Ghana, the Peace Corp Volunteer and the President
Last weekend I had breakfast with a woman with whom I graduated high school. Since we had not seen each other since a reunion several years ago there was much to catch up on. The most interesting thing was the fact that her daughter is in the middle of a 27 month deployment as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana. My friend had a thick photo album of her two visits to Ghana to visit her daughter who was living and working in what can only be described as totally primitive conditions.
To see a bright eyed, blond, happy American dedicating herself to service in the most primitive of situations brought back all the idealism with which the Peace Corps had been launched during the Kennedy Administration. I complimented my friend on having raised such a young woman in an age and culture that for two decades has been “all about me”.
This was the same day that President Obama was visiting Ghana and we wondered whether her daughter might actually get to see the President during his one day visit.
Well, she did. What follows is her exuberant account of that day. This is somewhat of a departure for this blog, but I was so moved by the unabashed enthusiasm and idealism of this young woman that I wanted to share it with you. It is the type of on the ground, intensely personal account that the mass media just can’t capture. It points to the power of service and to the universality of the human race.
What follows is the email this dedicated young woman wrote to her email list, something that she can only do occasionally as the village she lives in has no in door plumbing let alone an internet connection.
“I Shook Obama’s Hand”
As many of you know, Obama just visited Ghana on his way back from a summit in Russia . Because Kenya has descended into political turmoil, it was deemed too dangerous for him to make his first presidential visit to Sub-Saharan Africa there. Instead, Obama chose to visit Ghana because of its strong democracy and its recent successful handover of power in a region where military coups are more common.
In preparation of Obama’s visit, Ghana has been going crazy.. In Tamale, street vendors are selling Obama t-shirts, flags, posters, and hysterical oversized wristwatches. In addition to those items, vendors in Accra are also selling Obama underwear! Every front page of every newspaper every day this past week was an article about Obama. It’s been all over the radio every day, and something related to his visit is on the news every night (or so I’m told, since I don’t have electricity).
As PCVs( Peace Corps Volunteers) in the country where Peace Corps began, many of us were hopeful that there’d be an event where we could meet Obama. We’d been getting email and newsletters through Peace Corps repeatedly telling us that if anything came up, we would all be notified. But as he was only to be here for 24 hours on his way back from a summit, there was only a sliver of a chance that we’d get to meet him.
But two days before his arrival…we were miraculously put on the schedule!
With little notice, about a fourth of the volunteers packed their bags and headed to Accra. It was insane there. Everywhere we turned; vendors were selling mini-statues, action figures, banners, and Obama-printed cloth (from which Ghanaians make dresses and shirts). On every major street, there were billboards, banners, and posters welcoming the U.S. President.
Upon our late-night arrival in Accra, we met up with all the other volunteers who had traveled to the capital to see Obama. We ended up at a rooftop bar with big screen televisions, and we watched with a crowd of extremely excited Ghanaians as Obama’s plane landed around 9 pm Friday night. Everyone crowded around to see the television screen, and a loud and very funny national anthem “war” erupted between the Ghanaian crowd and the American crowd. With everyone in great spirits during this historic moment for Ghana, Ghanaians and Americans clinked their drink glasses while hugging and dancing the night away.
The next morning, we started our journey into central Accra early so we’d have time to pick up some souvenirs. But much to our chagrin, traffic was completely deadlocked. In 45 minutes, we had barely moved a total of three blocks. We finally found out that entire highways and major streets were blocked off for the presidential motorcade, and there were no detours available. So cars just had to sit and wait for HOURS in the unbearable midday heat. The five of us in the taxi finally just got out and walked for about an hour and a half to reach where we needed to go.
We grabbed some food and much-needed caffeine, and headed towards the American Embassy. There, we waited in line for 2-3 hours for security checks and ticket distributions. Along with Embassy workers and their families also waiting there, we boarded buses to the airport. We arrived to see throngs of Ghanaians waving American and Ghanaian flags, wearing Obama/Mills (the Ghanaian President) cloth sewn into African style dresses, and colorful Obama t-shirts. With traditional drumming in the background to keep us entertained, we got off the bus to join the long line. But we were instead escorted to a separate line of PCVs only!! We were walked through one set of gates and checked in as we saw Air Force One through a barbed wire fence. With police and snipers surrounding us, it was pretty intense.
