This is Ginny’s speech at OCLF’s fundraising dinner in Winnipeg, June 2023:
“Hello Everyone! My name is Ginny, and tonight I’ll be talking about my time in Ghana.
My grandmother Minnie has a life outside of Canada. Every year, she spends three months in Ghana, which is in western Africa. She has committed those months of her life since 1990 when she first started a library.
She started with a little library under a tree and it has now expanded into nine library buildings. Her libraries are such a big part of her life and I only knew about this part of her life through her stories. For years, it would just be “Minnie is in Ghana” and I would hear her stories when she returned. But this always left many questions. I only knew this part of her life through pictures in my head.
Don’t get me wrong, stories are powerful, but it is different to experience these things in real life. This is why Minnie hopes to take all of her grandchildren to Ghana when they are around age 10.
I went to Ghana last August for four weeks. I met many people Minnie has talked about for years, saw places I’d heard of, and did some of the work that she commits so much of her life to.
I went to all of Minnie’s libraries. A project we introduced was making a globe. We brought each library an atlas, a geography card game and material so that everyone could make their own paper mache globe. We spoke to the children about the different continents and oceans and we taught them The World Game. This game teaches about countries’ size, capital cities, and flags. They would also get very competitive over the game and added challenges about who could name and memorize the most flags! After that, we made paper mache globes using balloons and paper cut outs of continents. The children painted them and were able to take them home. They enjoyed the art project and learned more about the world.
I also met a lot of Minnie’s friends and made friends of my own. I loved hanging out with Kwame, Minnie’s very funny and friendly driver.
Another person I met was a man named David. He attends literacy classes at the Osu Library. David recognized the amount of garbage in Accra, and he wanted to change this. He came up with the idea of making recycling bins out of water bottles and rebar. He has made about 40 of these bins for a 10 km loop. Every Sunday, he walks the loop with a wheelbarrow to collect the bottles. We joined him one Sunday to see him in action. He said he has noticed a difference in the amount of garbage strewn around and hopes to continue making more. Ghanaians have also recognized his work. Even the President’s wife wanted to meet David to interview him about his project.
Talk about the tedious stuff- bank negotiations, salaries, human resources, staff arguments. I also saw the tedious side of Minnie’s life in Ghana and just seeing how patiently she waited at the bank or how she made sure to always listen to both sides of the story. This confirmed to me that Minnie really loves her libraries and the people who keep them running.
I loved my trip in Ghana and I now can clearly see the places that Minnie talks about in my head. I appreciate the things I have more and loved seeing the libraries make so many people happy.
And that’s why I thank you for coming tonight to support the libraries because so many people depend on the libraries and love them dearly. Many children receive meals there, and the libraries have taught many adults how to read and write.
After a couple years of delay due to the pandemic, I made my visit to the libraries just past Easter in late April 2022. I spent the first block of time at the original library in Accra and then the latter two weeks in the small fishing village of Goi east of Accra. The libraries were full all day because the children were on school break. I came with science experiments, book club ideas based on Anne Frank’s diary, story exchanges with local Canadian grandmothers that I know, and techniques for teaching chess.
Our days were full of reading. The first children would trickle in as the library opened, reaching for their favourites from a collection ofbooks with lots of local African representation, thanks to the genius and hard work of Kathy and librarians such as Vivian who have written and published many introductory reading books – about colours, the alphabet, and local stories – taking photographs with some of the children as the stars. Some children read quietly on their own, but much reading is done communally with several children crowded around a book. The smaller children learn from the older ones as they all read aloud. Story time is held daily with Vivian in Goi being the consummate story teller holding the rapt attention of 90 children for an hour.
I contributed to the program with my clubs – chess, science, writing and book clubs, and new games such as Wordle. Within a day or two, interested children had mastered the moves of all chess pieces and were enjoying the game. I must say as an aside that in Goi, it was the adults – Enoch and Promise – who were seen playing well into the evening, engrossed in long periods of thoughtful stares at the board. The older children journaled along as we read Anne Frank’s daily journals, relating their own thoughts to those of Anne about their families, foods, hobbies, and aspirations.
Everyone joined in the science experiments. We drew mazes for the magnets to race through and intricate pictures from graphite in pencils for electricity to flow through while we explored the conductivity of materials. We also made a piano using my little computer combined with onions, potatoes, mangos, and bananas.
The days were full, but it’s the people that stay in your heart.
The children are naturally charming with all their energy and potential. Yet it is their hunger that inspires, not hunger for food but hunger to learn, to engage, and to participate. The children devour any activities that you open to them with exuberance. They come to these libraries for stories and for lessons on spelling and math while they are on their school break. And, they work for this opportunity: cleaning tables, sweeping floors, and stacking chairs. It is their library. They care for it.
Some children especially touch your heart. My 13-year-old friend Desmond earned his nickname “Tutu” with his quiet demeanor. He tended to the safety of the little ones even while cleaning and setting up and when studiously joining the book and science club with a burning desire for higher education built into his being. Abraham is the rough-and-tumble boy that tries your patience with his physical energy but also falls into bewitched trances when devouring a book, truly experiencing the joy of reading. Winnifred is quiet but her writing reveals both an earnestness and a lightheartedness. She wants to be both a police officer to protect people from harm and a fashion designer to celebrate the joy and beauty of clothing. And Mark from Goi – a builder of model planes, a portrait artist, and a rock star drummer.
The staff are dedicated and very multi-talented. In Osu (Accra), Enoch is ostensibly the math teacher and the office worker who writes the necessary reports of an NGO, but he also has a clear photographic eye and a creative bent in developing arts activities for the children. Justine is quiet and constantly working preparing and cleaning up after activities, keeping the library books clean and repaired. In Goi, Faustina is the quiet partner who is always moving to keep children on task and things in their place while Paulina is the active lead, pumping the children into frenzies with songs and dances. Another Enoch – Goi’s Enoch – creates programs not only for the Goi library but for satellite libraries that are being nurtured by weekly tours with mats set up under trees. Enoch is the next generation raised in Vivian’s library with his eye to the next steps to support his community. I am left in awe by each of them, individually, by their tireless work and their sheer love for their children. Collectively, I see the power of teamwork in the daily dances that they performed in their work together.
I am thankful for the opportunity of staying in these libraries to learn so much from both the children and staff. The joy of reading – of education – is palpable. It was an honour to be able to witness the inspired work being done in these community libraries which are so deserving of our support.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.