Martha Helgerson – 2019

Since the mid-1990s, I had been a behind-the-scenes helper and minimal volunteer with the Winnipeg branch of the Osu Children’s Library Fund, sitting on the local board and assisting with writing and editing duties. Kathy was my close neighbour and friend, and I was only happy to help with her worthwhile project.

And for those same many years, in some ways, I had thought of the OCLF network generically as “Kathy’s libraries,” which by all accounts is true. Yet after a visit to Ghana with Kathy in August 2019, I realized that I more accurately needed to add a few more “owners” – names like Abena and Lordina, Enoch and Conrad – as these places really belong to their members, from young to old, whose lives have been enriched and transformed through knowledge and opportunity.

During the visit, place names like Korle Gonno, Mamprobi, Nima and Goi, which I had only known about “on paper,” now came vividly to life as I experienced first-hand how vibrant and beautiful and well used each of Osu Library Fund’s eight libraries in the Accra area are.  These libraries are not located in the most privileged sections of the teeming metropolis. Yet, the evidence of well-run facilities  that are led by head librarians and staff who really care about their jobs was easy to spot; in a big city like Accra that is dusty and noisy, the libraries are true oases that provide clean, safe, nurturing and creative spaces for children and young adults to read, to study, to learn, to have fun, and for many, to have extra food to eat. The success stories are many.

Every day was jam-packed, (doubly so for Kathy), and as a volunteer one definitely gets the insider’s view of life in Accra, far removed from any ex-pat reality. Yet, the busy schedule and minor hardships were eased substantially by the warm hospitality of OLF’s most senior head librarian Joana Felih and the calm navigational ability of Kathy’s friend and driver, Kwame.

Over the course of three weeks, I visited each of the eight libraries in the Greater Accra Region, yet spent most days at the Osu neighbourhood’s  Kathy Knowles Community Library (the original shipping container one). There, I worked primarily with library assistant Rachel, 17, to introduce the children to the stories of Pippi Longstocking, a character who shares many traits with the familiar and favourite Fati, from the eponymous OLF-published series of popular books.

In addition, I accompanied Kathy when she entered into negotiations with the chief and elders of a  fishing/salt village near Goi, east of Accra, to build a small library with grant assistance.

Other highlights included attending an annual Theatre Festival at the Nima Centre featuring dancing, drumming and several original plays, from each of the OLF libraries. A memorable moment came when  Korle Gonno librarian Irene premiered her original “Sharing the Joy of Reading” song as accompanied by a 10-piece orchestra comprised of young library members who are being nurtured and taught by Irene with assistance by the German-based Musicians Without Borders.

Besides working in the libraries, I attended the African Regional Conference of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY), at which Kathy, who was on the local organizing board, was a speaker.  In addition, Rachel and I staffed the Osu Library Fund’s kiosk at the annual Ghana Book Fair for one day, where Kathy’s beautifully produced books for children were on sale.

There was a bit of time for relaxation. Along with a group from IBBY, I made a worthwhile day trip westward to Cape Coast and Elmina castles where one learns about the inhuman slave trade that persisted for 350 years to provide labour to the Americas. On another Sunday afternoon, Kathy and I, along with Joana, Rachel and her brother, Desmond, strolled through the packed streets of the colourful Jamestown neighbourhood to take in the sights and sounds of the arts-oriented Charlie Wote Festival.

And, finally, on our penultimate day, Kathy and I, along with Kwame and his lively 6-year-old twin girls, found an hour or two to take a late afternoon stroll on the vast stretch of  beach that lay just a block from our guest house atop Korle Gonno Library, which fronts a busy street filled with  family compounds, resorts, small businesses, schools, churches and mosques – not to mention a continual stream of taxis and the occasional early Sunday morning parade.  The nearby beach with its pounding surf had provided welcome “white noise” during the nights of the preceding three weeks, and so now walking its white sands, (unfortunately strewn with the ubiquitous plastic), was a lovely ending to an amazing visit that underscored what I already knew, but now had witnessed first hand: Kathy’s Libraries – oops, I mean the OLF libraries, which belong to Abena and Lordina, Enoch and Conrad, and the list could go on  —  continue to provide invaluable opportunities and make significant differences in the lives of so many.

Martha