Sept. 25 was the day of Bartels’s gazetting in the hall of kings in a town called Essuehyia, about a half-hour’s drive from Otuam. Under the arcade of a nearby building, Bartels and her entourage waited on platic chairs while another local king was gazetted.
The royal dresser, a plump middle-age woman, adorned Bartels with necklaces, rings, anklets and braclets. On her head, she set a crown of maroon-colored velvet, decorated with gold-painted wooden stars and crecents. Bartels applied heavy eyeliner and then, studying herself in the hand mirror, said approvingly, “I look tough.”
Bartels’s dresser ground a rock onto a smooth stone palette and added a bit of water to make a paste. Then she took the top of a perfume bottle with a perfectly round edge, dipped it in the paste, and applied it to Bartels’ arms, chest, and shoulders, leaving pale circular shapes.
“Myrrh,” Bartels said. “It wards off devils.”
When she was finally summoned, Bartels proceeded into the hall of kings under the official red, royal umbrella. Inside, about 30 kings were seated on a platform. On one side of the hall, musicians pounded royal drums and blew shrill blasts on cow horns. After some speeches, we walked to a doorway where moments before our arrival a goat had been slaughtered. Its blood glowed eerily on the floor. The council’s chief priest anointed Bartels’s forehead and neck with schnapps as the chief of the council congratulated her.
After the ceremony, Bartels was led to a tiny office to fill out paperwork: name, address, date of brith and so on. For occupation, she wrote, “secretary”.
Peggielene Bartels, 55, has been a secretary at the Embassy of Ghana for more than 30 years. She is separated and has no children and lives in a one-bedroom condo.
Bartels had never even lived in Otuam, but was born and raised in Cape Coast, a large city in Ghana about 90 minutes away. Bartels’s father had been a railway engineer, her mother – the late king’s sister – a shop owner. True, Bartels had visited her Otuam relatives from time to time, even after she left Ghana, in Western Africa, in 1975. But she had become a U.S. citizen in 1997. Nothing had ever led her to believe she had the slightest chance of becoming Otuam’s king. Going back for centuries, all the kings had been men.
Bartels’s uncle had been the king of Otuam, and when he died in 2008 at the age of 90, Otuam’s elders consulted genealogical records, discussed which of the king’s relatives had the characteristics required to rule, and came up with a list of 25 candidates. Bartels was the only woman. Then the chief priest poured libations of schnapps to the ancestors, intoning each of the names. When Bartels’s name was called, the schnapps, instead of sinking in the ground, steamed up – a clear indication of divine approval.
A relative of Bartels’s called her in the middle of the night with the news. “Congratulations!” he said. “You are the new king.”