Martha Helgerson

Since the mid-1990s, I had been a behind-the-scenes helper and minimal volunteer with the Winnipeg branch of the Osu Children’s Library Fund, sitting on the local board and assisting with writing and editing duties. Kathy was my close neighbour and friend, and I was only happy to help with her worthwhile project.

And for those same many years, in some ways, I had thought of the OCLF network generically as “Kathy’s libraries,” which by all accounts is true. Yet after a visit to Ghana with Kathy in August 2019, I realized that I more accurately needed to add a few more “owners” – names like Abena and Lordina, Enoch and Conrad – as these places really belong to their members, from young to old, whose lives have been enriched and transformed through knowledge and opportunity.

During the visit, place names like Korle Gonno, Mamprobi, Nima and Goi, which I had only known about “on paper,” now came vividly to life as I experienced first-hand how vibrant and beautiful and well used each of Osu Library Fund’s eight libraries in the Accra area are.  These libraries are not located in the most privileged sections of the teeming metropolis. Yet, the evidence of well-run facilities  that are led by head librarians and staff who really care about their jobs was easy to spot; in a big city like Accra that is dusty and noisy, the libraries are true oases that provide clean, safe, nurturing and creative spaces for children and young adults to read, to study, to learn, to have fun, and for many, to have extra food to eat. The success stories are many.

Every day was jam-packed, (doubly so for Kathy), and as a volunteer one definitely gets the insider’s view of life in Accra, far removed from any ex-pat reality. Yet, the busy schedule and minor hardships were eased substantially by the warm hospitality of OLF’s most senior head librarian Joana Felih and the calm navigational ability of Kathy’s friend and driver, Kwame.

Over the course of three weeks, I visited each of the eight libraries in the Greater Accra Region, yet spent most days at the Osu neighbourhood’s  Kathy Knowles Community Library (the original shipping container one). There, I worked primarily with library assistant Rachel, 17, to introduce the children to the stories of Pippi Longstocking, a character who shares many traits with the familiar and favourite Fati, from the eponymous OLF-published series of popular books.

In addition, I accompanied Kathy when she entered into negotiations with the chief and elders of a  fishing/salt village near Goi, east of Accra, to build a small library with grant assistance.

Other highlights included attending an annual Theatre Festival at the Nima Centre featuring dancing, drumming and several original plays, from each of the OLF libraries. A memorable moment came when  Korle Gonno librarian Irene premiered her original “Sharing the Joy of Reading” song as accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra comprised of young library members who are being nurtured and taught by Irene with assistance by the German-based Musicians Without Borders.

Besides working in the libraries, I attended the African Regional Conference of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY), at which Kathy, who was on the local organizing board, was a speaker.  In addition, Rachel and I staffed the Osu Library Fund’s kiosk at the annual Ghana Book Fair for one day, where Kathy’s beautifully produced books for children were on sale.

There was a bit of time for relaxation. Along with a group from IBBY, I made a worthwhile day trip westward to Cape Coast and Elmina castles where one learns about the inhuman slave trade that persisted for 350 years to provide labour to the Americas. On another Sunday afternoon, Kathy and I, along with Joana, Rachel and her brother, Desmond, strolled through the packed streets of the colourful Jamestown neighbourhood to take in the sights and sounds of the arts-oriented Charlie Wote Festival.

And, finally, on our penultimate day, Kathy and I, along with Kwame and his lively 6-year-old twin girls, found an hour or two to take a late afternoon stroll on the vast stretch of  beach that lay just a block from our guest house atop Korle Gonno Library, which fronts a busy street filled with  family compounds, resorts, small businesses, schools, churches and mosques – not to mention a continual stream of taxis and the occasional early Sunday morning parade.  The nearby beach with its pounding surf had provided welcome “white noise” during the nights of the preceding three weeks, and so now walking its white sands, (unfortunately strewn with the ubiquitous plastic), was a lovely ending to an amazing visit that underscored what I already knew, but now had witnessed first hand: Kathy’s Libraries – oops, I mean the OLF libraries, which belong to Abena and Lordina, Enoch and Conrad, and the list could go on  —  continue to provide invaluable opportunities and make significant differences in the lives of so many.

Martha

Hailey Knowles

I spent three weeks this August volunteering in OCLF libraries in Ghana. I spent the first week in the Kathy Knowles Community Library [KKCL] in Osu, Accra. I stayed with the head Librarian Joana Felih above the Korle Gonno Community Library and commuted there every day.

