My Own Invention

From Ohio to Ghana: Origins of the Anlo-Afiadenyigba-Berea Friendship Library

by Ann Thurston

Hands shoot up and wave vigorously as eager students try to attract my attention so they can share their ideas about how their lives would be different if there were no running water or electricity in their homes. Suggestions pour out as the students become caught up in the excitement of learning about what it is like to grow up in Ghana. I explore this subject with American youngsters as the kickoff to book drives that are conducted in our local Ohio elementary schools. There is no doubt that the thing I like most about my post as director of Reader-to-Reader: Ghana is the opportunity it gives me to introduce these children to the similarities and differences in lifestyle of young people from a vastly different culture.

When the Peace Corps assigned my son Kent a job teaching science in a small town in the Volta region of Ghana, I immediately saw it as an opportunity to become acquainted with an area of the world about which I had sparse knowledge. It wasn't long before I decided that I needed to pay him a visit so that I could see for myself the interesting things he wrote about in his letters. As this plan was brewing in my mind, Kent had received a secondary assignment to work with a local library committee to start a community library. I am a former school librarian so he knew I would be interested in the project; he wrote to me for help getting books. By that time, my plans to visit him were well underway so I put off doing anything else until I was more familiar with the situation.

For most people from the West, a visit to Ghana is a thought-provoking experience. It is one of the more stable countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The people in the southern area where I visited have enough to lead comfortable lives; there is adequate food, the warm climate makes shelter requirements minimal, and the abundance of shops selling used clothing from First World countries allows them to dress at minimum cost. While they are better off than we are in terms of availability of a close-knit community and free time, the lack of surplus food leaves them vulnerable to disaster. It does not allow for the luxury of making orderly progress toward becoming a part of the First World, a goal of both the president and people of Ghana.

As an American, I am aware that our society has sacrificed some basic aspects of life in order to have our high standards of living. It is not so easy to say, "I will help you become like us," when one isn't so sure of the merits of being "like us." Nor is it ethical to withhold help that would allow some of the significant advantages of life in a more affluent society. As I observed the people of Ghana at work and play, I came to the conclusion that the best thing I could do was to help them expand their options by improving their educational opportunities, by filling Ghanaian library shelves with books that would enhance people's ability to read.

I was more impressed with the miracles that books could perform when I talked with a young Ghanaian. "Oh!" she said, "It was being able to read that made the difference for me. I read anything that I could get my hands on but I loved the classics: Heidi, Little Women, Red Badge of Courage." That woman is now a doctor finishing her studies in communicable diseases in the United States, and preparing to go back to Ghana and set up a rural clinic.

In rural areas, books are simply not accessible so it follows that when children first get books, they have no idea what to do with them. In addition, there is distrust of the information they contain. When there is a conflict between what a book says and the local witchcraft explanations of phenomena, the witchcraft wins. Once when my son Kent was teaching about jet propulsion, a lively but, to him, unexpected discussion ensued. His students insisted that it was foolish to travel by jet when it would be cheaper and easier to astrally project themselves!

Once home, I made a call to the cocoordinator of children's services for Cuyahoga Public Library in Ohio, and she referred me to the Reader-to-Reader program. With the aid of many people, including my local school system, a number of native Ghanaians living in Ohio, and Scholastic Press, I have managed to send several thousand books to community and school libraries in Ghana.

In gratitude to the students of Berea, Ohio, the people of Anlo-Afiadenyigba (the town in which my son worked) have named their library the Anlo-Afiadenyigba-Berea Friendship Library.


Editor's note: Ann Thurston sent several thousand books to Ghana according to the Reader-to-Reader program guidelines. New or gently used "favorite" books were collected, covered in clear contact paper, placed in tenpound stacks, and wrapped in brown paper. United States Post Office mail bags, each containing sixty pounds of books (i.e., six book packages), were mailed to Ghana at a cost of approximately 50 U.S. dollars per bag.

Ann Thurston lives in Ohio and is the director of Reader-to-Reader: Ghana.

Volume 4, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, 2000

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