Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with John Donelson, May 11, 2021

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


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00:00:02 - Life before Peace Corps/reasons for joining

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Partial Transcript: Good morning, today is May 11, 2021. My name is Jay Sztuk and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Fiji in 1974 and today I am interviewing John Donelson, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana from 1965 to 1967 working in the education program.

Segment Synopsis: Donelson discusses his early life on a farm in Iowa. He talks of his education and admits that he was not always good at school. Donelson recalls when he attending Iowa State University and majoring in physics. Donelson remembers what convinced him to join the Peace Corps while he was in college.

Keywords: College; Country schools; Rural communities; Sputnik; Training programs

Subjects: Cold War; Early life; Education; Farms; Ghana; Iowa; Iowa State University; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Physics; Schools; Smokejumpers; Undergraduate

00:05:04 - Peace Corps training program during college

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Partial Transcript: So I--uh--went into this program--uh--and it was a uh wonderful opportunity for me. --Uh--it was held at Dartmouth College, an Ivy League school . . .

Segment Synopsis: Donelson talks about attending a training program during college to prepare him for joining the Peace Corps after he graduated. He talks about struggling to learn French and requesting to be sent to an English-speaking country. Donelson recalls that other students quit the training program and did not volunteer with the Peace Corps.

Keywords: African countries; Language learning; Motivation; Training programs

Subjects: Africa; Atlanta (Ga.); Dartmouth College; Education; French language; Language and languages; Motivation; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Physics; Students; Teachers; Travel; Volunteers

00:12:16 - Living in Atlanta

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Partial Transcript: So--so for you even going to somewhere like Atlanta was--was probably like going to a foreign country?

Segment Synopsis: Donelson talks about how different it was living in a big city coming from a rural community. He details his experience being a minority in a predominantly Black area. Donelson describes taking a trip to Florida and getting a driving citation in the Everglades, causing him to have to appear in court.

Keywords: Arrest warrants; Church services; Foreign countries; Traffic citation; Training programs

Subjects: African Americans; Atlanta (Ga.); Blacks; Church; Courts; Culture shock; Dartmouth College; Dormitories; Everglades (Fla.); Florida; Minorities; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Rural; Traffic courts; Volunteers

00:19:50 - Camping trip during training

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Partial Transcript: Okay we're recording now. You--um--you just uh finished telling us about your--uh--story with the--uh--traffic citation in Florida so--uh--and then you started to tell a . . . a story about a camping--camping journey.

Segment Synopsis: Donelson talks about a camping trip he took during his training program at Dartmouth College. Donelson recalls getting in trouble for using a rope he found on his tent. Donelson discusses having to kill a chicken and learning how to prepare it.

Keywords: Cavities; Dental health; Evaluations; Medical exams; Reports; Stealing; Training programs

Subjects: Camping; Chicken; Cooking; Dartmouth College; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Rope; Teeth; Tents; Vaccines; Volunteers

00:24:49 - Reactions from friends and family

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Partial Transcript: What did--what did you--uh--friends and family think about you joining the Peace Corps? Did your--were your parents supportive?

Segment Synopsis: Donelson describes how supportive his parents were of him joining the Peace Corps. He talks about being encouraged to join the military after leaving the Peace Corps.

Keywords: Essential workers; Family; Military service; Reactions

Subjects: Draft; Farmers; Military; Parents; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Skydiving; Vietnam War, 1961-1975; Work

00:26:52 - First impressions of Ghana

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Partial Transcript: Okay. Well tell me about arriving in--in--uh--Africa. Now you c--you came from this place in Iowa you know a small community, living on a farm--uh--hadn't travelled.

Segment Synopsis: Donelson recalls his first night in Ghana and not having adjustment issues. He talks about the training he went through at the University of Ghana and tensions with the Soviet Union at that time. Donelson remembers being assigned to work in a farming community.

Keywords: Adjustment period; Assignments; Cocoa farms; Extracurricular activities; Farming communities; Taxis

Subjects: Atlanta (Ga.); Cocoa; Cold War; Dormitories; Farms; Independence; Nightclubs; Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Rain forests--Africa.; Russia; Self-confidence; Soviet Union; Student activities; Training; University of Ghana

00:35:27 - Experiences of living and teaching in Ghana

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Partial Transcript: Okay. So--uh--so you got your--your wish there you got to--to go to--uh--a remote--uh--agricultural community and--uh--tell me about what that--what that--uh--town was like and--and what your--um--your accommodations were like.

