The Peace Corps: Early Years
by Gregory A. Barnes (Sierra Leone 1961-63)
$6.00 (Kindle); $12.00 (Paperback)
One of the most exciting developments in the United State of the 1960s was the founding of the Peace Corps: so ambitious, so popular, and so emblematic of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. Many thousands of Americans responded, volunteering to serve in the developing countries of the world, and Greg Barnes was among them—part of a group forever to be known as Sierra Leone One. Ultimately he worked as both volunteer and staffer from 1961 to 1966.
Here are his memoirs of his time as volunteer in Sierra Leone and as staff member in both Nigeria and Washington. Titles of the initial chapters show some of the chaos reigning at the Peace Corps in its early days: Here We Are, So Take Us, a translation from “We’ve even moved to Washington, so why can’t they find us?”; Teacher-training Early Peace Corps Style—that is, learn to teach through survival hikes and rappelling off a 200-ft. dam; and Cross-cultural Training Under the Bright Lights (first, a concert at Carnegie Hall).
This memoir, frank in its admission of his own and his country’s early naivety about working in the Africa of the 1960’s, adds significantly to his previously published works about Africa—most recently, his award-winning The Beauty Queen of Bonthe and Other Stories of West Africa (2018) –and will engage the reader throughout. Because of his varied and intense service, moving from a Puerto Rican training program to a remote village in Sierra Leone and then to the power corridors of Peace Corps headquarters where R. Sargent Shriver carried out JFK’s directions, his book provides insights of use to current and future historians of the agency.
The Peace Corps: Early Days shows the depth of Barnes’s experience with Peace Corps and with Africa and includes odd, humorous, and occasionally daunting tales (as in a showdown with a spitting cobra) that make the book so readable. The final chapter, in the nature of a post-script, shows him, in in 1966, traveling to Ethiopia to assist at a termination conference, where an irascible fellow American threatens to throw him off a plane. He landed safely. “Still,” he writes, “how many people can say they were threatened with being thrown off a plane in mid-air over Ethiopia?”
After his final adventure—working in a training program in Zaire in 1975—Barnes concludes his book with an appendix containing the biographical updates of his Sierra Leone One group at the Peace Corps’s golden anniversary celebration in 2011.
Gregory A. Barnes (Sierra Leone 1961-63) publishes in two main areas. He writes fiction set in Africa, based on his experiences with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. His two novels are A Wind of Change (1968)and Jane Among Friends (2017); he has also published a collection of short fiction from those days, titled “The Beauty Queen of Bonthe and other Stories of West Africa” ( 2018). In recent years he has self-published under the imprimatur FriendsPress.
His other topic is Quaker history, based on his extensive research and his participation in activities of the Religious Society of Friends. He has published 3 large studies: A Biography of Lillian and George Willoughby, 20th Century Quaker Peace Activists (2005); Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meeting House: a Biography (2012); and A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee (2016).
He has been a member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting since the early 1990s. He lives with his wife in an experimental Quaker community in Philadelphia, and continues his active writing program: another Quaker history is due out in 2019.