Sharing the Joy of Reading with an African Child
for 25 years

Reflections: Christine Jacobs, my sabbatical in Ghana

Christine is speaking to students in Montreal about her experience. She is wearing an outfit (dress, cloth, beads and stole/banner) that the staff gave her as a thank you. Projected in the background is a picture of the library at Ho-Dome R.C. School Complex.

I learned of the Osu Children’s Library Fund from a colleague who knew I was looking for an opportunity to work in another country during my six-month sabbatical. It was time to take a break from teaching information and library studies and to learn a little bit about how some other people in the world live. I contacted Kathy and was delighted to find that OCLF would welcome me for whatever length of time I could contribute. With that as a beginning, I put together a trip that allowed me to work for 2 ½ months at the research library of the Tamale Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies (TICCS) in northern Ghana and 2 ½ months with OCLF in the library of the Ho-Dome R.C. School Complex in Ho. Ho is located in the Volta region of south-eastern Ghana.

My stay in Ghana started with a one-week orientation course at TICCS that is designed for aid workers and missionaries. It was an enormous help in making me aware of Ghanaian cultural values and meanings, and besides classroom time, included visits to various types of local industries, practice in the protocol of greeting chiefs, an introduction to Ghanaian food and meal etiquette, a drum and dance performance by the Choggu drummers, and a visit to a village. The course alone was worth the 13 hour bus trip between Accra and Tamale! TICCS has a superb library collection focussed on anthropology, ethnography, linguistics, and theology and I felt privileged to work in that setting.

When my time there drew to a close, I headed back to Accra where Joanna Felih took me under her wing to familiarize me with the OCLF libraries and practices. I owe Joanna many thanks for making me welcome, smoothing my way in Ghana and organizing my placement in Ho where she has friends and family. From meeting me at the airport, and making me a birthday cake, to helping me sort out visa issues, Joanna was a great comfort. I also appreciated the “halfway house” quality of the OCLF guesthouse — Ghana with a touch of Canada to ease transition and home yearnings. Mr. Kofi, the taxi driver who has become part of the OCLF “family,” is a man who goes far beyond the calls of duty. On my third day in Ghana he insisted on waiting three hours with me at the bus station to ensure that I departed safely for Tamale. His kindnesses loom large in my recollections…

One of my favourite memories is my first trip to Ho. Joanna, her daughter Jennifer, and I set out with Mr. Kofi. It is about a three-hour trip, but we needed to make a visit on the way to the mountain village of Kpoeta where there is an OCLF-sponsored library. Joanna had directions that called for us to go to a particular village to meet someone at a gas station who would then guide us up to Kpoeta. As often happens in Ghana, the directions were not as clear to us as they were to the person who had given the directions (directions usually depend on recognition of local landmarks, which is difficult if you do not know the area)! So, after driving around for quite awhile, consulting with passersby, and trying unsuccessfully to make cell phone contact, we continued on to Ho.

When we had almost reached Ho our guide managed to make phone contact, and we found that we had been driving around looking for a former gas station which no longer had a sign attached, but which was still known locally by its original name. Hungry and tired, we arrived in Ho where Joanna’s family graciously received us and Joanna purchased the elements of a “fast-food” meal at the market – aboloo (a steamed cornmeal dish) served with little dried fish, chopped tomates, and onions. Somewhat rested, Joanna, Mr. Kofi and I headed back toward Kpoeta, and this time managed to meet up with our guide who hopped in the car and directed Mr. Kofi onwards and upwards. As we proceeded, the road became steeper and more washed out until at last Mr. Kofi announced that his taxi could go no further. After some multilingual discussion (Joanna speaking English and Ewe, our guide speaking French and Ewe, me speaking English and French, and Mr. Kofi speaking English) Joanna and I decided that we would walk the rest of the way with our guide who was rather vague on the distance involved, but thought maybe it was about a ½ hour walk. At this point it was after 4 pm.

After about 30 minutes walking, a panel truck came up behind us, stopped, and suggested we get into the back along with about twelve men, women and children, their various market goods, boxes, basins, etc. I was hauled / pushed up onto quite a comfortable perch on top of a variety of goods, while Joanna was given a more direct view of the terrain, sitting on the edge of the truck against the cab. I could just see her eyes widen as the truck started off at a good clip… Another 20 minutes, and we arrived in the village and tumbled out of the truck, relieved to have arrived at last in a beautiful setting of mountain vistas and palm trees. Kpoeta consists of several related villages in the mountains close to the border with Togo. The people are Ewe, and the first language spoken is Ewe. Because it is close to Togo, French is also frequently spoken and taught, in addition to English which is the basic language of instruction in the schools.

