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Steve Telkins’s Peace Corps

by Steve Telkins

Stephen Telkins, Ghana, 1962-64: Headmaster, staff members and Member of Parliament for Mpraeso gathered to celebrate the high school’s fourth anniversary. 1964.

Following college graduation and intensive training, I became one of 50 Peace Corps Volunteers in Ghana and served there from 1962 to 1964. My assignment was to teach English and French to Ghanaian students at a newly built high school. As “Ghana II” we joined the first group of PCVs at work in the world. It was the era of Africa’s “winds of change,” with newly independent nations committed to pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism, and development. In 1961, our Ghana I predecessors began under the glare of U.S. media attention from Time, Life, Look, and newspapers, and focused on proving themselves to be committed educators. Some were veteran teachers. We followed their example and gained acceptance by Ghana’s Ministry of Education. It asked for more.

ANECDOTE: Over ensuing years, as Peace Corps Ghana continued to provide graduate teachers in an expanding national education system, Ghanaian graduates steadily replaced American PCVs. But until the 2020 onset of Covid-19 forced a worldwide Peace Corps recall, Ghana consistently requested and welcomed Volunteers to meet its other needs — agricultural productivity, maternal and child health care, deaf education, sanitation, and malaria prevention. 

Ghana PCVs in the 60s worked in varied locations and conditions, with many of us in isolated towns. My high school in Mpraeso-Kwahu was a six-hour bus ride from Ghana’s capital, Accra, and Peace Corps headquarters. I shared living quarters with a Ghanaian colleague. We had rain water (collected and purified by boiling), four hours of generated electric power at night, and a small “fridge” that ran on kerosene. In much of the region there was endemic malaria, high humidity, limited fresh food, slow public transport, and a lack of infrastructure. But in my two-year stay, I lived and worked among friendly, energetic, and appreciative Ghanaians from many walks of life. They helped smooth some of the hard edges that occasionally marked my assignment.

Stephen Telkins: Wearing the adinkra cloth given me by Mpraeso staff. The symbols represent proverbs or beliefs created over two centuries ago and once worn by tribal royalty. Many designs have since been adopted by Ghanaians for secular use. 1964.

My major responsibility was to teach over 300 Ghanaian teenaged boys and girls. English was their second language after indigenous Twi. Ghanaian education officials also emphasized the country’s need for student leadership development and other skills, much of which was encouraged through extracurricular activity. As I settled in to understand a residential school system inherited from a British model, I offered my ideas and then used after-class hours to organize a French club, a student-run school library with donated books, a student-run newspaper, coach the track team, and serve as boys dormitory supervisor. I arrived as the only obroni (white person) on campus and in town. As the year continued, I found my role. In recognizing and meeting student needs in partnership with students and staff, I could minimize the loneliness and occasional disappointment I’d first experienced. A second PCV came to the school the next year.

Why was French a required subject in this former British colony? Reflecting Ghana’s pan-African policies, its Ministry of Education made French mandatory to enhance communication with its three Francophone African neighbors. This decision provided me with a unique role as the school’s “French master” for all students. I budgeted funds to purchase new West African French course textbooks to help “Africanize” a European language. I focused on grammar, comprehension, and speaking/pronunciation, and with English instruction I also emphasized writing skills. While most of my Ghana PCV colleagues taught science and math to meet the Ministry’s national requirements, its addition of French made my own teaching assignment rather unique.

ANECDOTE: As track coach of our school team, I one day proudly watched our high jumper, Amankwa Collins, win the boys regional championship. That happened on November 22, 1963 – a day which of course gained worldwide significance. Our celebration turned to shock as we learned that President Kennedy, the creator of “our” Peace Corps, had died tragically. After the meet I joined others to listen to Voice of America shortwave news coverage of that unforgettable time.

