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

Reflections: Emily Ives

Emily Ives_100x100Following 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.