “you know, take your time to do it, it means I’m going to fight the king all the time and that makes me lousy queen. Now that I’m really a king, it really helps me to be able to have the personality that I have to help the people, and that's why I’m really happy.” Which is why Bartels believes she’d have made a lousy queen.

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