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Winnipegger is amazing, the book not so much

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Winnipegger Kathy Knowles, her many literacy endeavours in Ghana and beyond, and her registered Canadian charity -- the Osu Children's Library Fund (OCLF) -- are all worthy to root for, but not so much this new account on Knowles' projects by Ottawa-based author, journalist and international aid worker Deborah Cowley.

The intention, according to the author's note, is "to record a story that began more than 20 years ago under a tree in a garden in Accra (Ghana's capital)."

It's a goal without structure. The view is broad, the result shallow.

This is Cowley's second published account of Knowles' celebrated initiatives. She wrote the March 2001 Reader's Digest Canada cover story on Knowles and has dedicated herself to Knowles' missions since. She says she has accompanied her on 15 work-related trips to Ghana.

This, then, could have been a revealing "insider's" perspective, detailing how Knowles accomplished what she has. Isn't the "how," at least, promised in the subtitle?

Instead, this is a 20-chapter chronicle of essentially what Knowles has done. In Ghana or from her River Heights residence, Knowles -- assisted by a small base of donors (mainly Canadians) and committed volunteers (many Winnipeggers) -- builds community libraries, trains librarians and educators, introduces youth and adult literacy classes, establishes and awards student scholarships, and produces African-focused books. The OCLF has provided books to, and/or library training in, six other African nations, the Philippines, Haiti and Peru.

Cowley overly embellishes many details. In Knowles' home-office, "bookshelves bulge with papers, a collection of filing cabinets is bursting at the seams and mementos from dozens of visits are scattered hither and yon."

In Ghana, "(the children's) faces light up the minute she steps into the classroom." When the Ghanaian government revoked primary school fees, "the country exploded with joy. At long last, children could attend primary school for free."

Cowley liberally paraphrases or incorporates direct quotations from Knowles, her benefactors and beneficiaries. These are among the most insightful passages.

OCLF board member Florence Adjepong succinctly notes what Knowles has achieved: "She has developed in Ghana... a model for community libraries... anywhere in the developing world. It is a model which is community friendly, is easily maintained and which is transferable to any country or community, no matter how poor they are, no matter how little space they have."

Cowley paraphrases Richard Beattie, former senior officer with the Canadian International Development Agency: "(Knowles) has always ensured that what she has created is sustainable, by keeping it rooted in the local culture and hinged to local government budgets."

This is the volume's most comprehensive treatment of how Knowles has done what she has. Cowley's chapters of exposition add little by way of meaningful detail.

The author was uniquely placed to explain and share how Knowles has realized an effective, innovative philanthropy, but has missed the mark and has opted for a storybook over analysis.

Gail Perry is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 14, 2013 A1

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