letters-ghana-140Letters from Ghana 1968-1970: A Peace Corps Chronicle
Compiled and Edited by Jon Thiem (Ghana 1968–70)
A Peace Corps Writers Book (An Imprint of Peace Corps Worldwide)
$12.99 (paperback), $10.99 (Kindle)
255 Pages
2013

Reviewed By William G. Spain (Malawi 1967–69)

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in a foreign country knows how important it is to write home about your experiences and receive letters from home.  Letters are a lifeline and self-chronicle, a way to reach inside of oneself.  When those letters are written by strangers, reading them is like looking into another person’s life in progress.

Jon Thiem’s Letters from Ghana 1968–70: A Peace Corps Chronicle is just such a book, full of the small mysteries of everyday life as well as the bigger mysteries of a dynamic period in our history. An introductory essay sets the stage for the collection of letters that follow. Thiem resurrects the spirit of the 1960s, including the Vietnam War and anxieties about the draft; the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath; and the turmoil of the time when so many young people expressed their discontent over the direction of our country’s leadership. He shares his opposition to government policy and the war. He tells us how he came to join the Peace Corps and then “I could no longer be a radical.” His hope was that “peace and progress might replace government imposed violence.”

Letters written by Thiem and two other Peace Corps Volunteers provide a window into the minds, hearts and souls of these Volunteers and quite honestly reflect the “cultural shock” experienced by many Volunteers in developing countries. As I read the letters, I found many parallels to my own experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi during the same time period that Thiem was in Ghana.  Like Thiem, I grappled with understanding the role of tradition in African societies and how it sometimes impedes growth and development. Thiem’s view was, “I saw tradition as an obstacle to rational thinking and progress, especially in health care, sanitation and child development.” The major challenge for us as Volunteers and guests in another country was to strike a balance between a respect for the tradition of others and our zeal for innovation and change. In this context, Thiem had acknowledged his disillusionment with the how difficult it was to get things done in the school where he taught. Despite this, he was able to write, “I’ve come to love teaching, even para-literate Africans”

Jon Thiem was in his early twenties when as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1968 to 1970, he was assigned to Acherensua Village in southern Ghana. He, like most of us Volunteers at that time, was very idealistic about helping to bring positive change to Africa. He had hopes and dreams which were sometimes shattered by the realities of political discourse, war, famine and out-right disagreements over how best to achieve one’s goals.

Writing the introduction and compiling letters for this book were undoubtedly major undertakings for Thiem and for those who contributed letters. For many of us, such mementos, now a half-century old, are long gone if not forgotten. The act of saving the letters alone is something to celebrate. But making them available to readers, along with the introductory essay and collected photographs makes this volume something to treasure. The book is well written and illustrated. The letters provide a very personal and in depth look at young Americans full of hope and optimism and how they handled the set backs and disappointments in their assignments.

I enjoyed this book immensely and recommend it highly, both to those in the Peace Corps at this pivotal time and those who long to be.

William Spain was a Peace Corps volunteer in Zomba, Malawi from 1967 to 1969. He worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Economics Affairs. He grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia. He had a career in both the public and private sectors as administrator and marketing executive. He earned a BA in Sociology from Norfolk State University and MA Degrees in Communication from Fairfield University in Connecticut and Public Administration from New York University. He is also author of the recently published book, Bubba: The African Adventures of James Johnson. William and his wife live in Boulder, Colorado.

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