Here today, Ghana Tomorrow

An article yesterday, June 30, about the Peace Corps in Ghana appeared in a Ghanaian newspaper written by RPCV Phillip Kurata . Kurata works for the State Department and writes for www.America.gov, a webiste of the State Department, that distributes news of the U.S. to the world. I thought you’d like to read what they are saying at State about us. Of course, Kurata is one of us. The first Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in Accra on the afternoon of September 1, 1961. The article has the arrival date in Ghana as August 30, but it was the afternoon of September1, 1961 according to John Demos, a member of the Ghana I. Fifty PCVs met Kennedy on the White House lawn, then went to a send-off party at the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington, D.C. on August 31. “Many libations were poured,” recalls Demos, a 1959 graduate of Harvard who had also done graduate work at Berkeley before Peace Corps Training, “and the program faculty accepted cigarette lighters inscribed with the heaviest pun of the year: ‘Here today, Ghana tomorrow.'”]

Ghana: Peace Corps — ‘Born in America, But Learned to Walk in Ghana’

by Phillip Kurata (Tunisia 1967-69)

The Peace Corps, one of President John F. Kennedy’s enduring legacies, was launched in Ghana in 1961. Nearly a half century later, the corps is still going strong in the West African country, with volunteers involved in teaching, health and sanitation training, natural resource management and small business development.

“The Peace Corps was born in America, but learned to walk in Ghana,” Peace Corps director for Ghana Michael Koffman told America.gov.

The first batch of volunteers to go abroad, 52 of them, stepped off a plane in Accra on August 30, 1961. Those young, idealistic Americans had heeded Kennedy’s call to serve in his inaugural address: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Volunteers in 1961 were assigned to education and literacy projects. In the 1970s and 1980s, the scope of work expanded to teaching math, science, business, and French in secondary schools, as well as providing special education for the mentally disabled, teacher training, and agricultural technology — “a wide, wide range” of projects, in Koffman’s words.

Despite coups and other political upheavals, the Peace Corps has maintained an uninterrupted presence in Ghana, a relationship rare among developing countries.

“Ghana has proven to be a stable place,” Koffman said, “even when Ghanaians were working out internal issues. The government and people of Ghana have always treated volunteers warmly, and their safety has never been threatened. Ghana has always cherished its relationship with the Peace Corps. As a result, it has been getting stronger and stronger.”

Ghana’s growing political maturity, evidenced by the election in December 2008 that brought John Atta Mills to the Ghanaian presidency, has contributed to that relationship. “The election happened gracefully, without violence,” Koffman said. “It shows Ghana is a peaceful, forward-looking country.” The December election was the fifth peaceful transfer of presidential power and the second time that an opposition candidate has won.

When President Obama visits Ghana in July, 132 volunteers will be at work around the country, with another 63 new arrivals completing in-country training. Forty percent of the volunteers in Ghana are assigned to middle schools and high schools, teaching science and computer technology. “Interest in computers is very, very high. American young people have a lot to offer in teaching computer skills,” Koffman said. The Peace Corps also has volunteers trained in sign language teaching visual arts in a school for the deaf.

In the natural resource management program, Koffman highlighted the work of helping Ghanaians cultivate, harvest and market moringa trees, whose leaves have high nutritional value.

In the health and sanitation sector, volunteers spread awareness of HIV/AIDS and malaria and how to avoid the diseases. Often they travel from village to village on bicycles, meeting people and giving presentations under coconut trees. “The opportunities present themselves in many shapes and times. We tell the volunteers to work with who you can, when you can, wherever you can,” Koffman said.

To promote small business development, volunteers have been teaching villagers to start savings clubs by accepting contributions of as little as $1 per week and building the total available for short-term loans. “If a person takes out a small loan and repays it, then money circulates around the village, and that has an extraordinary effect,” Koffman said.

A Mature Relationship

In the nearly half century that Ghana and the Peace Corps have been working together, the Peace Corps has changed, as has the host country.

One of the main changes is that the corps recruits more elderly volunteers now than in the early years, although the basic traits of generosity and zest for adventure apply across the generations. Last year, Ghana had the oldest serving volunteer, 85-year-old Ralph Bernstein, who taught biology, chemistry and physics in a Ghanaian high school.