Before I arrived, I bought some games (Guess Who? and Dominoes) as well as a puzzle and two copies of a simple chapter book that I love. I gave these to the children when I arrived and they loved them, especially the Guess Who? In the KKCL, we did adult literacy classes in the mornings which I loved because the women I worked with were super eager and therefore fast to learn and really appreciated my help. We did lots of sound work and I also loved how much material progress they seemed to make with the learning while I was there.

In the afternoon I did lots of work with the children such as math lessons or games which helped me get to know them really well. While I was there, they were on vacation, so they played more games than usual, and the numbers were lower as many children were away. As shown to the top left, Jennifer, Joana’s daughter, and I also made pencil cases out of two water bottles with the children. This was really fun, especially as the materials we used were so simple and the children were very excited about having a pencil case that they wouldn’t normally have.

I then spent the next two weeks in a very small fishing village up the coast called Goi, working in the KKCL there. I lived in the guest house of the library and worked there from 9-5 every day. The first few hours of the morning I read with individual children helping them not to skip over words they didn’t know and also pushing them to read new books. This is how I got to know the children best as they were shy at first to read to me but became more confident and much stronger readers. For the rest of the day I would often help to create and lead dictations for the children at varying levels of difficulty and mark them after. I also introduced the idea of making the children re-write all of their spelling errors that they made in their work so they wouldn’t repeat them. We played lots of games together as well as creating word-searches based on the most popular books at the library which they really enjoyed. I also taught them how to make mini books and told the younger children to make, for example, ‘My A Book’ and write words beginning with A on every page and draw pictures. For the older children I told them to write about who they are and their families, which again helped me to learn more about them.

I spent my time with Paulina, a wonderful young librarian there, and we ran every morning, visited the beach when people were buying fish, went to church and got to know many people in Goi.

Overall, I had an incomparable experience where I gained so much perspective because of each child was so eager to learn, bringing themselves to the library each day, and I also loved getting to know so many people in Ghana who will be lifelong friends of mine. I certainly plan to go back as I would love to see the development of the children I met and the librarians, as well as longing to help more.

Hailey

Galen Kiva

I was first introduced to Kathy Knowles and her fantastic organization when Vivian Amanor came to Ottawa in early 2017. I was part of a West African drumming group called Baobab Youth Performers, our group specialized in the drum, dance, and song of Ghana. We had the chance to attend an event put on for donors and friends of the OCLF, contributing in our own with a cultural performance to welcome Vivian to our lovely country.   

My next encounter with the OCLF, was when I visited Ghana in 2017 with the Baobab Youth Performers where we spent 3 weeks touring around the country. We visited multiple cultural sites, but we also had the amazing privilege to visit two of the OCLF’s libraries, the Nima Learning Centre, and the Goi Community Library. It was on our visit to the Nima Centre, that I was introduced to Martin Legend, the fantastic theatre director of the Kathy Knowles Theatre Company. We hit it off immediately, and he told me that the libraries, including the Nima Library and Learning Centre, offer volunteer opportunities. And I immediately knew what I was doing for my following gap year!

Fast forward to May 2018, I was coming off a 2-month backpacking tour of Europe, flying above the Saharan desert on my way to Accra, unsure of what my two months at the Korle Gonno library held in store for me. But boy, was I sure in for a treat!

I spent the next two months living atop the Korle Gonno Community Library on the fourth floor of the building in a quaint apartment with Kwabena, my roommate. Kwabena is the arts director at the Korle Gonno Library, and he also goes around to a selection of the OCLF’s libraries to teach cultural dance to the youth who frequent the libraries. With our shared passion for the arts, we quickly formed a bond that continued to strengthen throughout my stay and blossomed into a truly beautiful brotherhood.

The Korle Gonno Community Library rises up above the fishing community of Korle Gonno, and provides anyone who makes the four-story climb to the top of the building, with a stunning view of the endless Atlantic Ocean. The other side of the building provided a view of the spanning corrugated rooftops of Korle Gonno with downtown Accra rising up in the hazy distance. A compound of schools was situated behind the library, which provided us with a seemingly non-stop flow of children, and a bustling environment, supplying a nurturing, safe environment for anybody who walk through our doors.

It was a beautiful experience to be a part of aiding children and students foster their love for reading, giving themselves the tools to improve their future and seek opportunities that may not even be a consideration without the benefits of literacy. But I knew that I wanted to leave my own impact on this organization and everyone who has been touched by Kathy Knowles, and that was through my cinematography. So halfway through my stint in Ghana, I departed on a mission to capture the story of the OCLF, interviewing as many librarians, staff, children, students, government officials, anyone I could get my hands on who had been impacted by the incredible reach of the OCLF. And what a journey it turned out to be.

