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

Reflections: Leila Osman

Leila teaching the recorder with members of the Kathy Knowles Community Library.

From June 27th until July 27th, I was a volunteer at the Kathy Knowles Community Library in Osu, with a good friend of mine from home, Stephanie. Everywhere we went, we were heartily welcomed, with a song from the children at the library, or a warm hug from Joanna as we filed into her guesthouse.

The library is an oasis in the bustling city, made up of a tightly knit community of children, students, and staff. The staff and members are extremely proud of their library, and take good care of maintaining the quality of their books, puzzles, and games. Members must wash their hands and remove their shoes before they are allowed in, and no food, drinks, or chewing gum is permitted inside. Each and every book is carefully covered in clear plastic, and members are taught a careful and gentle way to turn the pages of whatever they are reading.

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the library provides free literacy classes for the community. Whether an individual is completely new to English or is relatively advanced, the library has a class at that level. Stephi and I taught the intermediate level class at the Kathy Knowles Community Library in Osu for our entire stay in Accra. It was an absolutely incredible experience; to see adults come to the library so eager and enthusiastic to learn was, in a word, beautiful. To see such a dedication and spirit from each and every one of the students to learn and to improve was truly inspirational, and made me realize how painfully easy it is for someone like myself to take so much for granted though everything I can possibly need is right in front of me.

We spent lots of time with the children of the library; from making mobiles out of tissue paper, pipe cleaners, sticks, and string, or teaching them how to make embroidery thread friendship bracelets, to creating stained-glass Ghanaian flags with tissue paper, or decorating paper birds, we encouraged the children to be creative with their supplies and to do whatever they could imagine with them. The time spent with these eager and exuberant children was inspiring, and holds some of the most wonderful memories and moments of my trip.

The children loved listening to the adventures of Franklin the Turtle or Winnie the Pooh, sometimes sculpting characters out of the pieces of beeswax we gave them, and sometimes simply listening intently as they were taken out of their realities for a few moments, and tossed into a world where they all knew that anything is possible. On Wednesday and Friday afternoons, we held recorder lessons in the backyard of the library on stools under a tree. Thanks to a generous donation of 80 recorders from the Ottawa Folklore Centre, each and every child had the means to take part in this exciting activity.

The library provides a safe environment where the children can learn new crafts, read, and listen to stories. It is a space where they can be exactly what they are meant to be: children, with nothing more to worry about than how this particular adventure of Curious George’s might end.

The Osu Children’s Library Fund’s logo is “Sharing the Joy of Reading”, and it was wonderful to witness this joy in each and every one of their beautiful libraries that I had the good fortune to visit. It was encouraging to see that, though responsibilities and engagements sometimes did not allow for all the students to attend the literacy classes, there was never a single one that was empty; an enthusiasm to learn, and a hunger for knowledge in these communities drives this incredible project and ensures its continued success. There was nothing as encouraging as seeing a student who struggled in distinguishing between the words ‘evening’ and ‘every’ in the first week of classes confidently speak out the right one by the time we were almost leaving; there was nothing as exciting as hearing an enthusiastic “Good afternoon, Auntie!” from each child as they hurried by to wash their hands before going inside; and there was nothing as beautiful as standing in front of our ‘little blue bubble of happiness’, as we came to call it, with the three permanent staff members and 30 children of the Kathy Knowles Community Library, every one of us proudly showing the camera that we were wearing the exciting new friendship bracelets that we had just made all together.

In the four short weeks that I was away, I came to learn so many things. I learned that I could shower with far less water than I expected; I learned the differences between fufu, banku, and kenkey; I learned that baking a cake without key ingredients but with wonderful people will be so much more fun (and the end product tastes so much better). I learned the hard way that I will probably never be able to beat Jennifer, Joanna’s twelve year-old daughter, at oware, or at peeling and cutting fruit faster than she can. I failed to fully understand the hand signals for the trotro, but learned that Joanna was more than willing to try, over and over again, to explain the system to me. More than sharing the joy of reading, the libraries, and all of the people involved with them, showed me that, much like a friendship bracelet or a piece of kente cloth, threads of society may be strong enough individually to hold their own for a while; however, only when each of these threads are woven tightly together can they form something truly beautiful: the unbreakable fabric of community.

Setting out on this adventure of mine, I was a whole jumbled ball of emotions. I was anxious, excited, ecstatic, terrified, and amazed, all at once. Naively, I expected to feel proud to have taught someone something by the end of it; foolishly, I didn’t expect to come home feeling changed, and yet seemingly unable to fully explain the shift. My time at the library, and in Ghana, taught me how to adapt, how to embrace and accept new, unknown, and sometimes uncomfortable things as pieces of the entire package. My time away taught me how to teach. But more importantly, it taught me how to learn. From the beginning, I had hoped to return as a more confident, adept, and worldly individual.

I left for Ghana as a pretty average North American teenager. And though I don’t believe that I can reasonably say that I’ve changed completely, I do feel that I can safely say that I returned home as a North American young adult, ready to jump headfirst into sharing the joy of reading by turning the page, and beginning a new and exciting chapter in this beautiful book of my life.

Leila Osman