In the summer of 2003, a group of five first-year students
from Somerville travelled to Ghana in West Africa. They had
planned to meet up with the 6,000 books they’d shipped over
from England and set up a fully-functioning children’s
library. If only life were that simple. To start at the beginning, the impetus and leading driving
force behind the plan for the library was cheery oxford socialite
Hattie Begg. She had previously spent four months of her Gap
year, way back in ’02, volunteering in a Ghanaian hospital
in the former British colonial capital, Cape Coast. During this
time she developed a great relationship with her jovial Ghanaian
host, Molly Yankey, whom the library was eventually named after.
In order to try to address Ghana’s chronic literacy problems
at the most local level, Molly encouraged Hattie to return with
some enthusiastic friends to set up a local reading resource
centre for the hundreds of children willing to learn but without
any real opportunity to do so. On a cold and wet English April day the draw of scorching hot
African sun certainly appealed. And hey, the charity bit sounded
well worth a whirl. So as a team we went to work that Summer like
very active squirrels desperately collecting acorns for an
extremely harsh winter. We organised the bar at the Somerville
garden party, put on charity golf tournaments and raffles, and
generally sold ourselves to fund raise money for the materials we
would need out there. With our travelwash, sun lotion and mozzie nets packed we were
ready to set off. We were gonna rock over to Africa and wack up a
library in just under a month. If we finished early maybe we
could get in a bit of beach time as well. No, actually. The
sailing was rarely plain and we faced often very demoralising
challenges every step of the way. From the outset, the expedition
got off to a disastrous start. Cancelled Ghana Airways flights
saw us grimly disillusioned whilst we camped out at a sweltering
Heathrow Airport for three whole days amongst sprawling queues of
volatile travellers, who were rapidly losing their sense of
humour at the situation. Being a group of girls, at this point
floods of tears often seemed our best option to appeal to the
good nature of the airport staff. Ghana, let alone the library,
seemed a very long way away at that point. Upon finally reaching our destination we eagerly anticipated
our first glimpse of the building that would house our library in
Abura, Cape Coast. On arrival at the location we were met with
the stark sight of solitary raw breeze blocks which encased a
floor of mountainous sand and rock, over which the odd darting
lizard scurried furtively for shelter. A month away from the opening date and the vast amount of work
required was sharply brought home to us. We were going to have to
get very busy and make a lot of contacts if we were to achieve
our objectives in such a short space of time. This became
particularly clear when we learned, with horror, that our 6,000
books (donated by the kind British public) intended for the
library were trapped in the mindboggling swirl of Ghanaian
shipping bureaucracy and top level corruptive forces. Getting our books released from the port would prove to be a
longer-term goal; in the mean time we concerned ourselves with
the here and now i.e. getting a mere shell of a room into a
groovy-looking book haven full of child-sized furniture and
horrendous clashes of bright colours. Long, hard days were spent
purchasing materials, digging, painting, tiling, eating goat etc
and keeping our Ghanaian builders motivated. If only British
builders were as receptive to gifts of bread, biscuits and
pineapples. As the work progressed, more and more of the local
children came and watched us work, often gaining a dubious
education from Glamour, Heat and Rugby World magazine, and the
assorted hits of Christina Aguilera and Disney’s Aladdin. However, it was difficult to get across the actual purpose of
the library given that its essence, the books, were still nowhere
to be seen. We were beginning to get a little panicky about this
as time slipped away from us. Eventually after numerous trips to
the shipping port of Tema, six hours from where we were based, we
decided to enlist the help of TPA (Teaching Projects Abroad)
which run several charitable projects in the area. Their
political muscle as an NGO and registered charity provided our
negotiations with new weight and this, combined with a briefcase
packed full of unmarked US dollars, eventually saw the books on
their way to the newly christened ‘Molly’s
Library’. After a month of extensive renovation work, we were ready to
open the library to the public, and promoted it on a number of
primetime TV and radio shows. Given that the project, in many
ways, was very much like BBC’s flagship interior decoration
show, Changing Rooms, we felt just like a frantic Lawrence
Llewelyn-Bowen prior to the big launch, and hoped the children
would appreciate our somewhat wild use of colour. However, these
worries were put aside. The lavish opening ceremony in front of
the local community, the village chiefs and the Ghanaian media
went fantastically well and it was very rewarding to see such
genuine enthusiasm and excitement for what had been achieved. One year later, the long-term future looks bright for the
library. This summer, four more students from Oxford are making
the trip to West Africa to continue the project. They are
planning to establish the second stage of the library, a much
needed, fully stocked reading room for college and university age
Ghanaians. We very much hope that this will be another small step
towards the provision of education that will one day open doors
for Ghana. If you have any books you would like to donate,
particularly textbooks and reference works, please get in touch
and we’ll happily take them off your hands. E-mail Maeve
Gill at Somerville College.
ARCHIVE: 6th week TT 2004