As a result of undertaking this project, I had the incredible privilege to speak with some of the most fantastic, and compassionate souls that I have ever met in my lifetime. Individuals who were working with so little, yet had done so much for their communities to provide it’s youth with better futures and opportunities. It was an eye-opening experience, that taught me what it means to be truly compassionate and how I can leave a positive impact in my own community.

What I have learnt during my time in Ghana will stay with me forever, and the people who I encountered who showed me nothing but warmth and love, sharing their culture and time with me with such open hearts. I cannot recommend volunteering with the OCLF enough, this organization is filled with so much good, it is contagious. To have the privilege to work alongside individuals like Joana, Vivian, Martin and Kwabena was a truly beautiful experience that I will never forget. I hope I can encourage someone else to set out on this adventure and to help in their own way!

Stephanie Morin-Robert

I was invited to facilitate dance and theatre workshops alongside my partner Alastair Knowles, a lovely Canadian artist, for OCLF’s 25th anniversary.

Preparing for this trip was exciting since I had never been anywhere near Africa. Before I knew it, I had my visa, necessary vaccinations and suitcase in hand and was ready to take off. When I left for Ghana, I had no idea what to expect as I embarked on my first international trip where I was assigned to work artistically with a community from a developing country. I had some experience teaching dance and theatre back in Canada and was ready to take on this exciting challenge.

Being emerged into a whole new environment and culture was a life changing experience for a number of reasons. Upon our arrival, I had the great pleasure of acquainting myself with the wonderful Korle Gonno community and library over a three-week period. Many generously guided me through my inevitable culture shock as I slowly adjusted to the different communication styles, gender roles and safety conditions.

We had the pleasure of staying at the guesthouse on the 4th floor of the Korle Gonno Community Library for the duration of our visit, giving us access to our own kitchen and bathroom – a real luxury that I was extremely thankful to have.

Getting used to standing out was an interesting process and I now have a deeper understanding of what it feels like to be a visible minority. It was both a frustrating and eye opening experience that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. This international experience helped me realize that no matter how different artistic communities are from each other, the universal language of movement can bring people even closer together.

Teaching at the Korle Gonno Community Library

I was surprised by how fast Ghanaian children are forced to grow up due to their inescapable list of responsibilities. This opportunity allowed me to share the joy of play by offering a safe space to spark their inner child. Together we worked on stage presence, the key elements of creating choreography, visited aspects that make a good performer, and ways to develop physical and vocal spontaneity. Their willingness and hunger to learn blew me away and I was so impressed with how hyper aware they were of their bodies and how fast they learnt.

The 25th Anniversary parade was the major highlight of my visit. This celebratory march through Accra guided over 700 people from library to library where we helped serve water, porridge, pito, Fan-ice, bread, and coconuts along the way.

Between the workshops, parade organizing and daily activities, time went by very rapidly. Just as I was settling in, it was already time to leave. I was sad to go but so thankful for the wonderful people I met and the experiences we shared.  I left feeling proud, as though I had made a difference. A very rewarding adventure.

My purpose to travel to Ghana was to share my knowledge and love for dance and theatre with students who have a hunger to learn. However, I realize more and more that this whole experience was a sharing process and that I learnt just as much, if not more from them.  I made strong connections and developed a genuine love for the community and I really look forward to my return.

Since my arrival back in Canada, I’ve noticed that I now have a stronger desire to move percussively as I continue to create new work for an upcoming show. I also have a heightened awareness of the resources that are available to me and feel very fortunate to be Canadian.  My most recent work has reflected Canadian heritage and pride. I seem to feel even more connected to my past creative work and country after these new international discoveries. I will remember this experience for the rest of my life, and thank you to all of those who were apart of it.

https://youtu.be/M_RJ0vPp280

Heather/Islando Sparks

From the time we arrived we were struck by the ongoing sense of warmth that greeted us at all times. From our first few days so generously welcomed into Joana’s home, to walking down the street and being greeted from all directions with hellos and friendly waves, we felt like already there was a place for us in the community and that people were willing to transcend language, race, and cultural backgrounds to connect in shared experiences.

Early into our stay we were introduced to Mark, an artist from the Jamestown area of Accra. On our first meeting he took us on a wonderfully winding tour through the Jamestown neighborhood where we met his family and friends and tried our first Ghanaian food, a local fermented corn dough called kenkey, served with spicy red pepper sauce and dried fish. It was oddly tasty! He also introduced us to his beach crew of plastic recyclers and showed us the mountains of trash they were attempting to deal with. This was the first seed of puppet making inspiration.

