Walter Johnson, Ghana (1963-1965)
I was in “Ghana Four”, a group that served is secondary teachers in Ghana from 1963-1965. I think of us as the first of the non-pioneers since our training included a lot of practical information from those who were first. One of our trainers was in the very first Peace Corps contingent send over seas, and that was to Ghana.
This is not a story, but some unconnected things that popped into my head as I thought about some experiences. Training was at the University of California at Berkeley and was completely overwhelming, but a couple visits to San Francisco were fun.
The plane taking us to Ghana landed first at Dakar and then in Freetown, Sierra Leone. As it approached the airport at Freetown it flew low over many huts with grass roofs. That is when I wondered what I had done. But the school I ended up at had running water and a few hours of electricity every day – quite livable. There was a young woman who was in the Peace Corps group one year ahead of us, and she stayed on with us for a third year. When asked why, one of the reasons was that her father was a National Park Ranger and she had grown up in remote areas of the Rocky Mountains without running water or electricity. Her father traveled by horse most of the time, so she was happy to be in a more “advanced” home in Ghana.
My first assignment was to a school in Half-Assini which was the home of Ghana’s director of education. When I got there I was informed by the Headmaster that I wasn’t needed, the director had over supplied the school with teachers. I was then assigned to a school in Mpraeso.
For some reason that I don’t think was fully understood, many Peace Corps women there tended to put on a little weight whereas the men often got skinny. I often ate eggs and beans for supper.
Mpraeso Secondary School is located high on an escarpment and the weather there was more tolerable than most of southern Ghana. It cooled enough at night to require a sheet or very light blanket. The capital, Accra was at 6 degrees above the equator and very tropical, humid and hot.
I discovered the students were like kids everywhere. Some were quite smart, some maybe not so much, some were very funny, some made you angry, but all in all, good kids.
I went to Macalester College, and Kofi Anan the former Secretary General of the United Nations graduated a year or two ahead of me. Although I didn’t know him personally, I think everybody on campus knew who he was. One day after classes in Mpraeso I was sitting and chatting with a couple Ghanaian teachers when one of them asked me if I ever heard of Macalester College. I wondered how he had ever heard of it, but I said yes, I had gone there. He then asked if I ever came across his cousin Kofi Anan!
One of our Ghanaian friends, Benkof we called him, did not come back to teach the second year I was there, but went on for more education at one of the teacher colleges. I visited him in his dorm room for a couple days one weekend. It was just like here – posters of entertainers on the wall, books, beds and what ever might be in an American dorm room of the time. We even went to a dance that night. That experience really reduced the size of the world.
Women there did not sit back. One day Benkof and I were on a Benz-bus, like a 15 passenger van, coming back to Mpraeso when a small child ran in front of the bus and was almost hit. Benkof made a comment to me about the poor supervision of the kid by his mother. A young Ghanaian woman whom I took to be a college student immediately confronted him about his attitude toward a women’s place! Ghanaians were outspoken and quite fun. The physical education teacher always wore white shorts, a white tee shirt and had a whistle around his neck. He reminded me somewhat of my own high school physical education teacher.
Perhaps the most meaningful personal experience for me took place on Christmas Eve of the second year I was there. There were British Seventh Day Adventist medical missionaries that ran the local government hospital. They were more permanent in their houses and positions than we were and were kind to us. We got to be good friends with some of them. That Christmas Eve I was invited to one of their homes for a party. There was a nursing school associated with the hospital that went caroling through the wards that night. I was invited to tag along which I did, but the thing I won’t forget is when they went into the town to bring gifts to a particularly poor woman. There were no street lights so I followed the group which had a couple oil lanterns and observed the simple gift giving in a scene that could have been Biblical