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

Reflections: Elizabeth Giles

I arrived in Ho in mid-January following a six-month experience studying abroad at the University of Ghana-Legon in Accra. My college in the United States has an international studies program that required me to both study at a foreign university and complete a volunteer placement, and a love of reading/education combined with some lucky Googling drew me to the Osu Children’s Library Fund. My experience was nothing short of wonderful, and I hope that this brief description can give some insight into the many highlights of my stay. It’s incredibly daunting to summarize the time I spent in Ghana, so I would highly encourage anyone reading this to experience it for themselves!

Even though I had been in Ghana for six months by the time I went to live in Ho, I had never been outside the sprawling capital of Accra before. Ho is very different– smaller, infinitely cleaner and less chaotic, and situated amidst some of the most beautiful forests I have ever seen. I stayed with Madam Kudolo (the headmistress of the junior secondary school that the library is attached to) and her family in their charming house on the outskirts of Ho. Because they have a large gated house with a courtyard and rented rooms, it was like I was moving into a cozy little self-contained neighborhood. I became good friends with the renters and their children as well as with Madam Kudolo and her husband, who essentially “adopted” me as their (fourth) child and called me by the Ghanaian name “Akuvi.” In the evenings I would pound fufu with Madam and the neighbor girls while they tried to teach me Ewe (the language indigenous to much of the Volta region). Madam took me to her family’s village, to my first African wedding, and to her church, among countless other outings that proved invaluable to me in exploring Ghanaian culture. The relationships that grew out of my homestay were incredibly rewarding, and certainly the “heart and soul” of my time there.

I spent the majority of my time at the library, working with Mawunyo Klu and Emmanuel Adegbedzi– both warm, friendly people and conscientious librarians with a passion for literature that inspires all the students of Ho-Dome R.C. School. My first few weeks were daunting, given my utter lack of training in librarianship and the huge volume of students who utilized the library on a daily basis. At recess the small room would be packed, and often students would resort to lying on the floor once all the tables were taken. My initial interactions with the children consisted of little more than being the object of curious stares and furtive whispers. Fortunately, Mawunyo led structured library-skills periods for each fourth, fifth, and sixth-grade class on a weekly basis, and was gracious (and brave) enough to put me in charge of the fifth and sixth-graders’ lessons for the duration of my stay. With the helpful suggestions and unwavering support of Mawunyo and Emmanuel, we worked on a classroom publishing project that culminated in the students writing, illustrating, and binding their own books to display in the library. Other activities that I assisted with were the staging of a school play, puppet-making and puppet shows, and organizing a “reading challenge” that got students to write a summary of each book they read in order to have their names entered in a raffle.

Throughout all these activities I was consistently impressed by the talent and determination of the students (even in the face of my cultural blunders, incomprehensible accent, and ridiculous ideas). When I first decided that I wanted to put on puppet shows with the fourth-graders, I went to the market in Ho to buy socks, since sock puppets are the only kind of puppets I know how to make. I could only find secondhand socks, though, and the sight of a young white girl buying secondhand socks in an African marketplace was outrageous to most of the passersby. “These are not hygienic!” the seller himself warned me. “You should get socks somewhere else!”

“Oh, don’t worry,” I reassured him, “I’m not going to wear them. I’m going to make something with them.” The bewildered look on his face– and the identical look on the face of Madam Kudolo when she witnessed me hand-washing twenty pairs of used socks in the courtyard that evening– both amused and daunted me. “Maybe this is a stupid idea,” I thought at the time. The next day when I stood up in front of thirty-five Ghanaian fourth-graders with a smiling purple sock on my hand and spoke in a squeaky voice only to discover that none of them were even familiar with the concept of puppets, I decided that puppetry was the stupidest idea I had ever had. However, four chaotic class periods later the students had produced adorable puppets, and they went on to perform complex and hilarious skits with them for the younger students to watch. Their enthusiasm was such that twenty minutes into each group’s performance Mawunyo and I usually had to drag the children out from behind the table in order to ensure that everyone would have time to perform, which was certainly not something I foresaw when I first brought in my garbage bag of old socks. From teaching puppetry I learned the merits of stepping out of my comfort zone, and how very lucky I was to work with students that could do the same.

Many thanks to the Osu Children’s Library Fund, as I am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to such a beautiful country, and to have lived and worked with such a broad range of warm, talented, and encouraging people. More than six months after returning home, I still don’t feel like I can begin to explain what an impact that experience had on me, and I strongly hope that the relationships I developed in Ghana are ones that I will be renewing for the rest of my life.