Recycled plastic feathers

Saddened to see the beaches in Ghana so heavily littered we realized one of the greatest legacies we could leave behind was the inspiration to turn this trash into treasure. We recognized the trash as a free resource that innovative people could put to use with a minimal amount of tools. We devised a plan to build one of the puppets out of the plastic bottles. Working with kids and staff of the library, local school teachers, and the beach clean up crew we collected, cleaned and cut 100s of bottles into feather shapes for the making of a 10′ tall puppet bird. The bird’s inner shape was made from woven cane sourced from a local furniture weaving shop. Its outer coat consisted of layers of the plastic feathers which glowed luminously in the sun. The bird was truly a community effort of transformation! We are hopeful and excited to see how this seed of inspiration will continue to grow without us.

Ready for the parade!
Fishing canoes rest along the Goi Beach

After a small amount of adjustment we settled into an appreciation for the landscape of sound that surrounded us at all hours in Ghana. Crashing ocean waves, greeting honks between taxi cabs, various sound systems, clapping games, singing, and parades of people playing percussive drum beats. Sunday we discovered is run day in Accra! Looking out at dawn one early Sunday morning we counted 55 people running down one street, before realizing people were running down all of the streets! Some running groups carried drums around their necks and horns that they used to play catchy rhythms to run to. We came to love these unexpected moments of celebratory sound! Sunday at church is also something to behold! Make way for the kerchief spinning grandmas and the lines of dancers streaming out one door and back into the other praising Hallelujah!

The highlight of our time was most certainly the one week we spent in the small fishing village of Goi. Over the course of our time we involved the kids in the making of various parade crafts, including newspaper party hats with gold pom poms, streamers made from beach trash, hula hoops, juggling pins, and of course the 50 foot snake inspired by the book “Fati and the Green Snake.”

Vivian, the vivacious and bright eyed librarian in Goi, was incredibly adept at channeling impending disasters (ie. several hours into painting and the kids are beginning to get a little wild with the paint splatters) into full choruses of song. In one of the daily favourites, three groups of kids would take turns singing (or more like shouting!) out the lines of the song: “London is Burning, Fetch me water, fire fire” each one attempting to outdo the other with the boisterous loudness with which they would deliver their line.

The enthusiasm of the kids, both in Accra and Goi, was boundless. There was always a friendly curious circle of faces surrounding us ready for anything! One memorable moment was when we had a face off, where we all tried to make the funniest faces possible at each other. This was just one moment out of many that demonstrated that language was rarely a barrier. With so much willingness to engage we found other ways to interact and communicate. Whether it was through simply demonstrating and observing an activity, expressing through body language, turning sound effects into songs or making funny faces, always there was a game to be played and a nice time to be had with a strong sense of togetherness.

Each day in Goi, Islando and I would walk the beach and collect colourful bits of trash to create art out of. It wouldn’t take long before we would have a crew of helpful kids loading up their dresses and shirts with colourful bits of trash to bring to us. Anything we were collecting they would collect. With my portable stereo playing I quickly realized that any dance move I made they would also make, so like a grand parade of “Simon Says” we would jump, wiggle, and high kick our way down the beach together collecting bottle caps and fishing rope for the next day’s activities.

From working at the library on art all day, to beach trash collecting parades, to the kids walking with us (their small hands in ours), to returning home to the library as dusk settled, to staying up late with the older students working on art until one by one they fell asleep across the tables, our artistic lives were entwined with the children and people of Goi. It was this that made our time there so precious and memorable.

There was lots of enthusiasm for OCLF’s 25th anniversary parade.

Back in Accra we continued the last of the work to prepare for the big 25th Anniversary Parade!!! Leading more art workshops we built a friendly tortoise, more party hats, and many many signs with the various students and staff of OSU. Many weeks of work and the finale of our stay was close at hand!

The day before the parade, November 20th, was my birthday! After a day of painstakingly hard work stitching the feathers onto the bird, Mark took Alastair, Stef, Islando and myself out to one of the boxing matches Ghana is so famous for. Far from being violent, it was finessed athleticism accompanied by an enthusiastic percussive band and a whole lot of sparkle fashion! The surprise of the night was that it was also Ghana’s lead boxer, Emmanual Togo’s, birthday. The whole stadium sang to him (and me!)

We enjoyed the boxing match and our night out with artist friend Mark so much we arrived home very late with only 1/2 hour of rest before we were to wake again for the parade. At 3:30 am we lowered the puppets by rope from the third floor of the library and piled them and ourselves into a pick up truck. Delirious and happy to begin with, the parade was a wonderful and heartfelt day! We walked, sang, and carried the puppets alongside the friends we had made and the kids we had worked with during our stay. The signs proudly promoted literacy and it was as if characters out of books had sprung from the pages to walk amongst us for a time.

