In Washington, D.C., Peggielene Bartels is a Secretary. In Ghana, She's a King.

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by Phoebe Connelly

Peggielene Bartels was a secretary until a 4 a.m. phone call turned her into royalty.

King Peggy celebrates the Otuam village Harvest Festival with town elders. She makes an annual commute from her home in Washington, D.C. Photo via .

Peggielene Bartels may be a king, but staring at her wrecked 1992 Honda, she didn’t feel like one. After a severe storm struck the Washington, D.C. area last summer, Bartels found her 20-year-old car crushed by a tree. “I mourned,” Bartels admits. “My neighbors heard me and came outside to gather around me. That car had driven me through so much.”

What’s a king doing pining for a used car? And why is she living in the United States? And wait, aren’t kings usually men? Clearly, Peggielene Bartels isn’t your average monarch.

A Fateful Phone Call

Nearly five years ago, Bartels was startled out of bed by a 4 a.m. phone call. When the person on the other end informed her that she’d just been named King of Otuam, a village of 7,000 on Ghana’s coast, it felt like a dream.

The call wasn’t as random as it sounds. “King Peggy” hails from a royal line that has ruled the Otuam village for more than 200 years. Her uncle held the post last, and before he passed, he named Bartels his preferred successor. His niece, after all, was well-educated, younger than 60, and blessed with good character—all integral to the post.

But there were hurdles. In Otuam, kings are elected by a council of town elders, and Bartels’s sex proved to be the first barrier. Although “king” is a gender-neutral title in Ghana, there had been only two female kings before her in the country’s entire history. Otuam needed a leader, and the elders questioned a woman’s abilities to tackle the village’s mounting problems. There was also the cultural divide. At the time of her selection, Bartels had resided in the U.S. for nearly 30 years; she hadn’t lived in Ghana since she was a teen, and the elders worried about her distance from the daily ins and outs of village life.

Bartels had concerns of her own. She had a full-time job as a secretary at the Ghanaian embassy—one she knew she’d have to keep for financial purposes (being king of Otuam doesn’t command a salary). More importantly, she knew that ruling a village from across the ocean would be difficult. It took meditation and prayer and even a consult with her boss to convince Bartels to accept her fairy tale destiny.

A few weeks after saying yes, King Peggy traveled to Ghana for her coronation. “Being a village king means you are entrusted with the responsibility of your community,” Bartels says. In Otuam, that translates to a mix of mayor, diplomat, and chief development officer. And while she was up for the task, a survey of the kingdom proved bracing. Tax collection had ranged from inconsistent to nonexistent for years. Village funds had been pilfered by local elders. There was no running water. Otuam didn’t even have a high school. Or a library. Or a doctor. Even her royal house was in disrepair, with crumbling walls and stacks of building materials littering the yard. The king had her work cut out for her.

Before she could roll up her royal sleeves, however, Bartels was treated to the other extreme. Despite the village’s apparent insolvency, tradition dictated that her coronation be an opulent affair. The council draped King Peggy in gold rings and bracelets before adorning her with a gold crown, albeit one that was too big. “I had to have one made that fit my head,” she says, laughing about the experience.

When the festivities ended, Bartels headed back to Washington where she still works as a secretary—setting up coffee for embassy meetings, typing letters, and handling administrative matters for the ambassador. The crown she wears is a gold-plated replica, one she commissioned specifically for travel. “How would you explain it if a suitcase with the royal crown was lost?” she asks. Meanwhile, Bartels keeps tabs on her kingdom by relying on a network of advisers who oversee day-to-day matters. She has delegated responsibilities like tax collection and infrastructure improvement to those she trusts, and she communicates with her subjects every day.

Each September, Bartels makes the commute back to Otuam for the anniversary of her enthronement and to check in on her projects. “I would love someday to move back, but the time is not right. I can do more from the United States—organizing charities and raising money—than I can do from Ghana,” she says. And what she’s done is remarkable.

The Commuter King

Since taking control of Otuam in 2008, Bartels has been a tornado of transatlantic productivity. She has improved the kingdom’s schools and set up a sponsorship program with a church in Maryland that’s committed to paying for the education, through college, of 30 Ghanaian children. She has planned for and constructed three borehole wells to provide fresh running water for the village, with two more on the way. She’s established a bank that supports local agriculture. And she’s even saving money from her secretarial job to renovate her palace.

Bartels feels that being a woman allows her to bring a unique energy and dedication to the traditionally masculine role of king. But her commitment comes from a deeper place; Bartels views her kingdom as the family she couldn’t have. As a younger woman, she dreamed of a house filled with children—at least 10 of them. She and her husband tried fertility treatments but were unable to conceive. The frustrations caused her marriage to dissolve.

Today, King Peggy is focusing her maternal instincts on her village. She looks up to Queen Elizabeth, calling her “a woman who knows what she wants.” And she draws inspiration from Hillary Clinton.

To that end, King Peggy has made great strides in improving the lives of and opportunities for young women. Because schooling in the region stops at ninth grade, students who wish to further their studies must travel to other cities. Furthermore, many young women have their studies cut short by unwanted pregnancies. By allowing women to pursue an education closer to home, Bartels hopes to decrease the teen pregnancy rate and teach them to dream bigger. “We need to teach them to respect themselves. That sex can wait until they have become their own person,” she says. Of her hopes for the throne, she says, “I would like a woman to be the next king. Women are passionate.”

A King's Sacrifices

As rewarding as Bartels’s work in Otuam has been, being king comes with trade-offs. She no longer wears earrings. (“Kings simply don’t,” she explains.) Nor can she eat or drink in public, which is how she met the coauthor of her autobiography. Eleanor Herman spotted Bartels standing alone at an embassy party, and after she tried to bring the king a plate, the two struck up a conversation.

“I can’t indulge in girls’ nonsense with my women friends as I used to,” Bartels says. She admits she misses the fun of her previous life. Since accepting the crown, she’s lost friends—women and men alike who’ve drifted away as Bartels has juggled the responsibilities of her title. And she acknowledges that controlling her temper has been a challenge. “I can no longer get angry. A king does not argue. I must listen and extend respect and then continue on.”

But her life has greater purpose now, and those are sacrifices Bartels is happy to make.

Someday, King Peggy will find herself living in Otuam full time. Until then, she’ll continue working at the embassy and driving herself around D.C. Today, she drives a Volvo, but she still misses her Honda, a reliable, steady companion. “I’d record a commercial for Honda. That was a good car,” she says. Kings—brand-loyal, just like the rest of us.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue on your tablet!