It was the late John F. Kennedy who in the early 1960s promoted the idea of a Peace Corps. He felt at the time, that with countries exploring nuclear weapons and the focus on space exploration, that it was in the country’s best interest to create an agency in which Americans could volunteer and serve their country as ambassadors of goodwill.
That agency became the U.S. Peace Corps. Americans of all ages with a skill or skills responded to the president’s call to serve. Former President Jimmy Carter’s mother at one time served as a volunteer. This was an agency where a good attitude and not necessarily a degree was mandatory.
Things did not go smoothly at first with the agency. Leaders of many countries where volunteers were assigned looked at these Americans with considerable suspicion. They were perceived and accused of being employees of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Some volunteers were actually expelled from their host countries because of this belief. In later years we have learned that in some instances these leaders were correct.
Even so, thousands of Americans served as volunteers in countries throughout the world. They taught children English, math and other subjects in developing countries. Even physicians and nurses who were willing to spend two years abroad as goodwill ambassadors for their country served as volunteers.
Volunteers were paid very little but the experience of being abroad was invaluable. The experiences brought together people whose cultures were dramatically different in many respects.
Americans who served in developing countries quickly realized that even living in a poverty area in America was less of an inconvenience than living in their host country. Compared to their host countries, volunteers coming from America were accustomed to creature comforts like running water, air conditioning, an efficient health system, and safe and reliable means of transportation.
Even with these surfeits of inconveniences, most volunteers did not give up and remained at their assignment with their host country. They understood that experiencing another culture provided them with a perspective that caused them to understand just how similar we are to others who may speak a different language, worship differently, of who may even dress differently from Americans.
I personally had the opportunity to study abroad for nearly three years in Ghana, West Africa, a country of tremendous significance to many African-Americans. This is the country where millions of blacks were forcibly taken from the continent as slaves.
Many famous blacks such as W.E.B. Dubois and the writer Maya Angelou have lived temporarily or visited this country because of its historic significance. In fact, there are several slave castles still standing in the country which are popular tourist sites and attractions.
Visitors to the castles during my stay included entertainers such as Tina Turner, Santana, Roberta Flack and famous civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I went to Ghana when race relations in this country were still volatile between blacks and whites.
Going to Ghana, for me, at the time was going back “home.” Upon getting off my Pan-American flight, the first thing I did was to kiss the soil of my ancestral roots.
I learned a lot during my stay. Initially, I was angry at discovering the number of American whites and Europeans who lived or visited Ghana and other African countries. I was young and wanted Ghana to belong to me.
It was immediately apparent to me, however, that Ghanaians did not share the same hostility towards whites as did American blacks. I was definitely surprised at the number of Ghanaian men and women who were married to whites.
For the most part, people in Ghana spoke English quite well, probably as a result of the country being a former British colony. I was fascinated by Ghanaians not considering themselves inferior to whites. They were a proud people.
It was the faith in their culture, which the British underestimated, that forced Britain to grant their independence as a sovereign country. The Ghanaians were willing to die rather than continue to be subjects of foreigners they considered to be intruders, representing the British Empire.
Although the Ghanaians hated being colonized by the British, it did not cause them to develop hatred for Europeans. What annoys many African-Americans who know very little about Africa is that in some ways whites are just as welcome to the continent as visitors as are blacks.
I have benefited from my cultural experiences in Ghana. I realize that as an American, this country must always be an arbiter and collaborator in reducing tension in a world that has become increasingly more dangerous leading into the 21st century.
We already know from prior experiences that pursuing isolationist policies can be detrimental to our country. Powder kegs around the world can potentially explode at any minute and force our involvement as a world power.
Realizing what is happening in the Middle East, I can say without equivocation that an appreciation, not condemnation, of other cultures will always be the key to world peace.
Glenn Dowell is an author and LaGrange native who currently lives in Jonesboro. He may be reached at [email protected]