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The Liberia One Storybook
The First Peace Corps Volunteers to Liberia Tell Their Stories
Edited by Geraldine Kennedy (1962-64)
Clover Park Press, $22
114 pages 2012

Reviewed by Casey Frazee (South Africa, 2009)

Those interested in far-off places will relish in the rich descriptions of life in the Liberia of the mid-1900s, before the late 20th century civil war broke out and closed the Peace Corps program there for nearly 20 years. Volunteers who served in Liberia in the pioneering group are lucky to have a formalized account of their time spent learning how to speak, cook, and live like their West African counterparts.

A small, fertile country situated on the western coast of Africa, curving southeast along the Atlantic Ocean, Liberia is a country with a rich, tumultuous history. The country was founded by freed black American slaves in the early 19th century. That history of liberation, optimism and rocky roads parallels the experience of the first group of Peace Corps Volunteers to enter the country.

Peace Corps opened its post in Liberia in 1962, one year after Peace Corps’ inception. The country happily welcomed nearly 100 Americans who were looking to make their mark on the world. Liberia One, as the first group of Volunteers in Liberia were called, created tight-knit bonds during service which continue to this day, as evidenced by the collection of stories in The Liberia One Storybook. The book is edited by Geraldine Kennedy, who also wrote Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara.

The Storybook is a delightful collection of stories about ‘the hardest job you’ll ever love’ told by the Volunteers who ventured into Liberian towns and villages. As married couple Angene and Jack Wilson write in an August 1962 cable to their family, “It’s also hard in some ways to state first impressions of Liberia since one has read and heard so much. You feel as though you know the place already but you don’t.”

The Storybook is arranged into 14 sections, or themes, of any Peace Corps service. Those include training, teaching, sports, family, events and final words. Memoir vignettes take readers through moments that many Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can sympathize with - particularly critters of all kinds. Jo-Ann Kachigian writes, “Bette let out a piercing scream! She claimed something scampered over her body! Then it was MY turn. I screamed as I felt something race across my chest! Grabbing our flashlights, we found a rat as our uninvited roommate.”

Geraldine Kennedy writes a touching account of when she learned of President Kennedy’s assassination. For the first group of Volunteers in Liberia, only one year after President Kennedy announced the idea of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union thousands of miles away on another continent, Kennedy’s death felt personal.

Processing Kennedy’s death with a Liberian counterpart who blamed poor American medicine, Kennedy writes, “African science is for Africans. I turned away, unable to break through the limits of my past time and theirs so that we could touch each other and understand. I am not of Africa. I am of another place. It’s different for me. My mind sifts in other ways.” Many Volunteers have a similar awakening during service where the attempts to assimilate stand still when faced with a tragedy to be processed. Our processing falls back on our learned ways and we struggle with how to proceed.

Travelers, adventurists, and non-Peace Corps Volunteers will enjoy the culture and history of mid-20th century Liberia. Liberia One Volunteers now have a touching storybook to remember their days as Peace Corps Volunteers.

Casey Frazee (South Africa 2009) is the founder and director of the grassroots organization First Response Action dedicated to advocating for survivors of sexual violence in Peace Corps. The organization was integral in passing the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011. Casey lives in Cincinnati, OH with her husband where she works for Women Helping Women as a domestic violence advocate.