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GHANA I-The Peace Corps Begins
GHANA I-The Peace Corps Begins
Autumn 1995, Vol. 2, No. 1
GHANA I-The Peace Corps Begins
In August 1961, the first Peace Corps Volunteers "boarded a chartered Pan American propeller-driven plane for a 17-hour trip to Accra". This was the beginning of the life-shaping experience in which so many of us returned volunteers have participated during the last 34 years. That first group to Ghana had 56 pioneers and some 3,000 volunteers have served in Ghana since 1961. We are fortunate to have two former volunteers from that first Peace Corps group write articles for this issue of The Talking Drum.
Alice R. O'Grady lives in Boerne, Texas, where she is now retired from an administrative position at UCLA. Alice has been a biology teacher, small business owner, museum curator, and Social Security representative. She spent nine years in West Africa as a volunteer in Ghana, an associate representative for the Peace Corps in western Nigeria, and teaching for the Ghanaian government. In 1994, Alice returned to Ghana for two months to research an historical novel set in Ghana. Many thanks to Alice for her remembrances of this pioneer group.
Many people join the Peace Corps over their parent's objections..., in my case, my mother "suggested" it after she clipped a news article about the new Peace Corps that President John F. Kennedy had just created. My German grandmother, on the other hand, was worried-not of disease, or wild animals, or the imagined spear in the back. "Don't go to Africa," she admonished. "They don't wear clothes there. Alice, don't go to Africa and become a nudress."
But I went, along with 50 others, to teach in Ghana's secondary schools. The youngest in our group was 19 years; the oldest, 31; and a third of us had had teacher training or teaching experience. We trained for eight weeks at Berkeley; had some home leave; attended a farewell reception in the Rose Garden and shook hands with President Kennedy in the Oval Office.
Some of the long plane ride to Accra was spent by the Ghana I group rehearsing a Ghanaian song in Twi that we could use in the welcome ceremony at the airport. About midway over the Atlantic, a radio message from the American ambassador in Accra was relayed to us: he thought it inappropriate for the American Peace Corps to arrive singing a `war' song! So we hurriedly practiced another song, "Yen Ara Asasene" which we did sing upon our arrival. For the next two weeks, with typical Ghanaian kindness, people told us they had heard us singing the song on the radio and assured us we sang it very well.
The airport welcome ceremony was canceled because Ghana's ambassador to India had just died and the country was in mourning. On our bus ride to the University of Ghana at Legon, where we had two weeks of in-country training, I remember being so surprised by the familiarity of the streets, cars, houses with trees and flowers. I guess I expected it to look like the surface of the moon despite the slides we had been shown in training at Berkeley. We were eager to get to our assigned teaching posts in-country so we found the time at Legon difficult; but we still socialized with university students, discovered the Lido Night Club and Orion Cinema.
One evening a student from Cameroon and I boarded a passenger lorry to go to the Orion. The lorry driver berated my friend for paying the fare for us both, saying, in pidgin English, that he could have gotten more than the normal fare for me. My Cameroon friend's reply was "She no be imperialist. She come for help teach." The lorry driver nodded in understanding as he had clearly heard of the Peace Corps' arrival.
The announcement of the school assignments caused quite a stir. Two people who had become very close during training (and would eventually marry and become known through the novel, To the Peace Corps, With Love, later written by one of them) were assigned to opposite ends of the country. The one married couple in the group, who had mastered Twi the best in our group, were assigned to an Ewe-speaking area. I watched as the first volunteer was driven by his headmaster to his assigned school, Dodowa Secondary, and thus became a footnote in the Guiness Book of World Records as the first PCV to go into the field. I headed off to Dormaa Secondary School, 300 miles from Accra, where my experiences for two years could fill a book… and probably will.
I want to tell you something about the group after Ghana. When we came home to the States in 1963, we had to find jobs, go to graduate school, see our family and friends again, and somehow deal with the fact that we could never make them understand what our experience in Ghana had been. We did not lose touch with the others in this now famous Ghana I group due to the efforts of a psychologist who had been studying us since we entered training in Berkeley. He had been to Ghana twice to interview each of us and he became our self-appointed alumni secretary upon our return. Every year we would receive an updated list of addresses and significant events in each of our lives that kept us connected. After ten years, we used his information to have small, informal local reunions and in 1986 31 of the surviving 49 volunteers attended a 25th anniversary reunion in Gloucester, Massachusetts. We celebrated our 30th at Asilomar Conference Center in California with 27 former volunteers and five former staff. Next year we plan to do our 35th reunion in Gloucester, MA!