Sundown on the West African equator – each day at 6 pm – quickly brought darkness. As our electric power ended each evening at 10, I lit my “Aladdin” kerosene lamp, continued marking student papers, read, or used my battery-powered shortwave radio. And, with no generator hum, I’d await the haunting nightly cries from neighboring nocturnal “bush babies” —- shy, always nearby, but never visible. There were occasional visits from army ants. Emerging silently from the bush, they delivered ankle and leg bites to the unaware who’d walked outside with no flashlight. I once did so, immediately jumped away, grabbed a light, and saw I’d stepped in a path four feet wide of literally thousands of marching soldiers. They were moving toward my front door. My Ghanaian colleagues calmly advised me not to disrupt this massive maneuver, but instead step aside, let the parade move through my bungalow, and wait. Although hesitant, I took their advice and went off to have a beer with a neighboring teacher. Returning two hours later, I confirmed the denizens had departed. I was impressed —  and relieved —  to find the walls, floors, windows, and ceiling of my bungalow completely cleaned of spider webs, dust, and dirt — and my containers of food untouched. I had experienced nature’s own housecleaning crew!

Stephen Telkins: Our Mpraeso champion high jumper at practice with his coach. 1963.

Ghana Volunteers received $130 a month in local currency from the government. Since this — the graduate teacher pay rate — was more than adequate for me, I found a way to use the excess, helping two of my high performing boy students whose school fees were in arrears. When families could not continue payment, student sons or daughters had to go home, sometimes unable to return and re-enroll. For those two boys, my “scholarship” made the difference. They in turn helped me, hand-washing my laundry and doing house cleaning (no ants) during Saturday free time.

Daily reading of Ghanaian newspapers and Time magazine and listening to short-wave news kept me up to date on many issues. Three or four times a year I traveled to Accra, usually staying with fellow Volunteers teaching at city schools. I’d join them for nightclub highlife band dancing, African drumming performances, shopping for food items not available in my town, and Labadi Beach afternoons. I learned about American public diplomacy after I met Jake Gillespie, then a USIA JOT, who arranged an invitation to a reception hosted by Country PAO Mark Lewis in honor of touring jazz musician Cozy Cole, who took Ghana by storm. I made visits to the USIS library and met interesting urban Ghanaians. The March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., took place on the Mall during that time, and I joined other Ghana PCVs for a screening of the film produced by USIA on The March [directed by James Blue]. I later showed it to my students with a loaned projector. Impressed with the ambience of Accra and the significance of USIS work, I took the Foreign Service exam at the Embassy toward the end of my time in Ghana. With my end-of-tour discharge allowance, I travelled through parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, returned home and went to graduate school for an M.A. Within two years I married and entered USIA’s Foreign Service. Coincidentally, Mark Lewis was my first African Area Director as I prepared to return to Africa for early USIS posts, and then moved on to Latin America, VOA, and elsewhere. Nearly 60 years ago, my Peace Corps experience changed my life.

ANECDOTE: Returned PCVs in Washington gathered over many November 22nds at the site of Arlington Cemetery’s Kennedy gravesite with its eternal flame. For many years after retiring from public life, Sargent Shriver also continued to do this. Sarge, as we all called him over those years, loved to mix with former Volunteers. Our conversations with him were animated. Once after exiting the gravesite, I joined others for a chat with Sarge, who asked each of us where we were in our post-Peace Corps careers. I said I’d just been selected to attend the National War College as an FSO at Fort McNair. Sarge looked at me intently and asked why I would be part of a program that he felt waged war, when I had committed to goals of peace as a Volunteer. I explained my values were the same, and this was a sought-after year of study with career military, federal, and Foreign Service professionals. It seemed Sarge did not know of the program, and as we departed he told me he thought the War College ought to change its name.

Four PCVs published books after completing their service in Ghana. One, written by a teacher who later became an AP correspondent, was an engaging account of the pioneering days of the Peace Corps’ first program. The second was a diary by a Black PCV who wrote a frank, analytical commentary on his experiences. A third produced an autobiography describing his two years in the first group and later time as the Peace Corps country staff director. The fourth was a collection of 50 years of personal letters between a Volunteer and her former student, celebrating friendships, family reunions, travel, and life changes.

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