By Gregory A. Barnes. Friends Press, 2023. 252 pages. $12/paperback; $6/eBook.
Friend Gregory Barnes was a member of the early Peace Corps volunteer group known as Sierra Leone One. This book is primarily a recounting of memories and journal entries from the 1960s.
I was a young mother and college student when I first learned about the Peace Corps. I was interested and curious but not in a position to consider joining. As the years went on, I made several friends who had been in the Peace Corps, and I enjoyed hearing about their experiences and adventures, so I was pleased to review Barnes’s self-published book The Peace Corps: Early Days.
The book takes place from 1961 to 1966. Barnes and his wife were Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone for the first two years. Barnes then served as a resource person for new volunteers. He describes in detail the chaos of the early Peace Corps training, and he states that he is sure that the training improved with time. In Nigeria, he writes about more pleasant experiences as an expatriate, “somewhat contrary to the Peace Corps ideal.” He collects art objects and drives long distances alone.
There are ten chapters in the book, arranged in chronological order. He writes more as a witness than as a participant. Reading this book is like reading a series of reports and journal entries with occasional interesting anecdotes interspersed throughout. While it is tempting to retell some of the amusing anecdotes, I will leave it to readers to discover these gems independently. Barnes notes that his wife was more interested and curious about the Mende culture and rituals than he was. I found myself wishing that there were more entries from his former wife, Sandy.
The last 64 pages of the book contain biographies of 32 of the 37 early volunteers, including the author and his wife. It was interesting to learn how the Peace Corps began and how being a part of it affected the lives of the early volunteers.
Barnes has written and published short stories and books based on his experiences living in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. He is a prolific writer with many books published, including Philadelphia’s Arch Street Meeting House: A Biography (2013), A Centennial History of the American Friends Service Committee (2016), The Beauty Queen of Bonthe and Other Stories of West Africa (2018), and Living into the Faith: A Quaker Diary 2007–2015 (2019). I think I would have enjoyed reading The Peace Corps: Early Days even more if I had previously read his Quaker diary published in 2019.
The Peace Corps: Early Days will be of special interest to Peace Corps volunteers and their families as well as other people curious about the experience of the first Peace Corps volunteers. It is my understanding that the author volunteers at the historic Arch Street Meeting House in Philadelphia, Pa. I imagine that he might be found there, and I’ll wager that he might have stories to share from his years with the Peace Corps.
Katie Green is a member of Clearwater Meeting in Dunedin, Fla. She convenes an Interfaith Story Circle, and has been a storyteller and workshop leader for over 30 years.