March 15, 2010


All the King's Men: As the first female ruler of Otuam, Ghana, Peggielene Bartels has had to deal with a legacy of corruption -- and no shortage of sexism (Eleanor Herman, March 14, 2010, Washington Post Magazine)

Last fall, Peggielene Bartels was on the way to Agona Swedru, a market town about 1 hours from the fishing village of Otuam, in Ghana. Bartels, who is a secretary and lives in Silver Spring, wanted to buy new beads and sandals for the "gazetting" ceremony that would enhance her status as king. After the proceedings, and with the news published in the local gazette, she would be backed by other gazetted kings, adding huge heft to her power. Although it is possible for a woman to be a Ghanaian king, as the title refers to the person who wields executive power over a tribe or community regardless of gender, it is unusual.

As a historian, I had come to Ghana with Bartels to follow her story. Gazing out the window as our taxi careened over potholes, I saw such enterprises as the By the Grace of God Brake and Clutch Center, the Jesus is our Savior Beer and Wine Pub, the Forget Your Wife Chop House and the Thanks Be to God Toilet Facilities.

Up ahead, there was a police checkpoint. The taxi rolled to a halt, and the officer asked the driver to show his license. In the front passenger seat, Bartels's cousin leaned toward the officer, smiling. "This is the king of Otuam," he said, gesturing to the back seat, where Bartels was wearing the robe of a king. In Ghana, the police routinely wave dignitaries through roadblocks.

The officer glanced at the driver's license. "This has expired!" he said, waving it. "This is a very serious infraction."

"But it isn't -- " the driver said.

"Stop being rude! You should not contradict me," the officer interrupted.

Sighing, the driver opened his wallet and pulled out several colorful bills.

Bartels leaned forward and snatched the driver's license from the policeman's hand. "Expiration date 2013!" she said. "What is this nonsense? His license is not expired. You are trying to extort a bribe from him. I am the lady king of Otuam, and I will not put up with this. I am going to tell the president of Ghana about you. What is your name? Show me your ID!"

The officer stuttered an apology. He had misread the expiration date on the driver's license, he said. He saluted Bartels respectfully and waved her on, hoping she would go.

"These ridiculous men really have no idea who they're dealing with," Bartels said. [...]

Bartels's organizational skills and decades of administrative experience are greatly admired in Otuam. For one thing, she is literate, which many of the elders are not. She knows computers, having received a diploma from Strayer University in computer information systems. She has lived in the United States since 1979, when she was offered an embassy job during a visit, and has faced daily challenges they can't even imagine.

Armed with such an impressive résumé, Bartels is a symbol of hope to younger residents. Twenty-five-year-old Kweku Acheampong, a student, asked for a private audience with her, with no elders at the table. Acheampong was tall and muscular with golden brown skin, alert eyes and a trim moustache. He came with nine friends in tow.

Acheampong stood respectfully and cleared his throat. "We have been waiting for you," he said. "We have been waiting for years. Why do you think this town has no water? Why is there no library? No Internet? Why does the elementary school have no toilet, and 250 kids use the bushes? Why are our roads so bad? Why does our clinic have only nurses and not a single doctor? Why can we not move forward? It is because the elders have been stealing the town's funds, so there is no money for development. That's why! This must change."

Acheampong continued: "We, the youth of Otuam, want to make sure it will change! We stand behind you as our king. You are young, you are American, and you are a woman. The ancestors sent you here to change things. We want to join your council of elders to make sure no more money is stolen." His companions grunted in approval.

"You are right," Bartels replied. "I will get to the bottom of the corruption and appoint some of you to the council to collect the fishing and farming fees. Now that I have been gazetted, it is time to get serious about this."

Bartels summoned the elders to attend a meeting with the heads of Otuam's four main fishing enterprises. The subject: whether any fishing fees had been paid, and if so, to whom. As I sat again in the corner with my interpreter, Bartels's chief priest, Kwesi Amissah, known by his title of tsiami, showed up. The 77-year-old pineapple farmer was short and wiry, his skin tightly drawn over angular bones.

The other 14 elders were missing.

The female fishmonger, 47-year-old Dzadi Yatu, gave her report first. She was plump and pretty in an ankle-length, pale green linen dress with puffed sleeves. "Your elder Uncle Moses has gone through the fishing village collecting fees with Tsiami at his side," she said. "After the old king's death last year, I paid Uncle Moses and Tsiami 3.5 million cedis." That's about $250.

Uncle Moses Acquah was one of the no-shows, but Bartels launched into Tsiami, who was slumped miserably in his chair. "Did you take those fishing fees?" she asked angrily.

Tsiami shrugged his skinny shoulders and looked straight ahead. "You know," he said, "I'm so old, I actually can't remember."

"You know I paid you that money!" Yatu cried. "You are a liar!"

"Stop insulting me!" Tsiami replied, his dander up now. "It is disrespectful of the ancestors to insult a tsiami."

"Disrespectful of the ancestors?" Bartels asked. "My chief priest, who holds the ancestral libations in one hand and steals money from the town with the other! You have shown disrespect to the ancestors! I wouldn't be surprised if they killed you. You may drop dead very soon!"

Tsiami shrank back into his chair. "It's not just me," he said. "Why blame me? Almost all of the council is involved. Why do you think they're not here? Investigate the others."

"Tsiami," Bartels asked, "do you people think you can cheat me because I am a woman? Like you cheated the dead king in the fridge because he was old?"

Tsiami was wounded. "Why are you doing this?" he said petulantly. "You are trying to scrutinize our asses."

Bartels turned on him with fire in her eyes and said, "That's right! Big, small, medium-sized, short and tall asses, I will scrutinize them all! I will stick my head up there with a flashlight! Be prepared!"

Tsiami slapped his baseball cap on his head and departed for his pineapple fields. After hearing additional reports from the fishing bosses, Bartels dismissed them and summoned Uncle Moses. At 73, he wore glasses, and had a wide nose and a straggly gray moustache.

"The fishermen say they have paid you large sums of money since the death of the late king who is in the fridge," she told him.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he replied. "Which fishermen?"

"You know very well which fishermen. And I have news for you. This corrupt system is going to change!" she cried, banging her fist on the table and sloshing their beers. "Change has come to America, and I have come from America to bring change to Otuam! I am the Obama of this place!"

"You have lived in the U.S. so long that you have become a white woman," Uncle Moses scoffed.

"Uncle Moses, I am a white woman," she said crisply, "and I am also a man and a king. Never forget that. Now, did you receive fees from fishermen?"

Uncle Moses shifted uncomfortably. He seemed about to speak and then closed his mouth. Finally, he said: "All right. I will go outside to pee, and when I return we can discuss it."

Bartels nodded. "Go ahead," she said. "I'll be waiting."

Uncle Moses ambled out the door and into the bushes. We waited. It took a long time to realize that Uncle Moses wasn't coming back.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 15, 2010 6:42 PM
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