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

Reflections: Zani Showler

When I arrived in Accra in January, the Harmattan- the season of dry, dusty winds that blow down from the Sahara- was in full swing. Reddish dust settled on anything that remained stationary for a few minutes. The sun seemed far away and obscure, and although it was hot, it seemed at the time that perhaps the burning power of the equatorial sun was a bit of a myth.

I was a volunteer at the Nungua Community Library in an eastern suburb of Accra. The images conjured by the word “suburb” in Canadian terms could not feel more wrong. No, you won’t find communities of newly-built homes and their carefully-controlled aesthetics here. The Nungua library is situated in the midst of a large compound of schools: a sprawling, open stretch of ochre-coloured dirt crawling with children in their various school uniforms, many of them headed to or from the library.

The Nungua library is a really special place. It is an integrated part of the community it serves and an important place for the children who live there. Like all OCLF-built libraries, it is a beautiful building. One of the bigger libraries, Nungua is a two-leveled building sitting in a large, fenced compound filled with grass, flowering bushes, and a beautiful frangipani tree, all well-tended by the dedicated gardener who everyone affectionately calls “old man.”

On the main level of the library you will find most of the resources for younger children: shelves and open boxes lined with story books, the long tables that we use for crafts, bingo time, and puzzles, and two rows of donated church pews where we hold story time. The walls are decorated with the colourful crafts the children have done over the past few months. You will see a snaking collection of traced hands inscribed with the title of a book each child read at the library one day. You will see a wall of big, colourful butterflies. You will see self-portraits, drawings of our friends, and a set of colourful concrete poems based on our names and labeled with a thematic Shakespeare quote. On the second level, the library is divided into two sections. In one, the older students (the “grown-ups” as we call them) are studying, surrounded by a few bookshelves of fiction and several more shelves for academic resources. In the smaller room next door there is a classroom-like set up with a standing blackboard that the students often use for group study.

I found volunteering at the library to be like submersing oneself in a river, entering a space in which motion is different, entering a different pace of life. At first you are denied the way in which you normally use your limbs, but you learn, quite quickly, not to struggle against the world around you. The most important thing for me as a volunteer was to remember that life is a series of individual moments, that we move from frame to frame through the film of our experiences, and that it is only by investing in the smaller things, by taking stock of these fragmented bits of time, that we are able to affect change and derive meaning from what we do. The moment spent reading one-on-one with a child, the particularly lovely use of colour in a craft, playing a clapping game under the shade of the frangipani. Learning how to say a new word in Ga (even if I’ve usually forgotten it ten minutes later), chatting with some of the older students, having a laugh over a game of Scrabble with one of the staff: these are the things that one can hold onto at the end of the day; it is these things, and not any single, revolutionary change that make volunteering worthwhile.

My volunteer experience wouldn’t have been the same had I not been with my friend- and “twin sister”according to most Ghanaians- Rosanna Nicol. Even though our principle work took place at different libraries, we were still able to work on a couple of projects together. We ran a series of poetry workshops at the five Accra-area libraries and hosted a culminating Poetry Slam at the new Nima Learning Centre. Some of the images in the poems were lovely: the colour blue tastes “nice and sweet / like Fanta,” and rain falling quietly sounds “like brooms hitting a table.”

Rosanna and I also worked together in helping to revitalize the girls football (soccer) team associated with the two Nima-Maamobi libraries. By a chance encounter we found a new coach for them: an inspiring young man named Ambrose with a real dedication to the development of womens’ football in Ghana. Before we left, the girls played their first match as a newly-formed team and won. Watching them do their spirited warm-up of cultural song and dance with Ambrose is one of my favourite memories from my time in Ghana.

Even though I was a volunteer at the library in Nungua, the Nima Learning Centre was someplace that I often went to read and write, joining the many older students who diligently use the space to study. It’s incredible how quickly this project has taken off, and with the staff who work there making big plans for new programming, I know that the way the space is used will continue to grow and change. Already it is such a rallying point for the youth in the Nima-Maamobi community: at almost any time of the day or evening you will find a dozen more people sitting outside in the compound, holding a meeting of the dance and drama troupe, planning a celebration at the library for the end of exams, or just chatting. It was with the staff and regular members of the Learning Centre that I forged some of my strongest friendships.

What I miss most about Ghana is something very ephemeral that I can only characterize as the way that things move, the way that people interact with space. I miss the quiet rolling in my peripheral vision of a woman carrying water on her head, the open, wild gesturing of a heated discussion, the exuberant splash of arms and slapping cadence of little girls playing Ampe.

My time in Ghana began with a dusty lack of clarity, full of misinterpretations of the world around me. By the time I was getting ready to leave, the Harmattan had long ago lifted, we had passed through the relentlessly sunny months of February and March, and the first strains of the rainy season were upon us, beginning with sudden bursts of ecstatic storm in the remote corners of the night and slowly invading the daylight hours with increasing frequency. By the time I left Ghana, my sense of purpose, my understanding of the significance of my time there, had gone through many phases and had ultimately become solidified in the notion that larger significance is drawn from minute things, that the meaning in what we do can be as banal as talking about the weather.

Zani Showler