Fifty years is a golden time for reflection. It is a time for celebrating special anniversaries and birthdays, as in the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps.
With 60 others, I graduated from a small rural high school in northern Michigan. Few roads into town were paved. In school, I assumed the role of community organizer. With friends, we took over the defunct Chamber of Commerce and tried to put the town on the map. I landed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and became totally lost in a vast new world. Nearby, Tom Hayden was organizing the Students for a Democratic Society and trouble was brewing in Detroit, a place I knew only as "Down Below" because the dads of many high school classmates all seemed to work there during the week.
John F. Kennedy came to the Michigan Union, which was the Student Center, and called upon us to join a new movement called the Peace Corps. I vowed to join and a few years later, armed with a teaching certification in mathematics, I was in one of the first Peace Corps groups to go to Ghana in West Africa.
There were six of us -- and all of us had been through two summers of rigorous pre-country training. I had been sent to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Morehouse College in Atlanta, learning amazing things about the cold war, political systems, economics and Africa. In Atlanta, I met with Martin Luther King Jr., who was also planning to go to Ghana, a trip that never occurred.
Ghana's President was Kwame Nkrumah. Nkrumah was educated in the United States but was deeply opposed to American foreign policy and corporate exploitation in developing nations. He wrote several books, including "Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism". At his side was W.E.B. Dubois, who was working on Pan-African unity, and Shirley Dubois, who headed Ghanaian television. Nkrumah headed world leaders, who, at that time, included Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Patrice Lumumba of the Republic of Congo and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. At the time, Ghana hosted training camps for revolutionary forces. The situation was more than tense.
Kennedy offered Nkrumah assistance to build the Akosombo (Volta) Dam, an immense project that would, in part, power the giant aluminum smelter that Kaiser Aluminum would build in Tema, a port city near Accra. The smelter, a sister facility to Kaiser's plant at Ravenswood, led to some of the Peace Corps volunteers being geologists who explored for bauxite deposits. The rest of us, Nkrumah said, had to be certified math or science teachers. He told the same to the Soviet Union, which also provided volunteers. He wanted no "do-gooders" or "agents" from the Super Powers to indoctrinate students. He also told the United States "no thanks" to the Peace Corps stipend. Instead, he provided us a living allowance based on the lowest paid Ghanaian teacher.
When Pan American World Airways dropped us off in Accra, the smells, sounds and sights were overwhelming. The country's Peace Corps director met us and put us up temporarily in the Peace Corps Hostel. It was a bunk bed with nets. He gave us a code word: "desist". If we received any message with that word, we were told to immediately return to Accra and prepare for evacuation.
This set the stage for me to arrive, as the only American, at a boarding school called Prempeh College in Kumasi. I was joined by two similar volunteers, Ivan and Alex, from the Soviet Union. I was placed in a small house on the compound, called a Chattanooga for some reason. It consisted of two pink boxes, with the larger box on top of the smaller one. Peace Corps rules prohibited us from driving but permitted us to have bicycles. Only two brands were available, one from China and one from Hungary. We were not allowed to purchase the Chinese bike, which was my introduction to cold war policies. A bike from behind the "Iron Curtain" was OK while one from "Red" China was not.