When the gates finally opened, Ghana’s police force tried to calmly let in 10 Americans for every 10 Ghanaians. But the pushing and shoving just got completely out of control. Smashed painfully against a fence, a Ghanaian policeman with a machine gun on the other side just laughed at me!! People yelled, toes were stepped on, and elbows were jabbed in every imaginable place. I was finally allowed (read: pushed) through the gates, immediately after which additional police were sent to control the increasingly overzealous crowd.
After walking though a metal detector and showing my Peace Corps ID, I was personally escorted to a separate entrance to the event. And from there, I was again personally escorted to the FRONT ROWS of the event. It was beyond my imagination.
Around 5:45 pm, we all watched in anticipation as his helicopter landed on the airport tarmac. We watched snipers pacing back and forth with guns strapped to their legs and spotted a few more on top of trailers constantly scanning the crowd. And there were Secret Service agents wearing black sunglasses and talking into their hands – just like in the movies! We were surrounded by so many important people, it was surreal.
He took the presidential car from the helicopter to the podium, where President Obama and Michelle were serenaded by a traditional music and dance group for a few short moments. Obama walked to the stage with President John Atta Mills of Ghana, and they both greeted the crowd to thunderous applause.
Standing almost directly in front of President Obama, in the second row, I thought my heart would beat out of my chest! President Mills spoke first, acknowledging that it was an extremely successful trip, and the country was immensely proud that the first country Obama visited in Sub-Saharan Africa was Ghana. He spoke of the need for change and development in Ghana, and was thrilled to have Obama’s support. And he thanked Obama for acknowledging the country’s stable democracy by making Ghana his first stop.
And when Obama spoke, he began by thanking the country for welcoming his family. After a few specific thank yous to the welcoming committee and members of Parliament, he looked directly at the front rows and said, “I especially want to thank all of the Peace Corps Volunteers for their hard work and dedication in serving their country.” Amid thunderous cheering, he went on to say that he was proud of us for working to promote goodwill around the world.
In the rest of his speech, he made some good humored jokes about sports before delving into the problems that face Africa. He called on the youth of Ghana to step up and take responsibility for their own actions because they are the leaders of the future generation. And he congratulated Ghanaians for successfully and peacefully electing a new president within the past year. He said it was a very successful visit.
It was so surreal. I was literally within 15 feet of the President of the United States. Instead of hearing the speech through the speakers, I heard his actual voice. I could read the words on the Seal of the President of the Unite States at the podium. And I caught his eye as he spoke! In his twenty minute speech, he mentioned Peace Corps four times. People always say what great work we are doing as goodwill ambassadors in the developing world, but there are plenty of days where Peace Corps Volunteers feel as if we are doing nothing. To hear President Obama thank us for such meaningful work was an honor. It was rejuvenating to be recognized and appreciated by the most powerful man in the world.
After his speech and a few photo ops with members of the Ghanaian government, he started to make his rounds to shake hands. Never in a million years did I think he would make it to our section, but he just kept walking towards us!! With everyone craning their necks and stretching out their hands, Obama walked by us flanked by at least three Secret Service on each side. Sadly he passed me…but then turned back and grabbed my hand!! Of course I thanked him, but amazingly enough, he thanked me too!! And when he had passed, we looked over and realized Michelle was coming towards us too. Poised and gorgeous, she too shook my hand as she walked by. What a rush, to say the least!
With his airplane within 500 feet of us, we saw firsthand the photo op we always see in newspapers: the one where the President and his wife stand at the top of the stairs at the entrance to Air Force One to wave goodbye. What an amazing and meaningful sight to see Air Force take off from within feet of us. And then they were gone.
Ghana has been reeling ever since. Every speech he made has more or less been on replay over and over on every radio station since he left. It is still the front page of every newspaper, and Ghanaians can’t stop talking about how great the visit was.
Slowly, I’m sure the country will return to normal. But so far, everyone is so ecstatic that the President of the Free World visited Ghana.
I still can’t believe I hook the hand of the President of the United States.