Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The African Libraries Lady

City writer promotes literacy in Ghana

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In the crowded basement of Kathy Knowles' three-storey River Heights home, parked beside an ancient furnace, flanked by rows of cross-country ski poles, paint cans and hockey sticks, sit dozens and dozens of neatly stacked cardboard boxes.

Inside these boxes rest thousands of brightly coloured books, most written by Knowles, many with photographs of children smiling joyously on the covers, all destined to promote the cause of literacy in Africa.

"We've published about 100,000 copies of 30 different titles," Knowles says, proudly holding up several books for a visitor to examine. "The first one was an alphabet book. This one is a counting book.

"I started creating these books because I realized in Ghana there was so little available that reflected their culture, their food, their music. So I decided to go on my own. I wanted to meet the need. I find the children in Ghana respond well to these books. Literacy is a huge tool to empower someone."

If anyone should know about the power of literacy, it's Knowles, 56, a self-effacing mother of four who has become known to many Winnipeggers simply as "the African Libraries Lady."

She's the founder and driving force behind the Osu Children's Library Fund, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the joy of reading and building a network of libraries in Africa.

Her one-woman international campaign began in 1989 when she and her family joined her mining-executive husband in Accra, the capital of Ghana, a tiny western African nation of roughly 24 million people.

In 1990, she found herself sitting under a flame tree "with beautiful red blossoms" in her garden, reading to local children who couldn't afford the luxury of storybooks.

"It was six kids and these children came week after week," she recalls over coffee in her kitchen. "I had a Rubbermaid laundry hamper I put the books in."

Soon, six kids became 70 kids, and the Rubbermaid container was replaced by specially made bookshelves. Before long, the storytelling sessions outgrew the garden and an unused room in their home was converted into a lending library.

Then, in 1991, at her mother's suggestion, Knowles founded the Osu Children's Library Fund, a charity that, over the last 21 years, has built, furnished and stocked seven free-standing libraries in her beloved Ghana and helped create and support more than 200 smaller libraries in schools, villages, community centres and homes throughout Ghana and nearby Tanzania.

And this year is shaping up to be the fund's busiest since the seeds of her literacy quest were first planted in a garden in Accra. She has plans for another four free-standing libraries in Ghana.

"It's a very exciting year," Knowles says, beaming. "These are big plans. I don't have the money to do all four libraries, but we have enough to start the first library. We're confident we'll be able to raise the rest.

"I'm just waiting for confirmation from the district governments to make sure they have an allowance in their budgets for staff salaries and utilities."

Operating from the third floor of her home, Knowles -- who makes two month-long visits to Ghana each year -- has learned a thing or two about fundraising. Private donations make up most of her budget, but she does receive matching grants from organizations like the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation.

"My whole life is spent asking people for money and then thanking people for giving money," she concedes, laughing. "Every donor receives a handwritten thank-you card from myself or one of our volunteers, plus a letter from a child in Ghana. We want people to know their donations count."

The fund's ambitious plans for 2012 seem a world away from the first library Knowles created outside her garden -- a 12-metre shipping container purchased for $1,200. "We converted it and brought in electricity, raised the ceiling, put in fans, then brought in 3,000 books," she recalls.

"Each of these seven libraries is like a child to me. There's a long period leading up to the opening -- getting the funds, training staff, arranging for furniture to be made. It's all made by a 75-year-old carpenter. He's amazing."

Knowles' commitment to African literacy has earned her a meritorious service award from Canada's Governor General, the Order of Manitoba, the YWCA's Women of Distinction Award and the Soroptomist Making a Difference Award, to name just a few.

But it's not about awards for this human dynamo.

Asked if she is living proof one person can change the world, she blushes and waves a hand in polite dismissal.

"I think one person, as a leader working with a team, can make a huge difference," she finally says. "I'm just a cog in a wheel. I love what I do. I feel in a small way I'm making a difference to a community that's dear to my heart. It's very far from River Heights, but Ghana is another home."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 A2


Updated on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 9:11 AM CST: added photo

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