We appreciated OSU’s dedication to education of all forms and the environment of learning available to all kids no matter what tribe, race, social class or religion they come from. We are grateful for the opportunity OSU gave us to sink deeply into the Ghanaian culture in such a meaningful way. We sincerely hope that our time in Ghana sent out a ripple of inspiration to continue creating art from recycled materials and that the kids gained new technical skills and innovative thinking that will help them along their life paths.

Thank you Kathy and OSU staff for the unforgettable experience!

With much gratitude,

Islando and Heather* Sparks
heatherdawnsparks.com

Vancouver, BC, Canada and Bellingham, WA, United States.

Sally Bleecker

 

This November I had the great pleasure to return to Ghana as a volunteer with the Osu Children’s Library Fund and to be able to reacquaint myself with the wonderful staff of the Goi library over a five-week period. Having been there before helped many of the inevitable culture shocks, especially as I was met at the airport by Kathy Knowles and driven through the darkness of Accra at night to the guesthouse where I was welcomed by Joanna Felih and my friend Deborah Cowley from Ottawa, who now heads the Board of the Fund.

From the moment I arrived, the excitement and the preparations for  the 25th anniversary were immediately evident. Kathy was juggling multiple to-do lists with her customary good humour and efficiency and everyone had a task every day. Only a day later I was at the big Ghana International Book Fair where all the librarians were choosing new books for their libraries. There I reconnected with Vivian Amanor, the Goi librarian, who was carefully looking at all the wonderful African children’s books and trying to decide which ones to bring back to her library.

I then spent five weeks pitching in at the village library in Goi; the highlights of which included:

The green snake was inspired by Fati and the Green Snake, a library favourite!

The celebrations and parade of the Kathy Knowles Community Library of Goi on November 14th which involved 240 registered local participants (and many others who came along). Singing and dancing followed the magnificent 70-foot-long green snake which was assembled by the children and two animators, Islando and Heather, who had come from the United States to help with the creative efforts for both parades. Despite the heat, I was pleased to complete this 10 km walk through several villages, with music making it one long dance.

Coconuts were enjoyed by all at the conclusion of the parade.
Parade participants were refreshed with coconuts.

The celebrations continued the following Saturday with more than 700 participants walking all through Accra from library to library. There were stops for porridge and pito (a corn drink, non-fermented I assure you), ice treats, and peanut butter buns and  coconuts at the final destination, which was the beautiful new Korle Gonno Community Library. The fact that no one was adversely affected in either of the two marches speaks to the excellent organization that went into each event. The majority of the participants were the children who so love these libraries, along with the enthusiastic staff.

The daily life in the library and the quieter satisfactions which came for me in having a daily book club’ with a group of young men where we read a murder mystery penned by a Ghanaian American author about the disappearance of street children in Accra. Their discussion of the issues was wonderful. Also, we held a reading competition for the junior secondary students and the higher grades of the junior school. We were gratified to realize the degree of comprehension they achieved, as well as finding it interesting to see what books they chose. One girl chose a book on the history of slavery and another choose a book on the holocaust. The many games of Boggle played on Saturday mornings had the children learning new words and visual pattern recognition at a fast pace.

Each day and each week brought some new learning, both for me and for the many children who so enthusiastically come to the library.  I was very sorry to leave “Auntie Vivian” and her sons, who assist so much, and Jonathan , the assistant librarian who brings a creative spirit to the library. I hope to return someday to see how this project, which is without parallel in my opinion, in the world of NGO’s, has evolved. Ghana has a way of remaining in you long after you leave.

Thanks as ever Kathy for welcoming me into all of this.

Sally Bleecker

Alastair Knowles

In November of 2015, I had the remarkable experience of travelling to Accra with my partner, Stephanie Morin-Robert. Together, we taught two weeks of theatre and dance workshops for the performance troupes of the Nima Learning Centre and the Korle Gonno Community Library. We also led the adult literacy class of the Kathy Knowles Community Library in four days of mask-making and dance workshops.

With Kathy Knowles being my mother, I was one of the ‘original six’ children who began the legacy that has become the Osu Children’s Library Fund (OCLF). It has been a profound experience witnessing its growth over the last 25 years, and I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to share my skills as a performance artist with the dedicated and talented members of the theatre troupes.

I was particularly blown away by the dedication of the troupe directors Martin Adija Legend and Abdul Aziz Abillah. I raise my hat to both of you. I know from my own experience that performance can be a tremendous tool for personal growth, and it has the capacity to bring communities together. Martin and Aziz’s tireless commitment to creating opportunities for youth to share the joys of theatre and dance is a wonder to behold. Ghana is luck to have you two. The theatre troupes in these communities provide a network of support for creative expression that builds self-confidence among each participant. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to creatively play with such a dedicated group of aspiring Ghanaian artists.

