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.

Anne Simpson – 2012

It was one of the tremendous opportunities of my life to be a volunteer with OCLF. And, as I look back, it came about in a fortuitous way. While visiting Winnipeg in the winter of 2012, I met Kathy Knowles at Pop Soda’s for a bowl of soup. We talked about her work with OCLF, which inspired me. At the time that I met with her, I was working on a novel that was partly based in Nigeria. While I wanted to do research, I was wary about going to West Africa alone. Did Kathy have some contacts in Ghana who might be able to help if I went? The next thing I knew, Kathy had suggested that I could go to Ghana as a volunteer. She pointed out that I could spend part of my time offering several workshops on poetry and helping with adult literacy classes, and spend the remaining time on my novel.

Within seven months, all of this came true. The moment I arrived in the airport in Accra, I was overwhelmed with excitement. Joana Felih and her daughter Jennifer met me and took me back to the guesthouse. It was hot and humid; the electric fans weren’t working. Early in the morning, the imam at the local mosque began the call to prayer. I woke groggily to all the sounds of early morning: a rooster crowing, a bucket being filled at a tap, a goat snuffling near the house, a garbage truck going past on the road outside, people greeting one another in the Hausa language. “Sannu.” “Lafiya lau.” And then, because it was my first morning and I was sleeping late (or trying to sleep), I heard the school children at a nearby school begin the first of their chants: “Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?” When I got up, Joana’s freshly squeezed orange juice was waiting on the dining room table.

In the first couple of weeks in Accra, I often went with Joana to the library where she has worked for many years, dedicated to the task of working with children, and helping other librarians get started as new libraries have been built. I volunteered at “Joana’s library” – the Kathy Knowles Community Library – helping out with adult literacy classes in the morning and doing some creative writing with the children in the afternoon. I loved this library, overhung as it is with an expansive Neem tree. Bougainvillea bushes were in blossom along the fence. October is a month when the rainy season is ending and the dry season is beginning, so the foliage was at its peak.

One of the highlights of my time in Accra was facilitating a poetry workshop for adult literacy students and staff members. The first part involved giving participants a recipe of ingredients (a noun, a verb, an adjective, and an adverb), from which they wrote poems. Then we tried a second exercise, for which I’d made two poetry pockets: everyone took a word from each poetry pocket to make a short poem. Because this exercise is like a game, everyone had fun doing it.

Meeting with Martin Legend at the Nima Maamobi Gale Community Library was another highlight of my time in Accra. Martin is an accomplished playwright who had embarked on writing a novel. He had written some of the early chapters of a first draft, and we discussed how he could revise these chapters. He was certainly willing to learn as much as he could. His playwriting background will help him as he continues!

After two weeks, I went to a fishing village on the east coast of Ghana. I had already heard about the famous salt lagoons there, and, of course, I had read the story of Otu (Otu Goes to Sea), which had brought the place to life for me. In Goi, I stayed in the apartment adjoining the Kathy Knowles Community Library, which is superbly run by Vivian Amanor. Each morning I got up early and walked along the beach to take photographs. Then I returned to the library and spent a little time writing before helping in the library. Some of the children worked together with me on a “poetry tree”—each of them made “leaves” or poems to put on the tree. By the end of twelve days in Goi, the poetry tree was quite large, with an abundance of leaves.

Back in Accra, I took part in the Annual Sponsored Walk for the KKCL with Joana Felih and other staff members, children, adult literacy learners, and Kathy Knowles herself. She had come to Ghana for the twentieth anniversary festivities. We were heralded by a marching band as we walked through the city, and it was a joy to see Canadian and Ghanaian flags waving together!

What a marvelous experience this was for me. I look forward to returning when I can.

Anne Simpson

Penny and Callie Giaccone – 2013

At the beginning of July, I travelled to Ghana with my mom for the 4th time. My mom and I volunteered at the Kathy Knowles libraries throughout Accra. This summer in particular we worked at the head library in Osu.

The first week I was working with my mom. It was quite fun to teach children of all ages, even adults! The second week I got my own class- kindergarten. We’re not talking your typical North American Kindergarten class. No, no this class was ages 3-12, and some barely knew English. Since my Ghanaian dialect was a little rusty, I had to make do with lots of actions and speaking very clearly. I also had to improvise because I had a week to do activities with these young active and antsy children with limited materials.

I worked at Dovercourt camp in Ottawa; so working with children wasn’t the issue. After an hour I really got the hang of what to do. I knew all their names, even the very foreign ones that were hard to pronounce, and that is the first step to anything. Once I learned that they were too young to study the life cycle of a caterpillar, and that it was probably better to draw them caterpillars to color in, things were rolling. I pulled out as many camp games from under my sleeve, as well as many fun songs that they loved. By the end I had 12 new best friends.

A particular moment sticks out in my mind quite clearly. I had just explained a game called Rhythm Master. The rules of this game are that there is a detective that leaves the circle, and I pick one quiet person to be the rhythm leader. Then we yell “come back, come back” and the detective comes to the middle of the circle. The rhythm leader begins making a pattern, like clapping their hands or stomping their feet and everyone must follow. The object of the game is to make sure the detective doesn’t guess who the rhythm leader is. Pretty simple. So we started planning this game and it was flowing quite nicely.

It was near the end of the day and I thought this was going to be a great quiet end to the day. My friend Dave, a regular at the library, was the rhythm master. He’s five years old and a very bright boy. He was leading the game quite well, clapping his hands together, then his thighs, then his chest, but all of a sudden the power got to him. They were following him and he knew that was his chance. He started to scream. Not your average scream, this was at the very top of his lungs. I didn’t know what to do. Everyone was of course following the rhythm leader and screaming as well. Wow. Dave continued by running around and now all my students were screaming like maniacs. It took about 5 very loud minutes to calm everyone down. This story always makes me smile. Even half way across the world, there is the same sneakiness and trouble you can expect in a child.