Reflections after a busy summer

The kids are (mostly) back in school, the international volunteers have gone home, and the library/computer lab is thus no longer open all day every weekday. I finally have a chance to catch my breath, do my laundry, and reflect on the past two months.

The library has been an unexpected hit with the students. I was not involved in the design process, but I imagine that Rebecca and the architect tried to design a welcoming space that would engage with the local people and draw kids in – big windows, sliding glass doors, and a location surrounded by schools.


In retrospect, maybe an underground bunker would have been a better design.


Naively, I thought that I would have a group of five to ten teenagers for the first run of my Young Writers’ Book Club program. We would meet for an hour, three times a week, read some books and write some stories and poems. Otherwise, the place would be more or less deserted. Once the library was open full-time, maybe the occasional nerdy kid would want to come in and read for a bit, but I would be able to get work done while minding the library. We thought we might be able to use the big spaces in the library and computer lab to do volunteer orientations and even other programs like art classes.

Instead, we got this.


None of us, neither the Ghanaian staff nor the foreigners, could have foreseen this. Children were literally trying to break the doors down in order to get into both the library and the computer lab. Surely, we thought, once they get inside and realise it’s just a bunch of books, the interest in the library at least will die down to a reasonable level.

At the beginning of the summer, I was working with a Hong Kong volunteer named Janice. She came prepared to teach creative writing to older kids, and had done some lesson plans accordingly. She started working with a group of (theoretically) three teenagers, but their attendance was irregular and they soon stopped coming altogether. Meanwhile I had started with a group of nine to twelve year olds after school. I too had prepared all my lesson plans and reading materials with an older group in mind, but young teenagers didn’t seem to be materializing. Janice and I joined forces to work with this group, and were soon joined by Sweetlana, an intern from Dubai. Both Janice and Sweetlana took a lot of initiative and came up with creative yet simple ideas for working with the group.

IMG_0935  Janice and Sweetlana with the Young Writers’ Book Club

Meanwhile, hordes of children were still trying to break down the library doors every day, and begging to join the group. We decided to open the library during the day, allowing ten kids in at a time for one hour. We did not follow a curriculum with these groups; they simply looked at the books and sometimes drew pictures. Soon, we realized that most of them were not interested in reading the words in the books at all. So we started going around the room and taking a few minutes to read with each child that came in. In some cases, we were able to find books that were easy enough for the child to read. Otherwise, we just read to them and talked about the pictures with them. We also gave them time to do what they really wanted to do, which was look at the books and draw their own pictures.


The Young Writers’ Book Club was meeting three afternoons a week for an hour. The reading part of the program was complicated by the fact that vastly different levels of reading ability were represented in the group. We had enough volunteers to work with the kids individually and in small groups, and also read stories to them at the end of the sessions. This seemed to work, at least for a while.

Getting them to write also proved challenging. Most of them were not clear on what exactly a sentence was. Janice showed them how to fold a sheet of paper into a 6-page booklet and had them write something and draw a picture on each page. This helped them break up their ideas into sentence-sized bits.

I really wanted to self-publish a picture book with the kids as soon as possible, as I guessed that they would be inspired by the fact that they could write an actual book, like the ones in the library, that other people could use.
So far, we have desktop-published a few picture books. One is a counting book in Twi, illustrated by the students:


DSC00779  It has ended up being a useful part of our collection.

One is a counting book in English, with a story that was brainstormed by the group, and illustrated by me. I named the characters after the kids who wrote the story:

cover art

005  Patricia was NOT impressed.

We brainstormed another story. This time the kids drew the pictures and had to write their section of the story with correct grammar and spelling:

04   They had their revenge.

After Janice left for Hong Kong, we were very fortunate to be joined by another volunteer, Georg, from Germany. His patience, energy and commitment allowed us to continue the program even after Sweetlana left us. During the last week of August, only Georg and I were left to run both the library and the computer lab. We were both pretty burnt out by the end.

canteven  How is Georg still smiling?

My next task is to take what I have learned and try to make some plans for the future. In some ways, my experience this summer has confirmed what I suspected.

  • Most students in Ghana struggle at a very basic level with reading and writing. The ones who succeed either have an unusually high aptitude, or they come from the most affluent families and attend the best schools.
  • The fact that virtually everyone, including the teachers, speaks English at school and a different language in the rest of their lives is problematic, and creates a barrier to literacy and learning.
  • I still believe that it is not fair to put the whole burden of literacy and other “academic” skills on the school system. Children should also have the opportunity to learn in both structured and unstructured environments outside of school.


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I also changed my mind about a few things after this experiment.

