Former Educator Shares Peace Corps Experiences

Henry Danielson wrote a book covering the teaching days he and his wife experienced during their time in the Peace Corps at Likoma Island on Lake Malawi in Central Africa. Submitted photo

Henry Danielson started out from humble beginnings here in Lakewood and grew up to be a teacher alongside his wife. What differentiates him and his spouse from most teachers is their Peace Corps adventures, chronicled in his recently released book titled “Island People: Finding Our Way.”

In an official summary, Henry explains that after marrying his high school sweetheart Julie and completing college at Grove City, he worked in a job that failed to cultivate his passions. Cue an invitation for Julie after she applied back in her high school days and a test for Henry, and the couple joined the Peace Corps.

They began teaching with the Corps in segregated Macon County, Ala., in 1967, thus beginning their journey of immersion into black culture. At the turn of the New Year, they would go on to teach at Likoma Island on Lake Malawi in Central Africa and provide education to the impoverished on the dangerous island.

Filled with wildlife ranging from spitting cobras and crocodiles, the Danielsons overcame the threat of harm to relate with children who had never interacted with anyone from Western culture before.

One writing lesson with the natives featured Henry and his students recounting the recent past on paper. They would pass around their notes, read and edit them. Different points of view were discussed. During that day’s lunch break, Henry learned that a refugee from Portuguese East Africa experienced the loss of his family at the hands of white soldiers.

Despite the cultural clash and this example of blame an African man harbored against Caucasian people, Henry and Julie discovered that the youth they taught were ultimately similar to themselves, something they wanted to get across in the book.

There was a level of respect maintained between the teachers and the students. Henry and Julie learned the local dialects but did not speak them, as it would have been considered offensive for non-tribal people to speak tribal languages.

The couple taught on Likoma Island for two years: Henry instructing in English nine times per week and adding physics, chemistry and geography into the mix; and Julie passing on her knowledge of mathematics and other sciences.

“There was never a discipline problem in that school,” Henry said. “They behaved beautifully.”

The dozens of kids they taught knew that education was likely their only way off the island, so behaving well was of utmost importance to the students. The residents of the island had not so much as seen an automobile, and if they ever desired to see other cultures, the knowledge base Henry and Julie were giving them was sure to be key in gaining a chance at leaving.

“There was no civil authority,” Henry said.

Social matters were mostly handled internally on Likoma Island. Danger was more present than in most teaching environments. A green mamba snake, a highly venomous creature, was lost in Henry and Julie’s house for days. The couple also ventured to swim in a lake with crocodiles. They were told, as long as they swam after 10 a.m. and before 4 p.m., they would be safe from the feeding reptiles.

What sticks out in the Danielsons’ minds however is the time they spent with their students.

“It was a wonderful experience with those people,” Henry said. “They were genuine, loving, kind people.”

After their time spent at Likoma Island, a period that encompasses about the first third of the book, the Danielsons worked as high school teachers in the Jamestown area for 30 years. Henry worked as an English teacher at Jamestown High School, and Julie worked as a chemistry teacher at Southwestern Central High School.

The book was initially written to account the most recent experiences of their lives: sailing the world, from the five Great Lakes and the Mediterranean Sea to the Caribbean and even all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

“That was really a highlight of our lives,” Henry said. “We’ve been very blessed.”

Someone inspired them to cross the ocean toward the end of the book, and once the couple viewed it as a possibility, they wasted no time in making the trip a reality. Thus, the book became about the welcoming communities encountered in their lifetimes, from home in Chautauqua County to European and African nations abroad.

The Danielsons ran into no hostility during their trips and mostly experienced graciousness each time they began to interact with new people.

“It was a fascinating experience,” Henry said. “A lot of it is about what we learned.”

“Island People” has been published since April and is available for purchase where online books are sold. Copies are also available physically in numerous local outlets: the Ashville General Store, Hollyloft Ski and Bike, Roger Tory Peterson Institute, Fenton Historical Center, Chautauqua Book Store, Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Lakewood, Bemus Point Pottery and Lawson Center.