A Library in West Africa

Be Well Be Happy

 The dusty car juddered to a stop after a five-hour drive from the capital city of Accra, Ghana, grinding over potholed roads which kicked up the reddish dust from the dry soil. The cracked windshield was caked in dirt and sand from the Harmattan winds that had been enveloping Ghana for a few weeks now, carrying sand from the Sahara Desert to the north, along with the dry, hot air. As the wipers streaked an opening, the large rectangular building came into focus and it was a wonderful surprise!

For four years, my friend, Susy, and I had been involved in a project for Nurturing Nations (www.nurturingnations.org), to build and stock a library in this rural area of Ghana, the village of Assin Adadientem, that serves about 40 nearby settlements. This was our first visit. Over the years, we have seen videos and photos of the villagers getting together to build the space and we saw the empty shelves and knew we had to help. We collected more than 6,000 books from our friends in Rockaway and throughout New York, and donations from wider afield and shipped them to Tema and anxiously waited for news that the books had been collected from the port after months in transit, been unpacked, and were now being put to good use. It’s been hard getting feedback, because the location is so remote and we didn’t know what to expect on this hot and dusty morning in January.

That first glimpse of the building was exciting: it’s real! It’s big, and a lovely yellow sandy color, with some large green Neem trees out front and two other smaller long buildings close by which made up the school. We rolled down the windows and could hear drums beating and suddenly, as we shouldered open the creaky doors, we heard yelps of excitement and swarms of little children came running across the dusty field towards the car.

We climbed out and were engulfed. So many kids, aged between about two and 14 came up to us and touched our arms, held our hands, chattered with big smiley faces and bright white teeth. Some were wearing cobalt blue dresses and shirts and tan shorts, which are the official uniforms of the school district, others were in bright green, yellow, some raggedy and torn, the girls mostly in dresses. Hands up, they all waved at the camera and wanted to hug and be held.

We each scooped up a small child and made our way slowly, through good natured jostling and pushing and just an ever-increasing sea of children, down towards the library entrance where the drumming became louder. A group of boys were sitting under a tree with several instruments and girls, again in blue dresses, were practicing a dance. We didn’t know it at the time, but they were preparing for a celebration the following day when the village chief and his entourage would be visiting and honoring us with dances, music and poems. We could hardly move! It was slow going because there was always someone new to hug and say how happy we were to be here.

We climbed up a steep concrete step and slowly the crowd parted and allowed us to see the front door. There were two signs posted showing the different times that classes were able to use the facility. This was the most structured schedule we’d seen so far in West Africa since arriving at the airport!

Susy, who loves systems, was thrilled! One of the teachers took photos of our happy, sweaty, hot faces before we turned around and peeked in the cool, quiet room.

There were shelves! So many, and packed with books! Floor to ceiling, there were paperbacks, hardbacks, encyclopedias, books of reference, novels, the Eyewitness series, early readers, board books, big, small, higgledy-piggledy and neat, on shelves and on the two really nice long tables and benches.

Two charming teachers greeted us, and we turned around and all the children were quietly waiting outside, which really struck us compared to the noise and commotion of our arrival. We looked around in awe, and I spotted some of the books I had sent from my own library—books I had read to my children.

Imagine seeing The Poky Little Puppy in Assin! I found 1984 that a Rockaway friend, Anna Pastina, had donated, and Of Mice and Men signed by my daughter, Isabella. This was so special! These books had made it half way around the world to feed the curiosity of a whole new generation of children. This is the only library for hundreds of miles around and we found out that last year 100% of students passed their state tests.

We spent the following morning distributing feminine hygiene kits from the organization, Days for Girls, (www.daysforgirls.org), to 50 teenage students, which was a very moving experience. With the help of the kits, these girls would be able to stay in school all year and would hopefully graduate. We read to groups of students in the cool library out of the sun’s glare and it felt like such a nurturing space. A sanctuary, where these kids could be safe and sit and learn, away from the chaos of life for a little while. They read to us too, earnestly in lilting Ghananian accents. The rowdy boys were quiet and so smart and keen to learn. 

Later on, the whole school assembled outside, and the Chief arrived along with his First Wife and household, and we sat under the shade of the trees and watched the dancing and heard the recitations. Susy and I were presented with a poster that read, “We have a whole new place to search for knowledge. Thank you. Yeda mo ase.”

 By Sarah Arikian

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