I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which workshop participants embraced the physical and psychological demands of the tasks we set before them. The fearlessness with which they tackled the unfamiliar activities we presented was inspiring. It has challenged me to identify artistic areas that I am interested in pursuing but have held back from doing because of my own fear of failure or judgment. I recall in my own clown and performance studies years ago, there was a general sense of dread amongst my classmates when it came our time to go onstage. Taking a cue from the courage of our participants, I have embraced an art form that was, up until my time in Ghana, quite terrifying – singing. While no one there said “Alastair you should start singing,” I am confident there is a correlation. I recently applied to participate in an Artist-in-Residency program at a local arts center to further develop this new territory of creative expression.

A special thanks goes out to all the staff of the Korle Gonno Community Library for welcoming Stephanie, Islando, Heather, and me into your beautiful building for the duration of our stay. You each contributed to making our time there special. We immediately felt we were surrounded by friends.

Joana Felih, your kindness and your tireless work is a marvel to behold. You are the most gracious of hosts. Thank you for giving us the warmest of welcomes to Ghana, as I know you have done for so many volunteers before us.

I am delighted that the OCLF has invited us to return. We hope to accept this offer when it next works with our schedule and to continue with the amazingly dedicated and talented people there.

With abundant appreciation,

Alastair

Sarah Marquis

I first became aware of the OCLF through my mother, who spent a six-week volunteer placement with them almost three years ago. She came back and told me that I would love it, and that I should go as soon as possible. So, after I graduated university, I got in touch with Kathy Knowles, Deborah Cowley, the OCLF volunteer coordinator, and together we went about planning my placement.

In late March 2015, I finally got on the plane that would fly me into the capital city of Ghana. I had never been to Africa, and initially, I felt like I was being thrown forcefully out of my comfort zone. But, I found my footing with the help of the wonderful Ghanaian people that work within the OCLF network.

I spent the first two culture-shocked days of my visit at the Kathy Knowles Community Library in Osu. This is the library that started it all. The library is situated inside a converted shipping container, surrounded by huge trees, in a very peaceful part of Accra. The people who work there and the library members instantly made me feel better about being in such an unfamiliar place. One of my favourite memories from these two days was learning how to play Oware, the traditional African board game, with one of the library’s young members.

Then, after Easter weekend, I spent two weeks volunteering in the newest addition to the OCLF: The Korle Gonno Community Library. I was honoured to be their first volunteer. The library is beautiful, situated in the coastal community of Korle Gonno, a region of Accra. You can see the ocean from the windows, and there is even a roof-top balcony. The library is three storeys, towering above most of the other buildings in the community. The top floor houses the culture room, with an amazing stage for dance, music and theatre performances. Aziz, the dance and drum teacher, along with some of the senior library students, taught me different traditional Ghanaian dances, and even tried to teach me how to drum. I am, however, terrible at drumming. I had so much fun all the same, and these are some of my best memories of being at the Korle Gonno library.

I met Joana, Geoffrey and Irene, the three superstar librarians of this library. They are very busy keeping the children occupied with various activities. I helped them lead some activities, getting the kids to make bookmarks and other crafts. This was so much fun, and sometimes completely chaotic because there were so many children excitedly moving about the library.

Standing in front of the Goi library with staff
In front of the Goi library with staff and members

About three weeks into my stay in Ghana, I moved to Goi, the small fishing village about an hour and a half away from Accra. It is beautiful in this remote village. I felt so far away from everything else that was happening in the world, but that was alright. I met Vivian, Jeremiah, and Jonathan, the librarians in this location. They made me feel so welcomed into the community. In Goi, I started making colourful board games for the children to play. We also did origami activities.

The kids in both Accra and Goi were so enthusiastic and made me feel like a rock star every day. I had so much fun doing activities with them, making book-marks with them, teaching them how to make different origami animals, and reading with them. They have so much energy and at the end of my placement, I felt like all of them were my best friends. They truly made the experience so much more rewarding, because seeing how passionate they are about reading is inspiring.

My experience working with the OCLF was incredible because it was so unique. I felt truly immersed in Ghanaian culture and in the OCLF community, which is so loving and welcoming. After 25 years, this community has grown under the direction of Kathy Knowles. It brings parents, children, librarians and volunteers like me so much joy. These libraries have transformed the structure of the communities in which they were built, and it is wonderful seeing such positive development, especially in some of the more deprived areas of the Greater Accra Region.