When Ron Tschetter was Peace Corps director from 2006 to 2008, he launched an initiative to boost the ranks of volunteers aged 55 or older from 5 percent to 15 percent. Although Bernstein has left Ghana, volunteers in their 60s and 70s remain there, complementing the efforts of the younger volunteers. Tschetter said there are tens of millions of Americans born after World War II who are retiring in good health and are eager to contribute to a better world. Many have said they joined the Peace Corps in their later years because they never forgot President Kennedy’s original call to step forward and serve.

“Older volunteers can’t match the energy of the young ones, but they have the experience to get so much done without wasted movement. They are just as effective, if not more effective, especially in a place like Ghana where age is revered,” Koffman said. “The older volunteers lend perspective that allows younger volunteers to be more successful.”

7 Comments

Leave a comment
  • Ghana has always been the country we have looked to when it comes to Peace Corps…and the beauty is that the Volunteers continued to work with the people of Ghana as part of our extended family. And Ghana has always been proud to have received the first group of Volunteers from President Kennedy’s dream, and that dream continues almost 50 years later. I still don’t know who has benefited the most from this endeavor, I like to believe we both have…the people of Ghana and the Peace Corps Volunteers when they return home knowing that they have found an adopted county that respects them. But, this is the same experience that all Volunteers and our Host Country friends feel, the Peace Corps experience has benefited us all! Thanks Ghana for leading the way, keep the lamp lit! Bob

    Bob Arias
    RPCV, Colombia 1964-66
    CD, Argentina & Uruguay 1993-95
    PCV, Panama (Present)

  • Ghana did indeed receive the first PCVs in country but the first to answer the call and go into training were those of Colombia I on June 25, 1961.

  • There has been a long standing debate on who were the “first” Peace Corps Volunteers.

    As I recall it, the Ghana Peace Corps group arrived overseas before the Colombia group, in parge part, because they were going to a country where English was spoken and did not have to learn a new language before being able to function. They were also already teachers who did not need much training in their profession.

    The Colombia group, which was the first to enter training had to learn Spanish, among other things, at Rutgers University in New Jersey for two months. They also needed training in how to carry out their assignment as Community Development workers which was a job new for virtually all of them. The Colombia group underwent an additional month of training in Country before we went out to our assigned posts.

    Another “first” group that deserves mention was the one that went to Tanganyika (now Tanzania). They also began training on June 25, 1961, but because of the Time Zone differences between New Jersey and New Mexico where they trained, they actually began a couple of hours later than the Colombia group. They were assigned to civil engineering and road building work. Since English was spoken in Tanganyika, i am not sure why they did not arrive overseas before the Ghana group which began their training several weeks later.

    And yet another “first” group was the first 27 people to be selected for service and announced in a press release in mid June of 1961. Some went to Colombia and some to Tanganyika. Although I am proud to have been one of those 27 selectees, all of the volunteers who stepped up the summer of 1961 to participate in the politically and personally risky Peace Corps adventure should be credited as being “first” for the courage and foresight they showed in signing up when President John F. Kennedy called us to service.

    Steve Honoré
    Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
    Colombia I 1961-63
    PC Staff Dominican Republic 1963-66
    CD Dominican Republic 1978-81

  • John Demos, fellow Ghana I, is wrong about dates. Ghana I
    (and Tanganyika I) went to the Rose Garden August 28, 1961.
    Ghana I flew via Pan Am charter to Ghana on August 29, 1961,
    arriving in Accra on the morning of August 30, 1961.
    To correct some other common errors:
    1. 50 PCVs arrived in Ghana I (not 51 or 52) August 30.
    2. The group sang, in Twi, NOT the national anthem but a
    traditional patriotic song, Yen Ara Asase Ni.

    “Who was first?” is probably a less fascinating question to pursue
    than the broader question, “What was the experience of these Peace Corps pioneers?”.
    Bob Klein (Ghana 1961-1963)

  • Thanks, Bob. You and John Demos were both there so you’ll have to agree (or disagree) on the time and date. Pat Kennedy in Coates Redmon’s book says that the send-off party at the Ghanian Embassy in Washington was on August 31. Also, that the flight to Ghana took twenty-one hours by a propellor-driven DC-7. John Dmos (in Coates’ book) say, and I quote, “We were set down in Accra [the capital of Ghana] on the afternoon of September 1, 1961.”

    It is up to you two to settle the date problem, but as you said, it doesn’t matter who was first, but what it all means at the end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2016. Peace Corps Worldwide.