As the African proverb goes, “when the music changes, so does the dance,” and Peggielene Bartels' life has been on a different rhythm since she discovered she is heir to the throne of Otuam, a quiet fishing town of 7,000 residents, an hour’s drive from Ghana’s capital.
Last year in the early morning hours, Bartels awoke from a deep sleep by a call from a relative in Ghana, informing her that the King of Otuam had died, which was Bartels’s uncle. The traditional elders performed a ritual to choose a successor, that involved praying and spouting schnapps on the ground and waiting for the steam to ascend; the steam would signify the name the ancestors had anointed as the new king.
Bartels, who works as a secretary for the Ghanaian embassy for almost 30 years, was Otuam’s new King or Nana, a moniker used by Ghanaians to refer to people of importance. She has the power to choose elders, resolve disputes, obtain financing for town projects and maintain more than 1,000 acres of family-owned land, reports The Washington Post.
“Oh, please don’t play games with me,” Bartels replied, when learning of the news. “I am tired and it is not time yet to wake up in Silver Spring, [Maryland].”
The caller laughed and assured her that the news was real.
“I’m king?” she asked. “No female in our tribe has ever been made king. You’re sure you don’t want me to be the queen mother?”
“Things are changing,” the caller responded; women have a capacity for many more positions, even king.
Although there are very few female kings in Ghana, a democratic country, whose towns are made up of traditional kings, queen mothers and chiefs, there has been an increase in women becoming candidates for the throne, said Katherine Carboo, the Ghanaian embassy’s press attaché.
Gwendolyn Mikell, a Georgetown University anthropology professor who studies Africa told The Post that there is more of a demand to close the gender gap in the Diaspora. “It’s in the last 20 years that there’s pressure for more equitable gender representation.”
And it’s in the labor force and politics that women are taking center stage. According to the latest Global Gender Gap index by the World Economic Forum, South Africa has made progress towards narrowing the gap by ranking sixth in this year’s survey (compared to last year’s 22nd ranking) with women advancing in both the political and labor fields.
“South Africa has the most diversified economy in the region, which allows not only a better integration of the labor force, but enhanced opportunity to many men and women alike,” said Toyin Falola, a Nigerian historian and professor of African Studies.
That integration is seen in six African countries electing parliaments consisting of at least 30 percent women, including Rwanda‘s legislature, which has 56 percent of members of parliament women.
Political gains by women are a result of new governments with female ministers, quota systems (Ghana has adopted a 40% quota, and the governments of Burundi and Burkina Faso have implemented a 30% quota in government and parliament, reports The Swazi Observer) and financial grants to parties that encourage women to run for election.
Although the advancement of women in political roles has increased on the Continent, female leadership can be traced back to the Apartheid movement in South Africa.
“Women were the backbone of South African Apartheid movement,” said Sondra Hale, professor of Anthropology at UCLA. “They were facilitating the advancement of the guerilla movement.”
However, when the ANC took control of the government they pushed women out, and women began to organize and put pressure on the leadership to include more females in government, according to Hale.
Pressure that women in North African countries, which has fallen below the global average of closing the gender gap, hope will improve their standing on the world stage.
In late September, Bartels was hoisted on a palanquin wearing a gold crown on her head and a sword of state in her hands. She was introduced in her new role as King Nana Amuah-Afenyi VI. The choice that weighed on her mind for three months was finally decided when a distinct voice uttered: “You can’t escape it. It’s yours.”
Even though she is a part-time ruler until she retires from her secretarial job in five or six years, she has a firm grip on her duties and refuses to let her all-male elders influence her decisions.
“If you step on my toes,” she told them. “I will hit you where it hurts.”