Ghana’s First Peace Corps Staff (Part One)

During the first week of May, 1961, Richard Thornell landed in Ghana to lay the groundwork for the arrival of the first Volunteers to be sent overseas. He was stricken with TB the end of August and entered the hospital only five days before the Volunteers stepped off the pane in Accra on August 29, 1961.

Here Pat Kennedy is Escort Officer for the first PCV to Ethiopia, September 1962

A number of dignitaries, however, including Ghana’s Minister of Education A.J. Dowuong-Hammond, were on hand to greet the 50 PCVs, men and women, and their escort officer, Padraic Kennedy, at the big airport on the outskirts of Accra.

In response to expressions of welcome, one of the Volunteers stepped forward and delivered a thank-you for the group in Twi, the principal local language. The Twi was far from perfect, but the fact that Americans would try to speak it at all was met with smiling enthusiasm on the part of the welcoming Ghanaians.

 

Thornell’s evacuation from Ghana to the U.S. for further medical treatment left Pat Kennedy, then 29, in charge as the only staffer until Representative George Carter arrived five days later. This would make Kennedy the first Peace Corps Country Director.

George Carter played chess with one son while another reads a book at their home in Accra.

Born in Philadelphia, George Carter took his degree in philosophy in 1949 at Lincoln University where he was a younger contemporary of Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah. He devoted himself to three years of graduate study in philosophy at Howard University and then joined an extensive study tour of West Africa concentrating on a comparative analysis of French and British colonial policy.

In 1953, he became Asian Secretary of the World Assembly of Youth, which carried him on nine extended journeys working with WAY national committees in Pakistan, India, Ceylon, Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Japan.

On one of these journeys, Carter made a stopover pause at Shannon Airport where he bought an Irish Sweepstakes ticket. Six months and twice around the world later, he discovered that Irish authorities were frantically trying to track him down because he had won $10,000.

In February, 1959, he became a full-time consultant to the American Society of African Culture. He prepared a series of tapes for presentation in Guinea designed to give Africans a better understanding of the American Negro.

A research report Carter had done on “The Ancient African Empire: Ghana” became the after-dinner topic of conversation with Nkrumah in a visit Carter paid Ghana’s Prime Minister in 1952 and the two finished the discussion at 4:30 a.m.

For ten years, Carter had researched and classified hundreds of African folk tales and myths. He had also accepted a research grant to complete a book on “The Background of Contemporary African Social Thoughts” when, in March, 1961, he came to the Peace Corps for one month as a consultant.

On September 2,1961, the one-month consultant arrived in Ghana as Representative.

Research Document: Who’s Who in the Peace Corps Overseas Administration (1963)

The photographs are by Rowland Scherman, Paul Conklin and Jim Walls, first photographers for the agency.

6 Comments

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  • Thanks for this comment on one whom I consider one of the greats of the early Peace Corps — George Carter. He really was the first true country director in that first project of Ghana. People should read Bob Klein’s book entitled “Being First”.

    Most of us early Ghana volunteers hadn’t any knowledge of George’s academic background, but I think sensed that he was something out-of-the-ordinary and certainly not an authoritarian. George made it clear that we all were in this together, and whilst he could smooth the way, and would do so, ultimately the success of the project rested with us volunteers. It was up to us ! Nobody wanted to disappoint George.

    When technical/staffing problems with my geology project brought me to George’s office in Accra to ask for a transfer to a teaching assignment, to avoid precipitating a conflict between two Ghanaian ministries, George told me he DID have unquestioned authority to lift me out of the country entirely, and that if I chose to, he would do it.

    True to his word, a week later, at our diamond prospecting project neat Akim-Kade, I got a telegram to be at Accra in a week with all my gear. I was on my way to a new PC project just starting up, in the Nyasaland Protectorate, still a British colony, in south-central Africa. The rest is an astonishingly fortuitous story, providing me an invaluable understanding of BOTH sides of the continent. All of it, thanks to George.

    In my mind, and I think I speak for all of those early Ghana volunteers — there never was anybody quite like George. John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment. -63, -64, -65.

  • No wonder Ghana’s President Nkrumah was suspicious of the Peace Corps as a spy organization, both the American Society of African Culture (ASAC) that George Carter worked for, and the African American Institute (AAI), from which many of the Peace Corps Washington’s Africa staff were recruited, were organizations funded by the CIA. It’s tragic how Cold War strategies and priorities undermined the credibility and integrity of the few progressive Africa interest organizations that existed at the time. Here’s a link to an informative interview on the subject by Harold Weaver, Founding Chair of Africana Studies at Rutgers University: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CMU3f7msDrQ. David Raphael

  • David R is correct in the suspicion of the Nkrumah Gov’t about CIA spying. However, it was a joke that there wasn’t much in Ghana to spy ON, other than the raft of Russian and E European technicians Nkrumah had invited, mainly to appear balanced, since most of Ghana’s trade remained with the West, and even with then Apartheid South Africa.

    When my group, Ghana-3 Geology arrived in mid-63, the agency we would work for had 44 Soviet geophysicists and geologists, a sizeable % from places like Bulgaria, Romania, and E Germany. Unlike the Russians (and everyone assumed their KGB watchdogs) who were standoffish to the point of rude, the E Europeans seemed almost elated meeting and talking to Americans, and more often than not a trip to the cinema would be a mix of American PCVs and E European scientists.