The experience opened my eyes to how people live in such radically different circumstances than the ones in which I live in Canada. I felt so naive when I first got there, because it felt like everything was done differently, and there was no familiarity. But, becoming more comfortable in an unfamiliar place is inevitable with time, and every day I felt more empowered and more at home. Ghana is definitely a place I will return to, simply because of the generosity and friendliness of the people. It was an amazing first impression of the African continent, and I look forward to returning, as well as exploring other parts of Africa.

Thank you so much for everything!

I feel so fortunate to have been a part of the amazing OCLF community. I feel as though it is a bond that will last a long time, and I look forward to seeing the wonderful things that the OCLF will make possible in the future.

Much love, Sarah Marquis

Emily Ives

Following in the footsteps of my older brother and sister, who traveled to Rwanda and Kenya respectively, I had a longtime dream of visiting Africa myself. As an aspiring elementary school teacher, I knew that the volunteer opportunities set forth by the Osu Children’s Library Fund would be a perfect fit for me, and after an 11 month planning and preparation period, I was finally on my way to Ghana for a five- week-long adventure.

I remember the first night I arrived at the guesthouse with Joanna, Justine, and my suitcase filled with supplies and resources for the libraries. I was fed mangoes (DELICIOUS!) and water after my long journey and Joanna showed me to my room where I retired immediately after the long flights from Nova Scotia. Over the next week I experienced intense culture shock, adjusting to the very unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells. Ordinary sounds of the environment  included bleating goats, crowing roosters, five-times daily calls to prayer from the mosque across the highway (especially hard to get used to at 4:00 AM!), and the incessant car horns and loud motorbikes from the highway just in front of the guesthouse. The area was impoverished and also quite dusty from the intense African heat making the earth so dry. Along the sidewalks of the highway were numerous small street stalls and kiosks where there was everything from authentic Ghanaian food, beverages, clothing, and top-up units for phone and internet being sold. Having never experienced such a diverse and unfamiliar environment, I initially had a difficult time adapting to the obvious contrasts, but after about a week or two it began to faze me less and less, until at some point it became ordinary to me too! Once I began to adjust to my surroundings I became more comfortable, which allowed me to open myself up to the experiences that my wonderful journey had to offer.

Inside Joanna's library (a converted 40-foot shipping container!)
Inside Joanna’s library
(a converted 40-foot shipping container!)

I spent most of my time at Joanna’s library in Osu. I absolutely loved its simplicity and the atmosphere that exists there. The staff was welcoming and friendly and the children were respectful, well-behaved, and filled with joy. Having spent 12 weeks practice teaching in a North American grade primary class, I was blown away by the contrasts I saw between the two groups in regards to respect, eagerness and motivation to learn, and the ability to do more with less. The children would arrive at the library after school around 3:00 PM and we had a wonderful time making crafts and doing artwork, writing stories and letters, conversing about several storybooks, and playing all sorts of games. One of my favourite and most memorable days was when I read the story of Pinocchio and we learned about consciences. The children shared hilarious stories about times that they may or may not have listened to their conscience that led them to funny mishaps that they were able to learn from. My past experiences with young children, along with my background in early childhood education helped me a great deal with my entire experience in Ghana.

Due to my experiences in education being directed towards children, I had never expressed any interest in working with adults. Much to my surprise, working with the adults in the twice weekly adult literacy classes in Osu was the most rewarding and cherished experience of the entire journey. I worked with three young adult females who were in the beginning stages of reading and writing. At first, it was a little intimidating, being plunked down alongside them with a work booklet and a small chalkboard and given no verbal direction of what to do. It was one of my first days there and I was still becoming familiar with the flow of the library—I hadn’t yet seen one of the adult classes in progress yet. It was strange having no guidance, when I receive so much of it at home through my university program. But I went with it and ended up far surpassing any expectations I had—I absolutely loved it! It was an incredibly rewarding feeling, being able to see those women improve each week and knowing how motivated they were to develop their literacy skills. It was a different experience from working with young children who aren’t necessarily vocal in their appreciation toward educators, and to hear those women say that they loved having me as a teacher is something that I would not trade for anything. As a future teacher, I will always remember those moments and remind myself that even just one person can make a difference.

I was able to visit Kathy’s other libraries as well, which are similar in architecture but are all special and unique in their own way. I traveled to Mamprobi twice, where the library is located directly beside a school so that children had the opportunity to visit on their breaks. There were many more children there in comparison to Osu and they were just as eager and joyful. The staff was wonderful and loved having volunteers come to visit.

