Upcountry in Africa: An education in the Peace Corps

Andy Hanson
Special to the Aspen Times Weekly
Andy HansonThe village of Toweh-ta, deep in the Liberian interior.

My entry into the Peace Corps was a nearly forced exit from San Diego, Calif. As a student activist in the ’50s and ’60s, I was newly married, active in the Democratic Party of Southern California and the founding member of a student group called the Committee for Student Action. My wife and I applied to the Peace Corps in spring 1962, hoping to go to either Kenya or Tanzania, with dreams of the Serengeti, but we were offered Liberia. We had to go quickly to an atlas to find it – on the Atlantic coast of West Africa -and then we accepted. We were the first married couple invited from Southern California, and the first volunteers invited from San Diego State College.

Soon afterward, a professor of Portuguese asked me to coffee at the student union. He explained that he was the treasurer of the local chapter of the John Birch Society and that I was number one on their hit list, come the revolution. I thanked him and told him we were on our way out of town, anyway, to go to Peace Corps training at the University of Pittsburgh and then Africa.

We escaped with a fond farewell party at South Mission Beach, and drove to Montana to see folks and have a belated wedding reception at my parents’ house in Miles City. (Earlier in the school year, we’d been secretly married in Mexico.)

In June we arrived in Pittsburgh for a 12-week training that included language classes, some history of Liberia, psychological evaluation, teacher training and, of course, bonding with about 120 fellow trainees. Then we headed back to San Diego to prepare for our journey to Africa.

Over the phone we were informed that my student political activities had raised a red flag in our full field investigation and we were on hold; I was also on hold because of an eye injury received while playing hand-ball during training. In Miles City the FBI was investigating the possibility that I was a member of the American Nazi Party. In San Diego they were exploring whether I was a Communist. This confusion took the FBI a while to sort out and we played on the beach for weeks, drawing government pay because we were in so-called limbo.

One group of Liberia teachers left New York City as scheduled in August. We continued playing volleyball on the beach and visited jazz clubs up and down the coast. Finally in October, clearance came and we left for Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia. Upon arriving, we were met by the director of the Peace Corps in the country, a great guy by the name of Tom Quimby.

He had assigned us to teach English and social studies at the University of Liberia in Monrovia. Eventually we settled in an apartment overlooking the Atlantic with a surfing wave just below. We spent the next nine months in the city, involving ourselves at the University, getting into sports and generally enjoying the city. I was invited to become the assistant coach for soccer at the University and I started playing volleyball at the local YMCA, playing pick-up games with a group of young Liberians every afternoon. One day I received a call from the attorney general of the country, and I wondered what I had done.

I was ushered into his office, where he said he wanted me to become the coach for the national volleyball team for Liberia. The object of the offer was to take the team first to Sierra Leone for a test against Forah Bay College (the oldest college on the coast of Africa) and then to Senegal for the African Games put on by Leopold Senghor and Charles DeGaulle. Wow, I replied, may I take my wife, June Andrea?

Yes, came the answer. Thus began our journey to discover more about West Africa.

• • • •

The highlight of the Games was the opening ceremony in Dakar. Guinea President Sekou Toure had sent music instead of athletes. Les Ballets Africaine performed and my love affair with African music began. The beauty of the music on a large soccer field, with koras, balafons, drums and beautiful singing was a perfect opening for the 1963 African Games.

My team did not do well. We were wiped off the court by the French and the Malagasy Republic, but three years later my boys did go on to win the West African Championships, after we had finished our tour of duty.

Stunned by our good fortune to have attended the Games, we returned to Monrovia, only to find out that June was very ill. The doctors thought she had leukemia, but after being evacuated to New York City, we learned it was amoebic dysentery (likely transmitted from an ice cube in a Monrovia restaurant). After another two months, we returned again to Monrovia and realized that we still wanted to have an “upcountry” experience.

The previous Christmas, we had promised a village near the Cote d’Ivoire border that we would return as the first Peace Corps teachers in their village. After begging and begging, we were eventually reassigned to Toweh-ta, a small village 250 miles in the interior, to start a school. Little did we know that our real Peace Corps experience was about to begin.

Upon our arrival, the Paramount Chief Gblorzuo Toweh gave us his two sons to live with us and learn English. Our extreme good fortune continued, as these boys became our best friends and interpreters of the language and culture around us. For the next year, we did everything with Richard and James; they made our time in the village complete. And we began to understand Gio, the language of the Dan people. The boys kept us away from the mamba variety of snake and introduced us to great food made by their mothers. We soon realized that we were having a deep anthropological experience because the Dan people had taken us in so completely. After the boys, our best friend became the paramount chief himself.

Everything was not always perfect. One time, the paramount chief and I got into it in a big way. I had objected to him talking one of my older students, his son, out of our school, to make a farm. I took the case to the district commissioner, who judged the matter. I lost because the paramount chief gave a cow to the commissioner. In time, one learns the ways of upcountry Liberia.

When the year was finished my father decided to come visit. The chief heard that he was coming and announced that we must have a feast. June and I drove to Monrovia to pick up Roy. Upon returning to Toweh-ta, we discovered a palm-lined road all the way up the hill to the village, and half the village dancing down the road to meet us. We were overwhelmed. The chief produced a valuable, hand-crafted robe as a gift for my dad, and then we proceeded to have a three-day feast in my father’s honor. If nothing else, this proved to me that in Africa the elder is truly revered and celebrated.

On the morning that we were due to leave for the capital, I decided I wanted to give something to the chief. He had always admired my Swiss Army knife, so I presented this to him. Through Richard and James, he said, “Teacher why do you have to leave?” I told him my time was up and I must return home. He then started to ply me with things he would do if I stayed: “Teacher, I will make you the manager of my coffee and rubber plantation. I will buy you a pickup and I will build you a house on that hill. And I will give you my third youngest wife.”

My wife said, “we have to go,” and so I walked away from the best offer of my life.

• • • •

As we left Monrovia in early August 1964, we were surprised to see Chief Gblorzuo and some of his wives, Richard and James, and many musicians from the village. To the surprise of the captain of the French mail boat – not to mention the passengers – they all came on board to serenade us one more time. Is it any wonder that some 50 years later I am still an advocate for Africa and a total nut for African music?

Did the Peace Corps change my life? Did we make any impact where we were?

As most ex-Peace Corps volunteers say, the impact was mostly on us. We started a school in the remote village, and we influenced the town of Toweh-ta, but Africa totally changed me. I became an Africanist, I continued teaching for another eight years, I introduced African Studies to a private school in Maryland and one in New York City. But mostly I developed an obsession to go back to Africa.

I have been fortunate to visit some 23 countries in Africa; my most recent trip was to visit the Serengeti, Olduvai Gorge and discover the one country I wanted to serve in back in 1962, Tanzania. My current wife, Georgia, says I am obsessed with Africa, to the exclusion of other interests. But I know that the most exciting place on earth is the African continent, and as I age I still want to return again and again. One gets malaria and Africa in the veins, and it is difficult to rid one’s self of either. I got rid of malaria after 12 years, but I will never lose my desire to return to the continent. Africa lives and breathes adventure.