    Sensitive to the worry about CIA snooping and possible criticism, when my group arrived, George Carter made a very plain request to us. Basically, if ANYBODY, even one looking like an American, asks you to provide ANY information on anything, the answer must be “No”. George emphasized, “You never will know WHO they really are.” I think it frightened a lot of us.

    Later on, I had my own experience with this, in the form of an E German geologist working near Saltpond (where I was), who had befriended a couple expat geologists, one from England, the other from Ireland. I was continually invited to join them. I continually declined, with apologies to all. THEN, the two British geologists, began bringing back laundry lists of questions for me — from E Germany. All about what America really was like. Seemed harmless enough, and over the months I answered all of them. Everything from “How many Americans own cars ?” to “How did I pay for my geology degree ?” Ans, working summers on a factory assembly line. That answer precipitated a flood of new questions about American factory labor. Did they own cars, too ? The British intermediaries, really solid guys, found the whole thing fascinating and humorous.

    The Russian geophysicists, contrary to what we all had learned, were not proficient in English nor the local Twi language, and the USSR sent a group of a dozen translators, all young women to interpret and translate for them. They all would go shopping in their Russian truck, accompanied by what obviously was the KGB man. THEN, the big one happened, causing a national uproar, and seeming to disorient the Nkrumah Gov’t itself. It would be remembered as “The Great Escape”, and it electrified the place.

    If readers are interested, I’ll recount that in a future posting. It was vastly more interesting, in the Cold War era, than our frequent debates with E Germans about the comparative merits of American vs Russian jeeps. What memories ! John Turnbull

  • John:

    I would be delighted to hear the “rest of the story” about The Great Escape. By the way, I don’t think the CIA was that interested in spying on Ghana, but used International youth conferences and exchanges, and organizations like AAI and ASAC to identify future leaders and profile individuals. It was thought to be a contest for the ‘hearts and minds’.

  • The story is how a journeyers navigates on a river-of-life pilgrimage when thrust upon an island from which they struggle to depart, and at some future time recall it as the heart-river’s gate and they their own gatekeeper.

  • THE GREAT ESCAPE. As I mentioned, the Soviets had 44 geophysicists and geologists assigned to the Ghana Geological Survey, where our Ghana-3 Geology project was headquartered (although all by two of us were out in the field, and visiting HQ only periodically. All of this mixture of West and East was, at the invitation of first president, and “Osagefo”, Kwame Nkrumah, wishing to play the Soviet Bloc against the West, evidently for what he could garner. Then, as I wrote, the Soviets sent a dozen young Russian ladies, as translators for the scientists, and supervised by the KGB.

    On one of the weekly KGB-supervised shopping trips, one of the Russian girls struck up an acquaintanceship with a Lebanese trader, and apparently whilst the KGB man was in the rest room, a romance developed. One night, the young lady slipped out of the Russian billets in Accra, the Lebanese guy, in his Mercedes, was waiting, and the couple eloped. The next morning there was a Soviet furor, and the Ghana Police, together with a squad of KGB agents, took off in hot pursuit. The couple headed north toward Kumasi, then detoured south into the Western Region. THEN the newspapers go the story.

    We had no idea the fascination that Ghanaians, particularly Ghanaian women, had for a love-story. It was astonishing. Even the government-dominated newspapers couldn’t resist. Every day there were blaring headlines: “Lovers Escape Again ! ! ” Then, recognizing who were the “Bad Guys”, the headlines got personal: “Lovers evade bumbling Ghana Police and Communist Friends ! “.

    No question where the Ghanaian populace was, and the message wasn’t lost on the generally pro-West opposition leaders.

    This went on for over a week, until the Nkrumah Gov’t shut down all reporting, stunning the entire country. THEN, after several days of stony silence, the newspapers grudgingly announced that the eloping couple had been captured in the Western Region. And worse, that the Lebanese man was summarily deported, and the young Russian girl sent back home for “political reeducation”. The uproar, rapidly becoming sarcasm, consumed the country, and news was carried all over the country by the Lorry Driver Grapevine, and Market Mammies, who held a lot of practical economic power. It just got worse and worse, no matter what spin the Nkrumah Gov’t put on it.

    THEN, somebody remembered that Pres Nkrumah, the “Osagefo”, had had a Ghanaian wife from the Western Region, whom he had dumped, in order to marry an Egypian woman, Evidently, in furtherance of his vision of a “United Africa”. More uproar, only this time the slogan was “What’s the matter with US ??? ”

    The American diplomats were comfortably esconced in their embassy on stilts, but the joke out on the streets of Accra was that the Cold War was being lost right in front of everyone’s eyes. Further, that the West didn’t need to do anything — except get out of the way, and let the Soviets fall on their face. With the Nkrumah political rhetoric, already generating indigenous skepticism, it was on everybody’s mind. “Who needs Soviet socialism anyway. We have our own African way of doing things ! ” I would hear this again and again.

    It had been a political miscalculation of monstrous scale. On a subsequent political visit to Egypt, Pres Nkrumah landed at the Cairo Airport, and still standing out on the tarmac, was informed that a coup had taken place, and that he was no longer president of Ghana. It must have been a jarring moment for the ambitious African politician, bent on unifying all of Africa.

    What nobody ever heard was whether or not the lovers had somehow afterward found each other again. I don’t think anybody ever thought about Ghanaian women the same way again. Certainly opposition politicians didn’t.

    And that is the end of the story of “The Great Escape”. Thanks for your interest, David. John Turnbull

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