  • We need to work with younger children. From junior high school going, the students are always in school, even on Saturdays and during vacation time. They have no time for extracurricular activities.
  • There need to be culturally and linguistically appropriate, entertaining reading materials available for younger children. If these materials exist, they are not reaching the children who need them.
  • Authors, librarians, NGO’s and educators need to coordinate their efforts, or at least be aware of each other’s efforts. As in other areas of development, we keep reinventing the wheel, and then not maintaining it.

More specifically, Light for Children and I need to figure out how to use the library we have in cooperation with the schools. I also have to design reading and writing programs that volunteers can run in the library, and maybe even a travelling version to be brought to villages.

Also, Mike Owusu (of Light for Children) and I are collaborating to write a picture book in Twi and English.

But first… laundry.


Journey to the North


(Embarrassing case of writer’s block happening at the moment, but I just rediscovered this entry I wrote last May and never shared.)


I decided I couldn’t leave Ghana without spending at least a few more days in the Northern region. My original plan was to go there for a couple of weeks and study Dagomba drumming, but somehow I never got my act together to do that. I did go to Mole National Park last September in the role of Wildlife Paparazzi for a couple of days, and really wanted to get a look at the savannah during the dry season when it actually looks “African.” This time I decided to bring Sammy with me. He had never been there before, or seen elephants in the wild.  

It’s a long, hot, dusty ride to Tamale: about 6 or 7 hours by bus. Or, you can wimp out and fly Antrak Air, for less than the price of a Greyhound bus ticket from Ottawa to Montreal. We flew. I was worried that the plane would be something like a flying trotro, but it was no different from an Air Canada flight. The flight attendant devoted a lot of the safety demonstration to explaining exactly how to put on and inflate the lifejacket, considering that we were flying from one landlocked city to another one in arid savannah land. True, we crossed the Volta River, but it only took about 3 seconds.

There are bicycles and motorcycles everywhere in Tamale. They even have special lanes for them, which is a huge contrast to the usual completely chaotic use of road space in the rest of Ghana. We hung around the Cultural Center in Tamale, hoping that some drummers and dancers would magically appear. They did, but it turned out to be a rehearsal by an Ewe group (from the Volta region in the south, for you non-experts in Ghanaian music.) It was one of those serious rehearsals where the director stopped them every 5 seconds to correct something, so we eventually got bored and moved on. We had drinks at a place called Sparkles, which is full of young European women and Rasta-ish men trying really hard to pick them up.


not the typical clientele

After sleeping in the insanely hot Christian Council Guesthouse, we got up at 4 AM to try to get a bus to the national park. This involved a lot of wandering around a smelly outdoor bus station trying to figure out whether or not there were tickets. The smell came from huge sacks of a kind of dried fish that someone was transporting. They are used as food for some livestock species, but I can’t remember which. Most buses in Ghana just leave when they are full, but the Metro buses in the north run on schedules, and you’re supposed to buy your tickets in advance. However, this is Ghana, so there are also bus ticket scalpers who will sell you last-minute tickets for a very small added fee. I never would have figured this out without Sammy, who started wheeling and dealing Ghana-style. In the end he managed to get tickets on the morning bus both for us and for a bewildered Irish couple. The Metro buses are about as comfortable as an old school bus in Canada. It ended up being a very long bumpy trip, with lots of stopping, starting and random waiting, but we eventually got to Larabanga at about 11 in the morning.

Larabanga is a small village a few kilometers from the main entrance to the Park. It has what is supposed to be the oldest mosque (or as they pronounce it, “mox”) in Ghana, though that claim is not very scientific. Apparently there are a handful of other mosques of similar age and construction scattered throughout northern Ghana.


the mosque

Because of this landmark and their proximity to the park, Larabanga gets its fair share of tourists, some of whom have fallen in love with the place and returned to start various development projects. There is a very basic guest house (4 bucks a night!!) with a hole-in-the-floor toilet, bucket showers, and the option to sleep on the roof in hot weather. (The park itself has a good hotel on-site, but I neglected to reserve far enough in advance.) We checked in and decided to head straight to the park for the rest of the day. The owner of Salia Brothers Guest house (Mr Salia) arranged for a couple of motorcycle taxis. I hadn’t been on a motorcycle since one of my cousins took me for a spin in St John’s when I was 16. I think it would be even more fun if I was driving it myself! That could be my next mid-life crisis project.

We hung around in the park, drinking Fanta and admiring the elephants from afar until it was time for our walking safari.


Turns out the rains were early this year.

