Before being chosen as ruler of her Ghanaian hometown, King Peggy was merely Peggielene Bartels, secretary.
Before being chosen as ruler of her Ghanaian hometown, King Peggy was merely Peggielene Bartels, secretary.

By Stephanie Siek, CNN

(CNN) – Imagine receiving a call in the middle of the night, announcing that you had been elected ruler of a hometown you had never lived in, only visited. Now imagine that town is on another continent, thousands of miles away.

That scenario became real for Peggielene Bartels, who was chosen to become nana, or king, of her home village of Otuam, Ghana in 2008. Lady King Peggy, as she is known, was the niece of the late king, but never dreamed that she was even in the running – after all, Otuam had never had a female ruler.

But as a blood relative of the previous king, her name was one on a list of 25 who were eligible for the position. Rituals intended to divine the will of her ancestors indicated that she was their choice. Elders had poured a cup of alcohol to the ground, while saying the names of the candidates. When her name was called, the liquid steamed instead of soaking into the ground – a clear sign that she was the chosen leader. Not long after that came the phone call that changed her life.

Now she’s telling her story in a recently released autobiography, “King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village,” written with Eleanor Herman.

Both of King Peggy’s parents came from Otuam, but she was born in the nearby city of Cape Coast in 1953. Her parents took her back for visits to their village, but King Peggy herself had never lived there. In 1975, she immigrated to theUnited States, and became a citizen in 1997.

When she was chosen, she was working as a secretary at the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington,D.C.– and she still works there, every weekday, from 8:30 a.m to 3:30 p.m. She spends several weeks each year in Otuam, but communicates daily with her regent, a cousin who takes care of the village’s day-to-day affairs.

King Peggy’s life in America hasn’t changed very much – she still lives in the same one-bedroom condo in Silver Spring, Maryland, does her own cooking and cleaning, and she still drives her old car – a 1992 Honda Accord.

“It’s a very good car. It’s my first car, and I love it so much!” King Peggy said, speaking during a stop in Minneapolis on her national book tour. “I may get a new car, but I don’t know when.”

Since becoming nana, she has implemented a number of improvements in Otuam, founding a nonprofit community development corporation, building wells for better access to clean water, and partnering with her church in Maryland, the Shiloh Baptist Church of Landover, to fund charitable projects. She rebuilt the royal palace, which had fallen into such disrepair during the previous king’s reign that no one lived in it. She also plans to build a free library, get more schoolbooks for the local students, and improve the local clinic.

CNN: What is your next big project as king?

King Peggy: My next big project is to raise funds for my charitable organization and bring about an ambulance. And to bring about toilets and a computer lab for the school – they don’t have a computer lab in the school, and now we are in the age of computers. We need to have those in the schools. These are the things I want to help them with.

CNN: There are many first generation Americans living in the United States who have African parents – do you think they have an obligation to help their parents’ country?

King Peggy: For example, you may be from Ghana, if you were born here, and if you can feel that you’ve been blessed with a lot of things in the United States, you may want to help. But I think it’s an individual preference. 

They (expatriate Africans) help them a lot – whenever they send money home they help the economy. And some of the African people (living abroad) even collect supplies, they have a group whereby they collect things and send them to the hospitals and to the other villages where they’re from. I know that for a fact – I know people from Ghana, who collect things like hospital beds, medicines, and send them home to the place where they were born.

CNN: Has there ever been a time when you wish you weren’t king? 

King Peggy: To be honest with you, I’ve never had this frustration…I’m able to bring about too many things for my town. I never feel that I wish I wouldn’t be king. It has really transformed me in that I can help my people. It has never crossed my mind yet, and I hope it doesn’t.

CNN: And finally, a fun question: which actress should play you in a movie based on your life?

King Peggy: I wouldn’t mind having Queen Latifah to play me. I’ve read a little bit about her, I love her, and she also has done a lot to inspire and to help people in her community, people who watch her movies. She has a way of inspiring people. She is a very good actress and a level headed woman, and I would like her to play me. And I think we have a resemblance.