EARLIER this month, 230 Washingtonians shelled out five bucks and went to Africa right after work. Kind of. They actually made a trip to the next best thing: "West Africa Night," the second in a series of international happy hours held around town every five weeks and sponsored by the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington.

"It's certainly a nice change," said Marie Baker, a Washingtonian who works for the National Institute for Music Theater. She was standing near a hairy Bundu helmut from Sierra Leone on the eighth floor of the Carnegie Building overlooking Dupont Circle. Baker said she likes the international happy hours for the good food and music. "And I like these people," she added.

These people included Peace Corps volunteers, compulsive globetrotters, folks who are interested in Africa and native Africans such as Alphonse Gbedo. An employee at the Embassy of Benin, Gbedo said he's found it easier to meet people at the international happy hours.

"This has a purpose to it," said Bill Black, the director of marketing and public affairs for the Urban Land Institute in Washington. "In my case, to hear good African music, eat African food and meet interesting people."

As modern, uptempo West African music played, people were drawn to atypical happy hour fare: tropical punch (spiked and non-spiked) and such exotic taste treats as kyinkyinga (shishkebab), ntroba forowee (eggplant with salmon) and banana chips.

Even the door prize had an international flavor. In keeping with the night's theme, it was a record from Cameroon and tie- dyed cloth from Benin. For January's "Brazil Night," the first of the series, it was Brazilian coffee, beer and liqueur. At "India Night," scheduled for April, the prize will be an Indian dinner for two -- prepared by a family from India in their own home.

"I think this is much better than the usual happy hour," said Anne Stewart, who works at the Library of Congress. "I feel I have similar values with these people; more so than in Bullfeathers or Georgetown. Here there are liberal Democrat types who are committed to and interested in other cultures."

The happy hours were created in part to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Peace Corps and to share volunteers' overseas experiences. One way the RPCV of Washington attempts to educate the American public is through art and other visual media. At "West Africa Night," volunteers showed slides of their trips to West African countries.

Thus far, the reaction to the series has been positive. Said social chairman Bill Carey, "A lot of people call up and say, not only was it a good time, but I met really interesting people and learned some really neat things." ON THE INTERNATIONAL CIRCUIT

Admission to the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington international happy hours is $5. Proceeds go to the Peace Corps Partnership Program. For more information, call 544-1229. Here are some coming get-togethers. INDIA NIGHT -- April 11, 6 to 8, Carnegie Conference Center, 1511 New Hampshire Ave. NW on Dupont Circle. CENTRAL AMERICA NIGHT -- May 16. Site to be announced. CENTRAL/SOUTHERN AFRICA -- June 20. Site to be announced. THAILAND NIGHT -- July 25. Site to be announced. HAITI NIGHT -- September 5. Site to be announced.