As I look back over the past 12 months, two milestones, in particular, stand out.
The first is the completion of the mudLIBRARY, a newly-built eco-library constructed entirely from rammed earth and sustainable materials, a collaboration between ArchiFair, an Austrian architectural NGO, Hive Earth, a Ghanaian rammed earth construction company, and the Library Of Africa and The African Diaspora (LOATAD). Finally handed over to the people of Nsutam in Ghana’s Eastern Region at the end of November 2022, the library is the culmination of four years of planning, delays, and, above all, teamwork.
In brief, this is how it happened:
- In August 2018, I read an article online about a Chief who was appealing to the government, NGOs, the general public – anyone! – to build a library in his community to “help raise the standard of education” and to “sponsor the brilliant but needy students in the locality who […] have their visions truncated due to poverty.” I was moved by the article and considered various ways I could help but, ultimately, I put it to the back of my mind.
- Independent of this, towards the end of 2018, my friend, James and I launched a campaign called #BookDropGhana to encourage visitors to Ghana in the peak month of December to bring a book with them to donate, which we would then distribute to schools and communities across the country (more on this campaign in a future post).
- In January 2019, Joelle from Hive Earth contacted us at the Library Of Africa and The African Diaspora to ask if we knew of a community that was in need of a library as the company was looking to do a philanthropic project with their partners, ArchiFair. She suggested LOATAD come on board to assume management of the library and #BookDropGhana provides the books.
- I immediately thought of Nsutam and the Chief who, by now, we were already working with doing small literacy activities in the community.
- Within weeks, we all visited Nsutam to meet with the Chief and members of the Traditional Council. A few months later, Hannah from ArchiFair came over from Vienna and the rest, as they say, is history.
And it almost was!
The team from ArchiFair was due to start construction in July 2020 but, of course, Covid hit and the build had to be postponed. They rescheduled it for July 2021 but, with the pandemic still wreaking havoc, they again had to put plans on hold. It wasn’t until July 2022, a whole three years later, that the team from Austria finally arrived in Ghana and got to work, fulfilling a pledge we’d all made years earlier to the people of Nsutam.
There were many times, over the years, when we were all discouraged about the project, whether it was the pandemic, fundraising, or securing book donations. Contact between our three organisations waned. We didn’t know when, or if, it would happen. But none of us gave up.
Here’s what I learnt from the experience:
Patience is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity
Putting an idea to the back of your mind doesn’t mean forgetting about it. It means incubating it until the time is right. After reading the article about the Chief, I wanted to act immediately, but wasn’t in a position to do so. After we came together with ArchiFair and Hive Earth, we all wanted to move quickly, but circumstances put paid to that. The right time to implement an idea may not be when you have it, but many months or, even, years later. This is exactly what happened when I started LOATAD – idea, circa 2011; established, 2017.
Think big, Start small
To borrow a phrase from a well-known supermarket chain: Every Little Helps. While I didn’t have the resources to fulfil the Chief’s wish to build a community library, I did have access to books and knowledge about setting up a library that I could freely give. Start with what you have and go from there.
Test the waters
Our first engagement with the community in Nsutam was sponsoring an inter-schools reading competition organised by the radio station that did the news story on the Chief. The station asked us to donate 100 copies each of two books so that all the competing students could have a copy of their own to read. The contest was an overwhelming success and the competitive spirit spurred a love for reading. This investment cost us a little over £150, but the impact on the children, the school, and the community was incalculable.
Collaboration is everything
No one individual or organisation can do it all. The Chief had the land, but not the resources to build; ArchiFair and Hive Earth had the expertise and the will, but not the community to apply them to; we had the books and library management experience, but didn’t have construction skills. Somehow, we all managed to find each other and make it happen. Collaboration is key. A good team has complementary skills which they apply towards the same goal. (I must also mention that when we were in desperate need of more books, my good friend, Athena, rose to the challenge and mobilised her network to donate 1000 books to the cause!).
It would have been easy to be discouraged to the point of inaction by the constant delays caused by the pandemic, but all of us were committed to doing what we had promised. Moreover, the dedication of the ArchiFair team, whose construction schedule was severely impacted by unseasonal rains meaning they were away from home for much longer than expected, was inspirational to us all.