Ghana I — The First Peace Corps Volunteers
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64), editor
In mid-August 1961, Ghana I was ready for Ghana. Nobody was more pleasantly surprised than the Africanists, who at the outset had believed that it would take nearly two years to prepare the Volunteers adequately, given the fact of their youth, inexperience, Kennedy connection, and accompanying media hype. Too much, it was felt, hung on their performance.
The Ghana I group, numbering fifty, had become “one”; there was an unspoken sense of being special due to their having been so closely associated with America’s top four people in African studies and the ever-attentive point man from Washington headquarters, Pat Kennedy, first Director of the Office of Peace Corps Volunteers.
They hadn’t paused to absorb the daunting fact that they would be absolutely the first Volunteers (Tanganyika I had started and finished its training program earlier but would trail Ghana I to Africa by a few days.) But there were celebrations nonetheless.
John Demos, a 1959 graduate of Harvard who had done graduate work at Berkeley before entering the Ghana training group there (and who was then a professor of history at Yale), recalls that at the graduation party, “many libations were poured and the program faculty accepted cigarette lighters inscribed with the heaviest pun of the year ‘Here today, Ghana tomorrow.’” As Demos puts it, “We were set down in Accra [the capital of Ghana] on the afternoon of September 1, 1961.”
Pat Kennedy remembers the group’s (and his own) thrill at being wished well personally by President Kennedy at the White House, at which point it fully sank in that they were the first, and he remembers the subsequent happy send-off at the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington on August 31, 1961.
He remembers thinking that it was all quite miraculous. And he remembers the heat. Late August in Washington, D.C. A steam bath. “Perspiration was just pouring off all of us. An official of the Ghanaian Embassy said to us as we left. ‘I can promise you, it will be much cooler in Africa.’”
The flight to Accra, Ghana, took twenty-one hours by a propeller-driven DC-7. The voyage was deemed of sufficient historical importance by Pan American World Airways that Peace Corps Clipper was painted on the fuselage. David Apter (advisor to the Peace Corps, African expert) told the group that the first impression would be extremely important. Thus, the trip to Africa turned into what Pat Kennedy called “a twenty-one-hour rehearsal.” The Volunteers had been taught the Ghanaian national anthem in Twi, the primary dialect of Ghana. They practiced it obsessively on the plane.
“While one group would practice the song, another group would be practicing the highlife, the bouncy national dance of Ghana, in the back of the plane. And another group would be practicing what to say in case they were interviewed. The rehearsal paid off.”
There was a formal greeting party at the airport that included the Minister of Education, the local council, the American Ambassador, and an assemblage of local chiefs. The Volunteers sang the anthem in Twi to the pop-eyed amazement of the Ghanaians on the tarmac.
Then Kenneth Baer, a well-groomed, scholarly-looking young man, stepped to the microphone. Baer, from Beverly Hills, had his B.A. from Yale and his M.A. in history from Berkeley. The core of his message—in Twi—immediately found its way into Peace Corps lore: “We have to come to learn as well as to teach.”
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I was 10 years old and at the airport in Accra to welcome you with my family (my father was with the Embassy). I was so inspired by the idea of the Peace Corps that it became my goal to join. In 1973, right out of college, I set off for 2 years in Zaire. Although I had grown up overseas, the Peace Corps experience, working at the grass roots, was essentially different and changed my life. I will remain ever grateful for the experience.