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

Reflections: Marina Goodwin

I came across the OCLF in my search for somewhere to do a volunteer placement for the required practical component of my International Development degree. Armed with some children’s activities and two bottles of high-SPF sunblock, I left snowy Winnipeg and, a mere 24 hours later, stepped off the plane into a different world.

I spent the first part of my placement volunteering at the Osu Library in Accra and enjoying the hospitality of Joanna, the head librarian, and her daughter Jennifer. There, I helped with the kids in the afternoons. We drew, made friendship bracelets, sang songs, and did an afternoon of “track-and-field” games as a tribute to the Winter Olympics in Canada. In the mornings, I helped with the adult literacy classes. Joanna discovered that I could speak French and assigned me to some students from Burkina Faso wanting to learn English—my own little ESL class to design. As well, I spent some evenings working with the Kathy Knowles Theatre Company, a youth theatre company and cultural group that practices in the general-purpose room of the Nima-Maamobi Community Learning Centre.

After two months, I said a rather tearful goodbye to my surrogate family and moved over to a library in a school in Ho, a town in the beautiful Volta region of Ghana. There, I lived with Mawunyo Klu, the very dedicated and enthusiastic librarian. With help from the other teachers, Mawunyo and I embarked on a whirlwind of craft activities using cheap and locally-available materials such as beads made from rolled-up paper, dolls and bracelets made from scraps of fabric, and batik (a popular kind of cloth dyed using wax) made on paper with crayons and paint. I also taught the children some songs, like “Found a Peanut” (changed to “groundnut”, as that is what peanuts are called in Ghana), and one memorable afternoon I went over to the nursery side of the school and taught about 90 kindergarteners (many of whom couldn’t understand my English) the “Hokey Pokey”.

I left Canada expecting to learn a little about grassroots development, to get a little sunburned, and to experience a little bit of life without some of the privileges that we enjoy here in Canada. I got much more than I had bargained for. Beyond seeing the development issues that I study firsthand and learning how to navigate the trotro system, my experience taught me many valuable lessons that I will carry with me through future development studies and for the rest of my life.

Marina playing ampe with library members.

I learned that people have as much to teach you as you have to teach them. From learning to play “ampe” (a jumping-and-clapping game that took me a month to master) with the children at Joanna’s library; to improving my cooking skills under the supervision of Joanna, Jennifer, and Mawunyo; to learning how to run a meeting with the older members of the theatre company from Martin, the director, I feel as though I took away from Ghana far more than I gave. My teachers were always willing to answer my questions and explain things to me.

I also learned about the vast capacity of people to completely amaze you with their generosity and kindness. Auntie Joanna (as I came to call her) took amazing care of me and threw me a completely unexpected 20th birthday party a week after my arrival. Mawunyo and the other teachers at Ho gave me an Ewe name (Yawaavi, or “little Thursday-born”), taught me about as much Ewe as I could absorb without exploding, and presented me with a custom-made kabaa (a traditional Ghanaian dress) before I left. Talata, a girl who was a long-time Nima-Maamobi library member and who is now saving up to study medicine at the University of Ghana, took time out of her extremely busy life to befriend me and take me around the city. The staff at both libraries welcomed me with open arms, always there if I needed anything, and even strangers would go out of their way to give me directions or even pay my trotro fare for no other reason than to be nice.

Working in the libraries was often a rollercoaster ride of the unexpected. I learned very quickly that not everything can be planned and I frequently had to just throw myself into tasks and activities. Whether I was planning an ESL class as I went along, trying to make the Winter Olympics relatable to 30 children who have never seen snow, or striking out on my own on the trotro for a weekend of travelling, my experience in Ghana was always throwing me curveballs. Dealing with them was sometimes a challenge, but always exhilarating.

When I arrived in Ghana, I was slightly overwhelmed by the chaotic overload of colour, noise, and unfamiliar sights, smells, and sounds. By the time I left, I felt a little as though I was leaving a family and a second home behind. Volunteering with the OCLF in Ghana has been one of the most amazing and altering experiences of my life. It both defied and surpassed all my expectations and I hope that one day I will have the opportunity to return.

Marina Goodwin