We file off the plane onto the tarmac at Kotoka International Airport in Accra. Bleary-eyed from two days of travel, we glimpse palm trees against a quickly darkening sky and take our first breaths of warm air that smells vaguely of rain. It is July 2010, the cooler, rainy season in Ghana, and for the next month this will be our home.
In the chaos of the airport, hauling the suitcases and cardboard boxes of art and craft supplies that have followed us here, we search among travellers and drivers for Joanna Felih, the head librarian of the Kathy Knowles Community Library in Osu. From a short distance, a woman catches our eyes and pulls out a small sign that reads ‘Williamson Family’. We wave and her face breaks into a smile; she and her daughter, Jennifer, rush forward to welcome us with outspread arms.
Julia and I stand on an unmarked street corner in the blazing sun with a crowd of other people waiting for the tro-tro; with Joanna’s help, we’ve mastered Accra’s primary public transportation which, despite lacking any set routes or schedules, serves the city with surprising efficiency. When the dilapidated van appears, careening down the road toward us, we watch for the mate who leans out of the window calling out his destination and making rapid hand signals. When we’re sure that this is the right tro-tro, we wag our fingers at the mate, mirroring his signal for Station 37. The van teeters to a halt and we squeeze in with the other passengers, passing our fares up to the mate once the tro-tro is on its way again, and calling out to him when our stop is approaching. In our first days, each time we arrive at the library on time it seems like a small miracle; soon, though, this becomes a familiar routine.
We sit around the dining room table in a house in the neighbourhood of Abelemkpe– through friends who work at the Canadian High Commission in Accra, we have arranged a home exchange with a family who are currently vacationing in Ottawa. We’re eating stew again, concocted from garden eggs (small, white eggplants), yams, okra, and groundnut paste bought mainly from merchants at Station 37, where we change tro-tros each day, and the occasional trip to the supermarket. Over steaming bowls served with fresh Ghanaian tea bread, we review the day’s adventures. Gillian and Alex have been working at the library in Nungua with Abigail, the head librarian there, and Julia and I have been at Joanna’s library in Osu; halfway through the month, we will switch. Every evening we meet back in Abelemkpe with tales from our tro-tro commutes and our days at the libraries. Together we work out lesson plans and schedules of crafts, songs, and games for the next day. This is the longest we have all lived together in the past five years.
Twenty sets of fingers tie off the bindings of hardcover stab-bound journals, a project that Julia and I devised at home in Ottawa as the second of two bookbinding workshops we are teaching to young teenagers in the libraries. For the finishing touches, we spread decorative paper, markers, and glue over the tables outside the Osu Library, and as the students decorate their books, we watch the covers begin to brightly sing the praises of the books themselves: “My book is nice and beautiful” and “Book is Love,” printed in marker. We have discussed the innumerable possibilities of a book with blank pages; book love is what we’ve been attempting to convey, but we are watching the students articulate it better than we ever could have.
Ninety children show up to the Nungua Library to make woven construction paper placemats. Laughing, Gillian and Abigail frantically cut strip after strip of paper to keep up with ninety pairs of frenzied, busy hands. Later, outside the library, the entire crowd dances along to action songs from Gillian’s kindergarten classroom in Canada, and sings campfire songs in chorus.
Today we’ve given the children at the Osu Library the task of teaching us: we’re determined to learn ampe, a favourite fast-paced game among the children. We stand with them in two lines facing each other, and they show us a rhythm of clapping, jumping, and then putting a foot forward on the off-beat; they do this quickly and easily, and we all erupt in laughter at our slow, awkward, and arrhythmic attempts. We play ampe a few more times in Ghana, but can never match the children in their pace and fluidity.
I am sitting at a long table in the reading room of the Nungua Library, next to windows that can fill up the room with sunlight or the sound of heavy rain. Around me, students are quietly working one-on-one or in small groups with their teachers. Next to me at the table, where we both perch on little woven stools, Yakubu is working through the flash cards that he began with Gillian; when we switched libraries after two weeks, I picked up here where she had left off. Yakubu is a quiet, serious nineteen-year-old who has never gone to school or learned to read until now. He has slowly and painstakingly been learning to recognize words and to remember letter sounds.
