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Making the World Literate, One Librarian at a Time
James Reindl is a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer serving with his wife, Graca, in the Volta Region of Ghana. A journalist by trade, he and his wife are agriculture volunteers in Wusuta-Anyafo, specializing in raising animals, including, chickens, ducks, Guinea fowl, rabbits, snails and a dog and a cat. The Reindls have lived in Ghana since October 2014 and are in charge of PC-Ghana's book distribution project called Ghana Get Some Books.
Here is James' story:
The dictionary definition of literacy is the ability to read and write but I have two additional definitions. Before the holidays I had the opportunity to attend a librarian training session sponsored by the African Library Project. The ALP folks had graciously made 10 training slots available to Peace Corps-Ghana so PC volunteers could nominate librarians from their communities. I was asked to organize the effort on our side.
I went expecting seminars on how to organize and run a library but was surprised that the focus was more on helping librarians get the most out of their operations to promote literacy in their schools and communities. That's huge for me, partly because I've been a lifelong reader and partly because my departed sister, Nancy, was a reading instructor and literacy advocate during her career and life. ALP works with partners across Africa to help start community libraries. In Peace Corps Ghana, we have Ghana Get Some Books, which I am running this year. The program works with the Tema chapter of Rotary International and PCVs to bring text books to schools at PCV sites throughout the country.
My technical definition of literacy is that it is a tool that stimulates people's curiosity about the world and allows them to exercise that curiosity so they can broaden their view. My philosophical definition is that literacy is the love and appreciation for reading and the written word and where it can take you. Combine curiosity and a love for reading in a human being and then I think you have a literate person.
In my far away youth, my mother and father were not big book readers but we always had a daily newspaper in the house and I saw my parents pore over it every day. School gave me the books and I suppose my parents gave me the reading habit.
I am a Peace Corps volunteer serving with my wife in rural Ghana and we're helping a young woman move on to Senior High School. Gifty likes to read and I asked her the other day why. "Because I like to know about other things," she replied. Did anyone read to her as a child? "No, not so much." So hers is a natural curiosity.
When I asked her if she'd ever been inside a library there was only a one-word answer. "No."
Ghana has a literacy rate of more than 70 percent (the U.S. literacy rate is 99% for comparison). That's great that nearly three-quarters of the population here can read and write. It says to me that basic education is doing its job.
What that statistic doesn't tell you is how many people have the love for reading or how easy it is to get to books in a developing country. I cannot answer the first. I can say the answer to the second question is that it isn't easy.
There is no community library in my town of Wusuta in Ghana's Volta Region. The nearest one would be in Jordan-Nu some 10 or so kilometers and about a 4-cedi ride away. While that's only about US $1, it's not a likely expenditure for semi-subsistence farm families.
That raises another point. Speaking with Foyaw, the caretaker of our house, I asked why I see so few people reading. "Well, you see," he said in his manner, "people here are mostly farmers. They don't have time."
But what if there were a Wusuta community library? "Oh yes," he said. "People would read."
Libraries are literacy toolboxes. All those books waiting to stimulate curiosity and exercise minds young and old.
Some might say that a library in a developing world is a luxury but how does the world develop if not in the human mind first? We tend to think of the developing world only in terms of economics but developing minds are equally important.
Of course, crushing poverty is an issue wherever it exists. But where the standard of living is even a little higher and there are books, there is the possibility of rising even more. Self-education can be more rewarding than formal schooling. We learn best the things we want to learn and if you can begin to see there's a wider world then you can start to imagine you have a place in it.
I think back on those librarians at the training going through exercises that taught them to get the most from a single book or practicing ways to stimulate curiosity in students through word games or learning the art of storytelling, even how to construct a simple book. They are ambassadors from that wider world, whether they know it or not. They can guide and shape minds – young and old – to find new places and to reach greater heights because they understand they keep the keys that unlock these places in the books on their shelves.
To me, that's what the ALP training was about – teaching librarians that development is, in fact, something that starts in the mind, the curious mind that has a place and the tools to expand horizons.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not reflect the official positions of the United States Peace Corps.
Follow James' personal blog at: https://jamesreindl.wordpress.com/