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.