Segment Synopsis: Donelson describes his living quarters in Ghana and the people that lived around him in his staff housing. He talks about interacting with the locals and the other Ghanaian teachers instead of just interacting with the other volunteers. Donelson recalls spending his time studying to keep up with his students.

Keywords: Employment; Foreigners; Ghanaian government; Government school; Host families; Kwame Nkrumah; Living quarters; Rural communities; Rural schools; Staff housing

Subjects: Discipline; Education; Ghanaians; Housing; Infrastructure; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Rural; Rural schools; Schools; Students; Studying; Teachers; Teaching; Volunteers

00:45:11 - Experiences with Ghanaians

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Partial Transcript: So--um--tell me about what you did outside of school. You know--uh--living in the community and--and you know what--what was that like being a foreigner in this . . . this community?

Segment Synopsis: Donelson characterizes his interactions with the Ghanaian locals and children who followed him around due to him being a foreigner. He talks about how he traveled since he was not allowed to have a motor vehicle. Donelson discusses visiting some of his students' villages and experiencing some of their cultural practices. Donelson details how he interacted with his students, such as through becoming one of the track coaches.

Keywords: Expatriates; Foreigners; Friendships; Juju men; Rural communities; Science clubs

Subjects: Bicycles; Children; Culture; Education; Families; Ghana; Ghanaians; Juju; Language and culture; Motor vehicles; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Race relations; Rural schools; Science; Sports; Students; Track and field; Track and field coaches; Transportation; Villages

00:53:04 - Interacting with Russian teachers/aftermath of the 1966 coup d'état

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Partial Transcript: But you didn't collaborate with those Russian teachers, huh?

Segment Synopsis: Donelson discusses becoming friends with the Russian volunteers early on. Donelson describes the coup d'état that happened in Ghana and the tensions between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during this period. For instance, the Russian volunteers were kicked out of Ghana with very little notice. Donelson can remember watching political prisoners being released from prison due to the coup.

Keywords: Coup d'état; Friendships; Ghanaian government; Ivory Coast; Political prisoners; Staff housing

Subjects: Africa; Americans; Cold War; Côte d'Ivoire; Ghana; Ghanaians; Helicopters; Housing; Military; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Political prisoners; Russia; Russians; Science teachers; Soviet Union; Teachers; Volunteers

01:05:04 - Travelling to other places in Africa/marrying another volunteer

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Partial Transcript: When you had time off did you get to--to travel--uh--to other places either in Ghana . . .

Segment Synopsis: Donelson describes some of the field trips he took his students on to other parts of Ghana. Donelson details some of the trips he took during his time off to other countries in Africa, including Togo and Kenya. Donelson reveals that got to know his future wife (who was also a Peace Corps volunteer) by traveling together in Kenya.

Keywords: Field trips; French teachers; Ivory Coast; National parks; Northern Ghana; Wife

Subjects: Africa; Cameroon; Côte d'Ivoire; Education; French teachers; Ghana; Kenya; Marriage; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Students; Teachers; Teaching.; Togo; Travel; Volunteers

01:10:46 - Return to Ghana/keeping in contact

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Partial Transcript: I've only been back to Ghana once.

Segment Synopsis: Donelson talks of returning to Ghana with his wife as part of a bird watching group. Donelson discusses the challenges of keeping in contact with other returned volunteers. Donelson recalls a volunteer that he knew from his training at Dartmouth College who was deselected but appealed the decision and was able to serve in Ghana.

Keywords: Appeal; Birders; Birding; De-selection; Ghanaian teachers; Headmasters; Wife

Subjects: Bird watching; Birding sites; Birds; Dartmouth College; Education; Ghana; Ghanaians.; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Rural; Teachers; Volunteers

01:15:10 - Life after the Peace Corps

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Partial Transcript: How about--um--Peace Corps' a--effect on you? Did you learn anything about living in other cultures and did it--did it--did it--um--change you in any way?

Segment Synopsis: Donelson considers how his time in the Peace Corps changed his worldview. He talks about moving to Kenya for a few months and studying parasites, causing him to focus on studying parasites for the rest of his career. Donelson remembers trips he has taken to Africa over the years. Donelson also discusses his children and their lives.

Keywords: Children; Faculty; Family; Ghanaian culture; Graduate school; Illness; Students; Tropical diseases; Worldviews

Subjects: Africa; Career; Children; Culture; Developing countries; Education; Ethiopia; Ghana; Ghanaians; Kenya; Lifestyles; Malaria; Parasites; Parasitology; Peace Corps (U.S.); Peace Corps (U.S.)--Ghana; Perspective; Research.; Sick; Students; Teaching