Mole is really an amazing place. It doesn’t have the variety of wildlife you would see in East Africa, but you can get really close to the animals without even having to drive. Apparently the elephants even visit the swimming pool sometimes in the dry season. We saw lots of elephants, antelope, birds, and warthogs (which I find strangely adorable) but sadly no baboons. I didn’t take many pictures as I had neglected to charge the battery in my camera and it kept threatening to quit on me every time I took a picture.



After the walking safari, we called up our biker guys and headed back to the village in time to visit the mosque at sunset. For me, the main attraction of this particular trip was staying in Larabanga. My Bradt travel guide to Ghana gives it a strangely negative write-up because of the many people in town that try to hit up foreigners for money and donations to dubious projects. I didn’t encounter that at all, but maybe the fact that I was with a Ghanaian helped. I found everyone to be friendly and kind, even by Ghana’s high standards. The mosque itself is a strange, otherworldly sight, especially close to sunset. Larabanga is the only place I’ve visited in Ghana that is close to 100 percent Muslim. If I were Ghanaian I might be tempted to become a Muslim just for aesthetic reasons — the calls to prayer, the chanting in Arabic, the mosques themselves are all beautifully understated and dignified compared to the high decibels preferred by Ghanaian Christians. I don’t mean this as a judgement on the substance of either religion, by the way. If I truly had to choose a Ghanaian religion to follow, juju would be the most tempting.


the mosque at sunset

After a really cheap but bad meal of lukewarm rice with crunchy bits of grit in it, it was time to sleep. It was much too hot in my room, so I decided to sleep on the roof. Mr Salia helped me haul my foam mattress up there and showed me how to climb the scary “ladder”. It was terrifying at first, but after going up and down a few times it just felt normal. People who live there can climb up and down as quickly as I’d use a regular staircase. Eventually several other guests settled in for a night on the roof as well (Sammy was too scared of the ladder!) Sleeping under the stars sounds idyllic, but the stars had serious competition from the full moon and some streetlights, and it was pretty late before everyone in town turned off their loud music for the night. Still, it was a pretty cool experience in both senses of the word and I fell asleep with a big touristy grin on my face.


Not the ladder at the guest house, but a similar one elsewhere in Larabanga

At precisely 4 AM the cell phone alarms of several other roof-sleeping guests started to go off. They had a 4:30 bus to catch. They needn’t have bothered with the alarms, because 15 seconds later the calls to prayer from the mosques started. 


With the help of Osman, one of our motorcycle guys, Sammy and I had arranged a ride back to Tamale in an actual car. That driver never did show up, but Osman managed to get us a ride with a very generous pastor and his wife, who wouldn’t even let us give them any money. The downside: we had to listen to Ghanaian gospel music of the caterwauling variety for the whole trip. (There is plenty of good Ghanaian gospel music, but this wasn’t it.) While waiting for these arrangements, we had time for coffee before we left. When you’re surrounded by mosques and prayer caps and Arabic chants and mud architecture, you kind of subconsciously expect the coffee to be good. But it was Nescafe, the same as everywhere else in Ghana. Still, even Nescafe tastes pretty good outdoors on a cool morning after sleeping on a roof.

We had some trouble getting a hotel in Tamale that night, and ended up in a vaguely unsettling place that was undergoing renovations, and had no other guests besides us. I dreamed of white suicide bombers attacking swimming pools all night, and Sammy later told me he’d been dreaming of armed robbers.

Embarrassingly, Sammy is a much less nervous flier than I am, even though this was his first time flying and I’ve been doing it for decades. Needless to say, the flight went off without a hitch.

For sure next time I will stay longer and take some drumming lessons.

Getting Started

I’ve been in Ghana for about a week now, and though I’m still settling in, I’ve already had the opportunity to start work on my project.

While I was in Accra, I visited the Kathy Knowles Library, the first project started by the Osu Children’s Library Fund.

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Kathy Knowles is a fellow Canadian from Winnipeg who started this project in 1991 and has been expanding it ever since. Joanna Felih, the head librarian at the Kathy Knowles library, gave me lots of great advice about introducing books to Ghanaian children and invited me to participate in an adult literacy class the following day. I was on hand to help Theresa, an adult who hadn’t been to school since age 6 or 7, write her name for the first time.


I find it inspiring and reassuring to witness successful programs like this in action. There are many such projects scattered throughout Ghana, mostly working in isolation from each other. I’m hoping to learn as much as I can from them, and eventually share my own successes with them in turn.


OCLF also publishes a line of children’s and beginner adult books written especially for Ghanaians. I’ve already purchased a couple and am hoping to get more later (funding permitting.)


Now that I’m settling in to Kumasi, my next step is to talk to educators here and begin designing the nuts and bolts of the reading and writing program. I’ll keep you posted!