Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Making Sense of Fifty Years of U.S. Peace Corps Service in Cameroon

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

Making Sense of Fifty Years of U.S. Peace Corps Service in Cameroon

Article excerpt

Dominating the courtyard of the U.S. embassy situated at the Avenue Rosa Parks in the Cameroon capital of Yaoundé, is an imposing statue of John F. Kennedy. The bronze and pedestalled presence of America's 35th president at the entrance of the embassy underscores his importance to Cameroon and indeed, to all Africa. Many of Africa's leaders who brought independence to their nations and their successors recalled fondly their relationship with the young and dynamic American leader who reached out to them to engage and to help. For his part, John F. Kennedy's special relationship with the African continent was no afterthought, but actually a campaign pledge redeemed. During the electoral contest Kennedy chastised his Republican opponent for neglecting the importance of this emerging continent and vowed, if elected, to engage Africa and its people.1 Kennedy acted on this promise not long after his inauguration and invoked an executive order to establish the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961.2 The first contingent of Peace Corps Volunteers arrived in the Republic of Ghana six months later. This mission to West Africa was, of course, just the beginning, as Volunteers soon spread out across Africa and throughout the world. By 2011, over two hundred thousand Volunteers had served in every part of the planet and Peace Corps Volunteers have served uninterrupted in some nations from the early 1960s to the present.3

Peace Corps legislation was created at the height of the Cold War under the authority given to the president in the Mutual Security Act, and charged the agency to assist developing nations meet "their needs for trained manpower, and to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the American people."4 Recruits saw the Peace Corps as an opportunity to assist the less fortunate especially those living in the southern part of the globe. The Peace Corps wrote Larry Grubbs, was "uniquely idealistic," and a "natural tool for Washington's African agenda." "We are only as great as our ideas," a Kennedy supporter wrote in 1961. The Peace Corps, added a Time article, was the "the single greatest success the Kennedy administration ... produced." Africans and Latin Americans agreed that Kennedy was the "good man," "the great one" and "the friend of the colored man everywhere."5

Despite its longevity and worldwide acceptance, there is a dearth of scholarship on the Peace Corps and more especially on Volunteers' service in Africa. Almost two decades ago Merry Merrifield wrote in the African Studies Review about this weakness in Peace Corps historiography: "If one examines the scarcity of rigorous inquiry on the Peace Corps, it appears scholars ... do not find Kennedy's experiment worthy of serious study despite its bipartisan support, millions in funding," challenging scholars of both the American and African experience to do more on the topic.6 Yet to the present, the state of Peace Corps historiography, but for a few studies, remains virtually unchanged.7 In short, Peace Corps has received limited scholarly scrutiny. While there are few scholarly accounts of Peace Corps in Africa, there are almost none available on Volunteers' service in an individual African nation from beginning to present.

This study attempts to begin to fill that gap. As the first study to examine Peace Corps work in an African nation from the beginning to the present, it argues that the history of the Peace Corps in Cameroon shows more continuity than change and as a result the agency had mixed achievements in its goal to help Cameroon and African nations meet their need for "trained manpower." It does so by examining Volunteers' service in education and community health programs, which unlike other programs such as small enterprise development and agriculture, have not been studied.* * 8 This study will help to more fully assess the continuous role, impact, and relevance of the Peace Corps on contemporary Cameroon and African society. …

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