Today I’ve decided to try constructing simple words out of individual letters; I still remember the moment when this suddenly made sense to me as a child, and from there reading came like a landslide. Yakubu and I falter through each word, changing ‘hat’ to ‘bat’ to ‘fat’. We go through a stack of letter cards and then we do it again. “C-a-t,” he reads. “Cuh-ah-tuh,” and then for the first time, unprompted and unaided, “Cat. Cat.” He looks at me and a wide grin floods his face.
I am stationed outside the library in Goi with a digital camera, photographing children and teenagers holding their paintings as they complete them; for our final few days in the libraries, Kathy Knowles has asked us to lead the students in the remote fishing village in painting objects and images from their everyday lives; these paintings will be exchanged with students in Tanzania as part of a program called Brush Out Poverty. Mangoes, houses, fishing boats, and a cell phone logo pass like a slide show in front of my camera. Last night, with the rain pounding deafeningly against the roof of the library, we sat around a worn and well-loved Scrabble board, playing fast-paced rounds with the Scrabble geniuses of Goi: a group of sharp-witted teenagers who bring a dedicated intensity to their studies, to reading, and to today’s painting project—one boy works for hours to brush the tiny details of a fishing boat onto his canvas. In their Western clothes, some of them carrying cell phones, they stand in sharp contrast to the farmers and fishermen who are their parents; their generation is the site of so much change.
The moment the bus starts trundling back in the direction of Accra, a drumbeat emerges from the chaotic din of voices; we’ve hitched a ride back to the city with the children from the library in Goi, who are travelling to the Nima Library with their drums to perform in an all-day cultural festival. As we pass by farmers’ fields and small villages, people walking alongside the road turn to watch the bus go by, rhythms and voices spilling from the windows, singing loudly, calling and answering to one another in songs well-known and clearly loved.
With crowds from the libraries in Nima, Goi, Nungua, and Osu, we pour into the area outside of the Nima Library. All around us are children and adults excited by everything we have just experienced inside: all day, we have been the audience to dramatic skits, dances, and an impressive full-length play, all performed by children and teenagers from the four libraries, with a final dance number that pulled us, with much of the audience, up onto the stage to move to the drumbeats.
In a few days we’ll be leaving Ghana. Our month here has been divided into time spent at the libraries in Osu, Nungua, and most recently, in Goi. Now, in Nima, children we’ve known at all different stages of our adventures come up to embrace us, and looking more closely at the crowd, we find it full of familiar, smiling faces. Even in one short month, our lives have been intertwined with so many others.
Here are our hearts still racing from the drumbeats, our ears ringing with chattering voices. We’ve just witnessed traditional dances performed masterfully by the children, and a play about the falling away of old traditions.
Down beside the street, goats wander by and someone is frying plantains over an open fire, at the same time as vendors sell cold bottles of Coca Cola and cars race past on the roads.
If you look to the edge of the crowd, you’ll see a group of children starting up a game of ampe.
We have seen an elderly fisherman struggling to learn to read in English, and have met children who, even wandering dusty paths in their bare feet, dream of continuing their education and becoming teachers or doctors.
Kathy Knowles, you have started something truly incredible: in and outside of the walls of the OCLF libraries, entire communities of people are coming together to share their talents and their knowledge. Over by the windows, a voice sounds out its first word read off a page while outside, a chorus of voices rises in song. Fingers work busily to create beautiful things, and students smile proudly over their work. A local playwright watches a group of teenagers rehearsing his work, in roles that examine their culture and speak of our humanity. Here at the tables, students sit reading from shelves and shelves of books; day after day they are drawn here after school simply because this is genuinely exciting for them, and they’re happy to have the opportunity.
It’s an honour to have been a part of such a phenomenal project, and it goes without saying that our worlds are changed by the experience. So many worlds are changed by the libraries—these bright, beautiful spaces bustling with activity, creativity, connection, learning and laughter.
More than anything, we’ll remember the laughter.
-Sara Williamson, on behalf of Gillian, Julia, and Alex Williamson