We were greeted with great joy by a small delegation who had been watching out for us all afternoon and were swept off to be served with a beautifully-presented meal of banku (a dish made of cassava and fermented ground corn dough) and okro soup followed by fruit. By this time it was dusk and drizzling a bit, but everyone was in very celebratory spirits and accompanied by a growing escort of children and adults we proceeded to the Kpoeta Community Library housed in the Wisdom of Wisdoms School. It is difficult to communicate adequately the joy of the community in its library. Since the library room still lacked shelving, the OCLF-donated books were carefully laid out on mats in a small room, there were hand-made signs, and people were just bursting with pride.

A program of entertainment had also been planned, but due to our getting lost earlier, there was no time for a full-scale event. We apologized to our hosts who, after taking us to formally greet the chief (giving me cause, once again, to appreciate the coaching in protocol I received at TICCS), escorted us to the road leading down the mountain. As the truck had returned from whence it had come, and as there were no other vehicles in the village, Joanna and I were contemplating a walk in the dark down to the taxi. So, imagine our astonishment and relief when, just as we approached the edge of the village, a small car drove up and there was Mr.Kofi! He had sat for awhile in his taxi, and then started worrying about us to the extent that he had proceeded slowly up the mountain, filling the worst of the gullies in the road with rocks so that he could make it over the crevices. Laden with gifts of freshly-picked bananas and avocados, we gratefully climbed in and slowly wended our way back down the mountain.

By the time I arrived in Ho I was in sensory overload, exhausted, but delighted. For me that one day epitomized some of the most strikingly Ghanaian and most meaningful experiences I had. Ghanaians are extremely warm and hospitable, and they are understandably very proud of their country. It is a delight to witness this pride and to be welcomed into being part of it. As a whole, they have great facility with language (many speak 3-5 unrelated languages), making the struggle that Canadians have with two official languages seem absurd. Personal relationships/commitments form the basis of Ghanaian society, and the concepts of time and distance that we measure so carefully in Canada have very different cultural values in Ghana.

On the other hand, despite a commitment to universal education on the part of the government, the quality of educational infrastructure varies considerably, and poorer villages have less, so the acquisition of formal education is a struggle, and for many it is non-existent. English, the language of instruction, is a second (or third) language for most children. Books are rare, children have chores to perform when they are not actually in school, and literacy levels are not high. It is also difficult to read in the evening when nightfall is at 6:30 pm and the electricity is often off. In these contexts, the role of libraries takes on renewed urgency and vibrancy.

My two months in Ho continued my learning experiences. Emmanuel Adegbedzi, the teacher-librarian who oversees the library at the Ho-Dome R.C. School Complex and Ms. Mawunyo Klu the librarian, Madame Kudolo, the headmistress, along with all the staff of the school made me feel very welcome. Miriam Pi-Bansa (a French teacher in the school) and her husband Kofi opened their home to me and looked after my every need. Everyone coached my Ewe, encouraged my efforts at Ghanaian dress, and giggled when I lamented how inept I was at eating okro soup with my right hand (no utensils). In return I did my best to reorganize the library so that they could get the best use from it, coached Mawunyo in ways to enhance the pedagogical use of the library, introduced spelling and other pedagogical games, and helped her start a program for reading to the K- class 3 students in their classrooms. With my Canadian accent, I did not attempt to read to the younger children who are just learning English (even adults had a hard time understanding me at times), but it was a pleasure to watch them respond to Mawunyo, sometimes mobbing her as we approached the classrooms. In my last week I was overwhelmed by the school’s thank you tribute – a mass said as a thank you for my arrival with prayers for my safe journey home, a luncheon full of speeches in my honour by various people from the community and school, and a lovely traditional dress tailored for me from one of the cloths designed for Ghana’s 50th year of independence. My eyes were definitely not dry!

My time in Ghana meant many things to me – a return to the roots of librarianship after teaching full time for ten years, a chance to immerse myself in another culture, the stimulation of constantly learning, the time to appreciate the details of another lifestyle and to question my own. In the process, I made friends, and did the best I could to pass on knowledge that would be useful in their efforts to improve access to books and reading skills. Ghana is a stable country, but many of its educated people emigrate, so it remains difficult to educate the successive generations. Literacy is one of the keys to social and economic development, but literacy requires not only the ability to discern and understand words, but also materials to read and conditions that promote reading. The realities of these tensions were brought home to me as I worked with teachers who were doing their best with inadequate supplies and challenging working conditions. The efforts that OCLF makes to bring meaningful reading materials to communities and to train individuals to work as librarians address these very basic needs.

Christine Jacobs