Monday, April 12, 2010

The Woman King

Her name is Peggielene Bartels, age 55. She lives in Silver Springs, Maryland, and works as a secretary in the Ghanaian Embassy. Only, now she has a second name, and a second job, back in her home country, where she hasn’t lived since the late 1970s. Ms Bartels was recently dubbed Nana Amuah Afenyi VI, King of Otuam, Ghana, an oceanside village of 7,000 fishermen, farmers and merchants.

That’s right, I wrote “king.” In Otuam, a person of either gender can become King—though, up until now the concept of a woman ruler has only been theoretical. The Washington Post recently featured a story about Ms Bartels, documenting her travels from the United States back to her home community, where she was gazetted (anointed/crowned) and accepted her place as King.

At the headline level, the tale seems simply exciting and quirky. A woman king. Looking deeper, the fact that the community had no different name for a woman ruler could be seen either as a mark of true gender equity, or a mark of extreme patriarchy. I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore which it was, because Peggielene Bartels is in power now, for better or worse.

Scratch that—it’s definitely better. In her first year as King, Ms. Bartels confronted corruption and embezzlement within the circle of elders, creating bank accounts and financial transparency. She appointed a new circle of advisors to the King, including younger men and several women. She treated the village men with heavy-handed authority, so they would not view her as weak, and treated the women with gentle compassion, because they understood that. “I don’t have to be so tough with women,” she said of the difference.

Robed in traditional Ghanaian garments, she returned to her life and work in the U.S., prepared to look after her Otuam community from afar, raising funds and implementing programs to improve the quality of life for everyone there.

If anyone still doubts that women leaders can make the world a better place, Peggielene Bartels is out to prove them wrong.

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