I also had the opportunity to travel a couple of hours to Goi, a fishing village where another one of Kathy’s libraries was built in 2008. My experience there was very different from Osu and Mamprobi, and one of the most memorable. Being in a secluded rural area, there was a stark contrast in the environment and way of life than the urban setting of Accra. I was shocked to see that much of the community lived in mud huts and I noticed that English was not as commonly spoken. Walking down to the beach, I saw several fishing boats and numerous piles of small fish drying out in the sun. It felt like an unhurried pace of life from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Library members at Goi happily display their newly-made bookmarks.
Library members at Goi happily display their
newly-made bookmarks.

The Goi library is close to a school as well, making the children come in numbers. On that particular day I counted over 90 nursery school-aged children swarming through the gates for their special time in the library. The way they quickly lined up along the winding concrete wall to wait their turn to wash their hands before entering the library was simply adorable! I was amazed at how well the staff handled such a large group of youngsters without even breaking a sweat! Since the children were not as familiar with seeing white people as they were in the urban area, they seemed to be awestruck by my presence. I knelt down to help one little boy with his toy blocks and not a moment later did I have a group of others kneeling in front of me, watching my every move with their big, curious eyes.

I traveled to see the Nungua and Madina libraries, but was only able to pop in for a short visit. Even during those quick visits though, I could see and feel the passion for learning and for educating. I am sure this will be no different with the unveiling of Kathy’s newest library, which will be completed toward the end of this year.

I ended my library visits at Nima, which is almost directly across the street from the guesthouse. The children there come from different backgrounds than some of the other children that I met during my stay in Ghana and were noticeably more affectionate. They excitedly took part in the activities I had planned and relished in the attention I gave to them. I shared a Ghanaian meal with the staff to celebrate the library’s 16th anniversary. It was amazing to be a part of something so special.

Now I am back in Canada and I am surprised at how far away it all feels: physically and mentally. It is so easy to return home, settle back into the routine of the life you’ve always known and sometimes forget how fortunate we are in a country that has everything to offer. However, with my daily journal entries and numerous pictures taken during my time in Ghana, I am able to remind myself of the special moments I was a part of and the wonderful people that I met, everything that I learned, and most importantly, not to take anything for granted. My experience taught me the extent to which your worldview is shaped by where you grow up—and the benefits of having that challenged when you travel away. Such an experience requires a willingness to be challenged: to be more tenacious and resilient by overcoming the challenges of living in a new place that often comes with language barriers, different  cultural norms, and novel environments full of foreign people and places we’ve never encountered.  Any type of experience abroad presents new ideas and beliefs, and as we encounter new worldviews, these experiences teach us to be patient—with ourselves and with others—as we convey our identity and background to others while learning to appreciate and accept theirs. I am so grateful for my journey through OCLF and hope to return to Ghana again one day.

Sally Bleecker

I have recently returned from five weeks in Ghana where I had the very satisfying experience of being a volunteer with this well run program. I was asked to spend two weeks in Accra where most of the libraries are located, partly to orient myself to the various communities and staff and partly to acclimatize myself to the heat and the culture. I was able to both observe and participate in story reading to eager groups of young children; play games and assist in any craft days that were planned; help with the adult literacy class at the original and charming OSU ‘container’ library two mornings a week; and most fun of all, I dredged up long ago memories of camp counsellor days and taught silly action songs to the children. Just sitting down with small groups of children to show an interest in them and praise their reading, had I hope, a positive impact.

After these two weeks, I was able to spend three very happy weeks in the fishing village of Goi with their wonderful team of staff which included the librarian Auntie Vivian, her young assistant Jonathan and her son Jeremiah. A major focus of my time was to help plan a grandmother’s day party which involved assisting the children to write a brief story about their grandmother on a sheet of coloured paper and draw a picture of her. Ultimately, the children completed nearly one hundred of these which were then put up around the library for all to see and point proudly at. They also made up invitations to take home.

Grandmothers came to join the Goi library's celebration of Grandmothers' Day.
Grandmothers came to join the Goi library’s celebration of Grandmothers’ Day.

Vivian and I were at a loss as to how many grandmothers would come and therefore how many biscuits and drinks to buy and we were staggered by the appearance of 93 grandmothers! The young staff got into the spirit of planning a program with the children, which consisted of a short play based on a favourite story book, some drumming, reading aloud and giving the audience a good laugh when I danced and sang the Hokey Pokey with some of the older girls. Very few of these grandmothers had seen the library before and they left happy and the children proud to have shared it with them.

Another highlight of my time was pulling together a ‘book club’ with five fifteen-year-old boys to discuss the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart. Although this was an ambitious book for some of them it was clear that they grasped and enjoyed the characterization and loved the idea of discussing it.

The accommodation at the back of the library was very pleasant but most of all I felt welcomed and included and appreciated by these wonderful people. As is often the case with volunteer work, I believe that I received more than I gave and I am grateful for the opportunity.