(WOMENSENEWS)–When the council meeting ended at 6, the sun was just rising and the world outside was silver. The elders returned to their fields to do some work before the day became too hot.
From her house, Peggy saw a line of children with heavy metal buckets of water on their heads trudging down the path from the bore hole behind the house.
Auntie Esi stood next to Peggy as she gazed out the window. “How far do they walk?” Peggy asked.
“There are only two bore holes, so the kids that live farthest away have to walk about a half hour in each direction.”
“An hour for a single bucket,” Peggy said quietly.
“And some kids make two or three trips before and after school. Some walk for six hours a day.”
“Is the water clean at least?”
Auntie Esi shrugged. “It’s not clean if you haul it from the pond. That water is a yellowish-brown, and that’s what the entire town had to use when the pipes first broke in 1977. But the local government representatives built two bore holes shortly after that which provide very clean water, though it costs money. A few pennies a bucket.”
Peggy scowled. “You mean they charge for clean water?”
Auntie Esi nodded. “The pumps break down a lot, so they use the money to pay for repairs.”
“And the people who can’t afford the bore hole water drink the yellowish-brown water?”
Auntie Esi nodded again. “They don’t get sick from it, though. For hundreds of years before the British brought piped water, people in Otuam got all their water from the pond. Many believe the goddess of the pond purifies the water and keeps them healthy.”
Peggy sighed, a deep sigh that came from the soul and rumbled through her entire body. Evidently the pond contained one of the 77 gods and goddesses known to protect the village of Otuam. But even so, no American king could allow her people to drink that disgusting water. And besides, it was well known that sometimes nature gods and goddesses left their ancient spots without a word of warning. If the goddess left, those drinking the water would sicken and even die. She would have to get those kids more bore holes, free bore holes and eventually fix the pipes. How on earth was she going to afford it?
Auntie Esi put her weathered hand on Peggy’s shoulder. “You will fix the water later,” she said. “Remember the sparrow, who builds her nest one twig at a time. We are going to eat breakfast now and after that we are going to give you your first royal etiquette lesson. You don’t want to disgrace the stool by doing something inappropriate for a Ghanaian king.”
The Aunties Advise
After breakfast, the aunties taught Peggy how to walk majestically. A king, they said, was never to show any hurry. The whole world waited for a king. Flapping around here and there like a chicken was undignified.
Auntie Esi strolled at a glacial pace down the hall, head up, shoulders back. “Like this, Nana. You bounce around too much and go too fast.”
“In the U.S., if I walked that slowly I would be hit by a car,” Peggy pointed out. “No one there would wait for me to cross the street. They would run me down and as I bounced on the asphalt they would keep on going so they wouldn’t be late for a meeting.”
Auntie Esi smiled. “But there are very few cars in Otuam and here they wouldn’t run over their king. Try it again, slowly.”
Peggy sighed. Give just a hint of a smile, the aunties said. Shoulders relaxed. Head held high. Chin up. Slow, straight, determined steps. Self-consciously, she walked back and forth in front of them, like an awkward aspiring model training for the runway.
“Too fast!” cried one.
“Hold your chin higher!” said another.
“You’re frowning!” said Auntie Esi. “Don’t frown in public.”
“Don’t frown?” Peggy asked. “What if I see something I don’t like?”
“Don’t frown!” Auntie Esi repeated. “You can make a mental note of the problem and deal with it later.”
“And you can’t eat or drink in public. It’s unseemly for a king to be shoving things into her face. Plus, if there is a witch in the crowd watching you she can make you choke to death on whatever you’re consuming,” said Auntie Esi.
“And Nana,” Auntie Esi added, “the king can’t argue in public.”
“Argue in public?” she said, all wide-eyed innocence. Surely they hadn’t heard anything of her arguments at the embassy in the U.S. “Me?”
Cousin Comfort chimed in, “Nana, we all know that even since you were a small child, when someone misbehaves, you can’t let it go.”
“When you see an injustice,” Cousin Comfort continued, “you are like a village dog with his jaws locked on a bone. You just don’t give it up. But as king you will have to deal with these things in the council chamber and not yell at people on the street or beat them with brooms.” The aunties all laughed at that one.
Auntie Esi said, “And if you are wearing the crown and want to say a crude thing, you have to take it off before you speak so as not to dishonor it.”
Excerpted from “King Peggy” by Peggielene Bartels and Eleanor Herman. Copyright 2012 by Peggielene Bartels. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Peggielene Bartels was born in Ghana and became an American citizen in 1997. She has been king of Otuam, Ghana, since 2008. She works at Ghana’s embassy in Washington, D.C. Eleanor Herman is the author of three books of women’s history, including the New York Times bestseller “Sex with Kings” and “Sex with the Queen.”
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