Before she arrived in Tanganyika in the summer of 1963, Gail M. Gerhart ’65 had never seen a mango tree or even eaten a mango. Every afternoon, in the elementary school where she taught English, a bell would ring, signaling the end of the day. Upon hearing this alert, Gerhart recalled that the children leapt out of their seats and bolted toward the door.
“I thought, ‘Maybe I’m a bad teacher,” she said.
But it was not Gerhart’s teaching that propelled the young students out of the schoolhouse. Outside the front door stood a “gigantic” mango tree from which fresh fruit fell each day.
“If you were the first one out there, you could eat the mangos that fell under the tree,” she said. “I was relieved.”
That summer, Gerhart was one of 20 undergraduates participating in the third summer of the Philips Brooks House Association’s Project Tanganyika, which gave undergraduate participants the opportunity to travel to Africa at the peak of the decolonization movements throughout the continent.
Project Tanganyika sent its first cohort of volunteers abroad in the summer of 1961. That December, Tanganyika gained independence from the United Kingdom.
The first PBHA program that took students abroad, Project Tanganyika represented the widespread idealism that emerged at Harvard during the early 1960s.
Despite the reality that an independent African Studies program would not exist at Harvard until 1969, Project Tanganyika significantly influenced its participants, encouraging many to find careers in civil rights and public service in the United States and in Africa.
‘AN OUTLET FOR YOUNG ENERGY’
Project Tanganyika embodied the idealism and sense of adventure that permeated the Harvard campus in the early 1960s.
Even before President John F. Kennedy ’40 passed the Peace Corps Act, which officially established the international public service organization in 1961, Peter C. Goldmark Jr. ’62 was conjuring his own plan to travel to Africa.
Goldmark’s intellectual interest in Africa, along with inspiration from a group of students who had traveled to Africa through the non-profit organization Operation Crossroads Africa, motivated him to develop Project Tanganyika.
According to Goldmark he envisioned the program as “an outlet for young energy in the world.”
Robert J. Bennett ’64, who traveled with Project Tanganyika, said that Kennedy’s idealism inspired students to apply for the program.
“That [Kennedy] was organizing this Peace Corps was something so radical and so idealistic that it was something that did have an impact on us,” he said.