Club under a big backyard tree goes global

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am

Sometimes the most innocuous acts can have life-changing consequences. For Kathy Knowles, that moment came when she invited the kids next door over to enjoy 'story time' in the garden with her own children.

Seventeen years later, Ms Knowles is the director of a charity organisation that has opened more than 150 community libraries in impoverished regions of Africa and beyond, all as a result of that simple neighbourly gesture.

At the time, Ms Knowles was working as a nurse in Accra, where her husband had been posted to work at a gold mine. The family - originally from Canada - had brought a large collection of books in English for their children, as they knew these would be hard to find in Ghana.

'I realised that my neighbour's children had no books to read at home at all,' she said. 'So Thursday afternoons became story time under the big tree in our garden.'

The neighbours asked if they could invite their friends along, and they in turn invited more friends.

'Before long we had 150 children under the tree in my garden,' she said. By that time, donations of books were flowing in from friends in Canada, so they converted the garage into a simple library for the reading club.

To handle the growing number of children, Ms Knowles hired a local woman as librarian and took on a university student part time to read stories.

But in 1992, the Knowles family had to leave so she needed to find a more permanent home for the library. She persuaded the local council to donate a small site and found an old 40-foot shipping container.

'We put a roof on it and knocked out windows, then decorated the inside,' she said. 'With small furniture, a small space goes a long way.'

Since that first library, the Osu Children's Library Fund - named after the street where the house with the tree was - has gone on to build four more in Accra alone, a library for a blind school and provided support for school and community libraries across the country.

'It is a journey. I'm growing older with people in Ghana.'

One of those people is the very first librarian Ms Knowles hired back in 1991. Today she is still working at the shipping container library, inspiring another generation of Ghanaian children about the joys of reading.

'She may only have a primary school education but she is the best librarian I have ever known.'