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

Reflections: Sophie Knowles

I left for Ghana somewhat unprepared but knowing that I was going to be the musical director for an African youth opera, the Orphans of Qumbu. I expected to be helping out with literacy classes, doing some art and exploring on my own and spending maybe a few hours each day mounting the show. It turned out to be a full time job!

I had some experience teaching music in Canada but was not prepared for a group of almost entirely fresh ears. I immediately learned that matching an abstract pitch is something that is largely learned and I have taken for granted. It is one thing to sing happy birthday and have the crowd sing along and another thing to teach something new. Even the leads would occasionally become “lost,” randomly singing an entirely different note than what was required! I had to learn to find ways to help them get back on track. Trying to get the pre-teen boys to sing in their authentic unchanged or changing voices was also a challenge, as they would prefer to imitate the men. By the end of the six weeks, in addition to our opera, the cast was able to sing warm up exercises more or less in unison, without me singing out each triadic progression – a wonderful accomplishment!

The library staff members were mostly all extremely welcoming and kind, making the Nima Centre a wonderful place to volunteer. Martin, the leader of the drama and cultural group, was a great support and has an excellent rapport with the children and young adults. The children in the library were also wonderful and keen to help set things up. Our diverse cast ranged in age from 10 to mid 20s and there were a handful of brilliant leaders within the group who took on administrative roles within the company and assisted with the younger cast members.

As we finished staging the last piece and singing the last song I was overcome by the wonderful feeling that only comes with being a part of a cast that has collectively worked hard, grown so much and together created a great piece.

There were many people who made my stay lovely. I benefited from the many years mom has spent working and living in Maamobi. The neighbours greeted with big hugs and many of the sellers along the way asked how I was doing while walking to and from the library. Talata, a brilliant spunky girl who spent many hours at the library growing up and was a scholarship student, greeted me at the airport with “My Sister!” and hosted me together with her friend Chris to the ninth degree, showing me everything from local cooking to a hip salsa/line dancing bar. They demonstrated how hard many Ghanaians work. Talata works 15 hours a day, six days a week waitressing at a restaurant with privileged clientele for a modest wage and only gets to keep a slight fraction of the tips that she earns. Somehow she has extra energy to do chores and party!

The guesthouse was a warm, clean, welcoming place to stay and Joanna and Jennifer were wise and brilliant hosts. Jennifer was a lot of fun and was always ready to play a game or bake a new recipe. At one point there was no water for four days but usually there was no running water and so we stored it in containers.

I liked the surrounding community. It was truly alive twenty-four hours a day, reminding me of downtown Toronto where you never feel entirely alone walking along a downtown street. At all hours of the night you might be startled by either a rooster or goat or one of the many surrounding mosques’ call to prayer. By 6:00 a.m. most had risen.

I enjoyed taking the public transit which by the end I became quite accustomed to. The busiest transfer stations are absolutely nuts with hundreds of tro-tros waiting to fill up. There is this incredible incredibly energy bursting forth with people streaming, vehicles lurching and hawkers pushing everything from toothbrushes to fresh coconuts to live infomercials on the new “cure-all medicine” or buskers spreading the Holy Word.

With all that was going on, time passed quickly. It felt as though before I had even settled in that it was already time to leave. I was sorry to go but grateful for the people I met and all the experiences that I was given.

Sophie Knowles