It was 1961. President John F. Kennedy had come to the steps of the student union at the University of Michigan to announce the idea of the Peace Corps. I was a student and, upon graduation, I joined to go to Africa — much to the concern of my parents, who had only one child after fleeing Nazi Germany. Africa was then a Cold War-superpower area of contention and not a destination considered safe.
In 1965, we were among the first to go to Ghana, and we were the most unique. We were only six in number who trained for two summers, two of us initially at Dartmouth and the other four in California. We came together for the second summer at Morehouse College, in Atlanta, where we met civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King greeted us enthusiastically and promised to visit us the following year on a trip he had scheduled but that never happened.
We were briefed extensively on U.S. foreign policy, and I received lessons in Twi, one of the indigenous Ghanaian languages. Then, we went to New York and boarded a Pan Am flight to Accra. We never knew each other previously but soon became a real team. Two have since died, but the remaining four of us are close friends to this day. Once in Ghana, we went to separate regions within the country, namely Ashanti, Upper, Northern, Volta and Bono.
The U.S. ambassador gave us one warning. It was based on the word “desist.” If we received a message with that word, we were to head back to Accra for evacuation. We also received a medical kit with hydroxychloroquine sulfate tablets, in case we got malaria. He then said “akwaaba,” which in Twi means “welcome.”
I was placed at a secondary boarding school in Kumasi named Prempeh College after a former Asantehene of the Ashante Kingdom. There were no other Americans, but there were two Soviet volunteers, Alex and Vladimir. We taught together until Feb. 1966, when there was a coup and a Ghanaian army truck came to pick someone up. I was sitting on my dwelling stoop with Vladimir when the truck came.
At the time, it was not clear which way the coup would go, but it was Vladimir who the army picked up that day. Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah was educated in the United States and was nonaligned. He agreed to become among the initial handful of nations to host the Peace Corps. It was in a deal with Kennedy and American financial support that involved the Kaiser Aluminum smelter like the one built at Ravenswood. It was being built as part of constructing the Akosombo Dam hydro-electric facility. Adhering to nonalignment, however, Nkrumah told the USSR and the United States that volunteers could teach only math and science, and they would be compensated with a low living allowance of Ghanaian money, the cedi, and not with rubles or dollars.
He wanted Peace Corps geologists to look for bauxite for the smelter. While in Ghana, the six of us were not allowed to drive or obtain bicycles made in the USSR, China or Eastern Europe. I taught math and worked with others on developing a series of modern math textbooks that ended up being used in Ghana, Tanzania and Jamaica, all former British Commonwealth countries. I also worked on work-camp projects in villages, which cultivated my interest in doing the same later in West Virginia, when we began the Southern Appalachian Labor School.
The personal connections made were amazing, and one student, followed later by his daughter, came to West Virginia Tech and became active in the Student Government Association. Later, he sent a shipment of solid wooden doors that required special hinges for houses being constructed by the labor school. We called the doors ”Affordable Housing Social Work Doors,” since they could not be “kicked in” as a result of family disputes without causing foot pain. Another former student came much later to Tech as the vice president of administrative affairs. Today, I remain in touch with both and have returned to Ghana twice.
During one of these trips, I went to Northern Ghana and dropped by a roadside book sale. To my surprise, one displayed book was a modern math book that I co-authored. That was also the trip when a city bus in Accra came to a sudden halt, with the conductor dashing out to welcome me back. Upon returning to the United States, I was hired by the Peace Corps to train another group of new volunteers at Columbia University and destined for Ghana. Afterwards, one ended up at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine. They trained only one summer, as became typical.
Kwame Nkrumah was a charismatic leader who envisioned enterprises, like the Golden Tree Chocolate factory, to create markets in areas dominated by multinational corporations, such as Hershey, Mars and Cadbury. He was a Pan-Africanist who attracted George Padmore and W.E.B. Du Bois to Ghana. Shirley Du Bois became head of another new enterprise, namely Ghana Television. W.E.B. and Shirley Du Bois became Ghanaian citizens and lie in state in a special museum in Accra dedicated to their lives, with a focus on the Niagra and Civil Rights movements in the United States.
When Nkrumah was deposed, he was on a peace-keeping mission to Vietnam and ended up in nearby Guinea, then led by Sekou Toure, another Pan-Africanist, along with Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), of the Student Non-Violent Organizing Committee.
All of this was in the 1960s. It was an amazing adventure for a small-town kid from the woods of Northern Michigan. But it was a turning point for all of us, then and since, for realizing what can be done to make a difference as a force for good in creating another face of America.