Friday, October 11, 2013

Peggielene Bartels: A modern-day servant king

This week I checked out the kindle version of "King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village."

King Peggy and her co-author Eleanor Herman
I devoured this book via the Kindle app on my phone -- mostly at midnight while nursing baby Ollie-- in about three days. It's an easy read and an engaging tale of an unassuming naturalized American who works tirelessly as a secretary in the Ghanaian Ambassador's office. Peggy has few friends and spends her evenings "not watching the news" as she eats her take out meals on the couch. Because it keeps her from dwelling on past heartbreak and unfulfilled dreams, the long hours and tedium don't bother Peggy. Then one day she gets a phone call that gives her a chance to shake up her monotonous life and redeem her destiny. The voice on the other line is a distant cousin, with news that her mother's brother, the king of the small fishing village of Otuam, has "gone into the village to cure himself" for good and that she has been chosen as the late king's successor.

Peggy's seemingly insurmountable struggle to bring clean water, education and financial stability to her hometown -- all on a shoestring secretary's salary and in the grinning faces of her corrupt elder council-- is a huge feat that inspires and empowers. Her story, reported in the news before this book was published, had in fact empowered churches and individuals to contribute to Peggy's many causes.

I love that the protagonist of this story had such pure motives despite being elevated to the level of royalty. She took on the post not to be somebody, but to do something, even to the ruination of her perfect credit and the complete draining of her bank account. She wanted to make changes that would do the most good for the most people- such as installing new public bore holes to provide the town with fresh water.

The book also provides a window into African life, which I knew very little about. People in Peggy's part of Ghana are content to wile away the hot hours in conversation, eat a diet of fish and fresh vegetables, and do hard physical labor well into their 70s and 80s. It made me long for a little bit of slow paced simplicity that characterizes her fishing town. Peggy's observations on the Ghanaian and American cultures were insightful-- especially her musing about Americans' obsession with electronic devices rendering us isolated and unable to communicate with each other. (Oh the irony as I read and am reviewing this book on my iPhone) Also eye-opening was the book's portrayal of Ghanaian family culture: close knit, loyal and peace-seeking. However, the extent of the corrupt and chauvinistic culture revealed throughout the story made me glad to be in America after all.

As an Evangelical Christian, I was keenly interested in the book's portrayal of Peggy's blended religion. The locals (and at times Peggy) blend animism with ancestor worship and Christianity in their daily life.  For example, Peggy often prays to God and to Jesus, but she's also in the habit of praying to her beloved late mother, often asking her to put in a good word to Jesus for her. In order to curry favor with the ancestors, Peggy pours libations on her condo's floor with enough regularity that the wood stain begins to seep up and stain her light colored carpet. To be honest, some of her superstitious beliefs and inspiring yet spooky encounters with the spirit world made me squirm a little. But overall, I came away feeling that Peggy is a good role model for anyone who wants to love people like Christ does-- with actions, sacrifice and humility. She is a king who uses her position to be the chief servant of Otuam.

In addition to being uplifting and thought provoking, the book is also laugh out loud hilarious. I was tickled by Peggy's inner monologues, her rehearsed rebuffs to the elders' shenanigans and her imagined dialogues with the painted chickens running around the village. The book is replete with colorful imagery that put me right in the story.

If you're looking for a page-turner about a real person who has done, and is still doing, big things, I highly recommend "King Peggy."

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