We discover a very strong bond uniting us at these reunions because, after all, we went through a unique experience together. Most of us (52 percent) are working or retired from the field of education; 23 percent in business; seven percent in law; and six percent doing work overseas. The remaining 12 percent have followed miscellaneous pursuits like journalism or nursing. Surprisingly, only two of the original group have died. Seven women and nine men remained unmarried; nine members of Ghana I are divorced; three have remarried. Many of us have returned to Ghana-to do research, to work, or simply to visit. Our experience there, whether we have returned or not, is still affecting us. We went as teachers; but more than that, we were students and learned so much. And, by the way, I never fulfilled my grandmother's admonishment-I never did become a nudress!
Bob Klein was another volunteer in the Ghana I group and later became the Peace Corps Director in Ghana (1966-68). In 1973, Bob returned to Ghana with his family to teach. In recent years, he held various teaching and administrative positions in New Jersey and has just retired to Tucson, AZ. Bob was visiting this summer in South Carolina and got together with Friends of Ghana founder and President, Ken Autrey, at his Columbia, South Carolina home.
[Editor's Note: I have fond memories of Bob Klein because he was the Peace Director in Ghana during my own service there from 1967-69. Since my maiden name is Kline and I wished to marry a fellow volunteer, Jim Kroll, in Ghana; I had to ask my Peace Corps father, Bob Klein, for permission to do so. My own Dad, Charles Kline, and my mother did arrive in Kumasi for the wedding ceremony and Ken Autrey was also there to witness the event. Here are Bob's reflections:]
In 1961 I joined the Peace Corps and became part of that self-styled legendary group, Ghana I. Although I have been involved with and returned to Ghana numerous times since then, my most personally moving trip back there was in 1986. My companion for this trip was Kwaku Armah, a Ghanaian educator who has had a higher education administration career in New Jersey, but was also one of my students when I started my Peace Corps teaching back in 1961. We both returned to Ghana to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Sefwi-Wiawso Secondary School. From here on I am quoting from a January 1987 letter I wrote to other Ghana I volunteers after my trip and many of my reactions and impressions written here were confirmed for me during my 1991 visit to Ghana:
Although I was a Peace Corps Director in 1966-68 and a PCV again in 1973-75, my outlook during this three week visit to the Silver Jubilee celebration of the Sefwi-Wiawso Secondary School was a contract between 1961 and 1968. The visit was filled with highs and lows-joy at meeting old students and friends, delight (and frustration ) at encountering Ghanaian culture again, sadness and depression about dead and dying development projects, the widening gap between the severity of life for some and the affluence of life for others. I was here in the 1960's golden age for Ghana-Nkrumah was supreme, economic conditions were good, and Ghana seemed poised for a great leap forward.
Now, in 1986, Accra has grown without much planning or control. Its population has doubled or tripled but the streets are no wider, the drains no larger, the markets no bigger. Mold, dust, and other pollution create an unwelcome patina of neglect. Heavy coats of paint serve for maintenance and upkeep, things don't age gracefully-they deteriorate and then there's an overlay of something new.
However, the lorry signs are as always the reminders of the vitality, love, and joy in being a part of Ghana-NEVER LOSE HOPE, ALL SHALL PASS, BORN TO WIN, SUNSHINE AFTER RAIN. It is truly the `interactive society' as from the moment I embark from the airplane I am involved in contact and conversation with Ghanaians. As an American, fresh from a "s cool" society, I am in culture shock from dealing with so many people for each transaction, in knowing who to deal with, in realizing that time is not of the essence but talk is.
Walking around Ghana, I find that the Lido still stands near Nkrumah Circle but is now abandoned, Kingsway still closes from 12 noon to 2 pm, banking is still like stepping into a Dickens novel, and the frogs still bellow at Legon. I find many of my former students went on to university or teacher training college, some are teaching or in district level government positions, a few are in business, a very few are farmers. Many live and work outside their own traditional areas, many have left Ghana for Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, U.K., Germany, and the U.S.
I met current Peace Corps staff in Ghana who all seem to want to get PCVs out of education programs although I think educational programs still offer the best opportunity to meet all three goals of the Peace Corps. Current volunteers have much more difficult living and working conditions than we early PCVs did. During some very lean times, the Peace Corps was delivering commodities (sugar, flour, oil) to PCVs which I foresee led to many personal dilemmas (should I use it myself, share it with people who need it, sell it on the black market, refuse it, etc.?) There are as many PCVs working in rural development as in education and they are truly assigned "out back of the beyond" in remote locations.
The joy of the visit was in meeting former students and the contact I had with old Ghanaian friends despite the one who greeted me, "Klein, I hardly recognized you; you are so fat now". For me, Ghana is not a case study in Third World development in which I've participated, but a place in which I have experienced a web of relationships vitally human in scale-helpful, hopeful, frustrating, contradictory, self-serving, supportive, warm, affectionate, and to the core Ghanaian.