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

Reflections: Kaitlan Knowles

In October 2008, I joined Mom and Deborah Cowley on one of their bi/tri-annual trips to Ghana with OCLF. It was a spontaneous adventure and my only set plan was to put together six first aid kits (with Deborah) before travelling and use my nursing skills to review basic first aid with the staff at the main libraries in Accra. I hoped to meet with old friends, see the recently built libraries and be introduced to the people that I had heard so much about during the ten years since last travelling to Ghana.

Coming out of the gates at the airport, I was immediately greeted with a blast of warm, sticky air and waves and shouts from Mom, Jennifer, (Joanna, one of the head librarian’s daughter), Lardi (the ‘First Lady’ or the first member of the Nima Maamobi Gale Community Library) and Kwame, the best taxi driver in all Ghana. From that first night, he taught me how to assess the value of vehicles, “Mind the engine, not the body!”

Highlights and memories from the five weeks…

Living with Joanna and Jennifer, the ‘hosts with the mosts’ in their beautiful and modest home in Nima, lovingly named ‘The Guesthouse’.

Joining Talata, a 19 year old, spunky, enthusiastic and a dedicated literacy teacher and her intermediate adult literacy class. Her students, who speak four or more languages, finish their full-time day jobs and join the class to improve their English skills. There was a seamstress, a market seller, a taxi driver, a university student, an Arabic teacher and other professionals in the class. An evening ‘show and tell’ was a highlight as it encouraged some timid folk to stand in front of a group and talk about something of importance to them. One woman shared a photograph of her son, and stated after ten years of trying to conceive, he was her miracle child. The whole class clapped! Niki Daly, a South African storyteller, made a guest appearance and read a few of his favourite whimsical tales. You do not need to be young to relate to children’s stories…just young at heart! Talata hosted a celebratory dinner and dance in her family compound and all the guests had to show off whatever dancing moves were in our repertoire!

Testing Kwame’s taxi on a journey up a rugged dirt road to reach a small, village library near the Togo border. (Only the last stretch that was unpaved…but it was memorable). We ended up walking alongside the car because it was less nerve wracking! We were graciously greeted with singing and a timid young girl presented a bouquet of flowers to Mom. During this brief visit we toured the village, had a reception with the chief, gratefully ate a meal of chicken stew and rice, and were audience to a school and library performance. As we nervously noticed the sun setting and worried about the road trip back, Mom thoroughly demonstrated how to use the ‘big story books’ before handing them to the energetic librarian.

Discussing health issues with library staff and members. Topics included: basic wound care, what to do if someone’s choking or having a seizure, and how to tell if a person has died. A man started the discussion about death because people of the Muslim faith are buried often only hours after dying. A couple days after one of these talks a woman approached me to say that she had used the Heimlich Manoeuvre on one of her neighbours successfully!

Eating our almost daily roadside meal of roasted plantain and strawberry frozen yogurt (Fan YOGO).

Witnessing the creative and dynamic approach of OCLF. I observed the staff in action including: the annual staff meeting complete with singing, a craft and sharing of ideas (one of the participants rose at 3 a.m. to make the six hour trip), animated story times with keen groups of children, watching a theatre director lead a fabulous play attended by hundreds of people at the Nima Centre, and the librarians rallying the children daily to help clean and organize the libraries to keep them beautiful.

Spending three days at the Orthopedic Training Centre with four Catholic Sisters, where Massawoud, a 13 year old library member, received surgeries and rehabilitation treatment that have enabled him to walk. I was humbled as I joined the children and Sister Cecelia in a Saturday afternoon swim. Many of the avid swimmers were missing one or more limbs for various reasons, and easily flipped themselves off the diving board. Their confidence grows from the respectful treatment received at the Centre, which often involved one or more surgeries, intensive physiotherapy, fitting for prosthesis and a multitude of recreational activities.

Observing nurse Sister Cecelia in the most efficient health centre I have ever visited. About 25 staff operate this clinic, which features a lab, a pharmacy, a wound care station, a labour and delivery room and three clinic rooms. On the day I was present, Sister saw 107 people for issues such as malaria, HIV, pneumonia, infants not gaining appropriate weight, typhoid and skin infections. Meanwhile, a midwife and nurse provided prenatal and postpartum care in another clinic room… always prepared for a woman to arrive in labour. The night I arrived a midwife assisted four women safely deliver their babies, which meant that all four beds were occupied!

It was a true pleasure to return to Ghana and to be so wholeheartedly welcomed. I once heard Mom referred to affectionately as the Velvet Steamroller and it was wonderful to see her in action Sharing the Joy of Reading!