As a child, I had first learned about Ghana, Mali and Songhai from my sixth-grade teacher, Ms. High. Learning about the wealth and prosperity of my ancestors and my people filled me with pride, especially since I hadn’t heard anything more beyond slavery. Hearing about these wonderful countries on the continent of Africa where I originated was exciting to me. But I had never imagined I’d actually get to go one day, even though I dreamed about it often.
In the summer of 2018, that all changed when I was invited to travel to Ghana. I had been invited by a young woman who knew of published children’s books from a previous email I had sent to an organization she worked for. Though I hadn’t gotten a response, I was on her list of people to contact. What she hadn’t known was the creative literacy-based programming I’d developed around my books. With enthusiasm and delight, she assured me that I must go on the trip. She had a long history of trying to improve education in Ghana by overseeing the building of schools, libraries and supply initiatives for years. Coupled with my work, we were confident that together, we could do something amazing.
But when I got to Ghana in February 2019, after the great exploration of historical sites, cultural and spiritual experience, something dawned on me. I had not known very much about education in Ghana. This made me nervous because we were scheduled to go to a village where the great majority of children had not gone to school and did not speak English. Bringing my Westernized experience and education standard, I wasn’t sure if my role as “Mrs. Ashlee” the children’s author and education personality would translate. Leading programming here would be different and I steadied myself in the hope that different would not mean unsuccessful.
When we reached the village, we were given a tour of the newly built one-room library that had not opened yet. Through my nonprofit, I donated 250 books of my own and books children had written through my Junior Storyteller Program. The chief and village elders were pleased, but shared concerns that the children of the village and their parents had no interest in the library. It was customary there for children to learn the trade of their parents from their parents, eliminating the need to attend school. I recalled the children I had seen mending fishing nets and on boats in the middle of the ocean during our travels of the region.
Next, I was taken to the steps of the library where children started to gather at an expedient rate. I knew they were more curious than anything to see the foreigners who had come to their home. Without a translator, I took a minute to take in all the children who were still assembling. I told them my name using my hands to help me communicate. Then I held my books up for them to see. The children began pushing each other to get closer. With hand gestures, I shushed them and urged them to move back. As I began reading my book, “The Happy Tummy Hunt,” I realized that the children listening to my story were not represented themselves and neither was their culture despite my books featuring main characters of color. This was the first mental note I took. The rest of the reading went well.
At the end of the read, several children approached me tugging on my shirt. They said something to me in their native language of Twi, which I did not speak. I asked one of our trip guides, Kofi, to translate. He explained that they were asking if they could have “that” — pointing to the books in my hands. I was puzzled. Why would the children be calling the book “that?” Kofi explained that many of the children had never seen a book before, so they had not known what to call it.
I was befuddled. Here we were on the steps of the library that I and others who had visited the village were working to fill with books, but many of the children had never seen a book before. Furthermore, they had little to no interest in the library itself. At that moment, my Mrs. Ashlee mind kicked in and I realized that I had an idea to change the latter. I smiled at the children, then I had Kofi tell them that I had left tons of books in the library for them and once it opened, they could come anytime they wanted to see them. As I watched the children burst with joy, touching the book and hugging me, Kofi shared that they were expressing their excitement to come to the library. The Chief would pull me aside and tell me he had 16 other villages. He asked when I would be going to them to do the same thing.
That day I was filled with a new pride in what I do and who I am to children as Mrs. Ashlee. But the experience also taught me more than it taught the children. I realized that participation in education is not a singular thing. Most times, we consider education to take place in or be a result of schooling. But in Ghana, I watched children’s brilliance and ingenuity fill to the brim with skills that I hadn’t had and lessons school could not teach.
Secondarily, I realized that the key to children engaging in formal education was meaningfulness. In order for education, literacy and any type of learning to be seen as valuable, it must be meaningful to the individual. Our perception of meaningfulness does not have to be true for another individual. With the children, I was reading to meaningfulness as was cultivated in seeing something and someone new and exciting. Then the new item was made accessible to them.
Lastly, I learned that no matter how many cultural barriers exist the power of a caring community member was endless. Kofi, who had seemed unaffected during my time in the village, later spoke to me in tears of how much my work meant to him. He had not seen anything like that and assured me of how much of a difference I’d made in a short time. I would return to the US changed forever, approaching my work in new and passionate ways. I’d shift my limited ideas of what it meant to create characters of color in my books to be more inclusive. At the center of all of my work would be a new idea of meaningfulness, new perspectives on what education was and ways to create positive learning experiences for children everywhere. Currently, I am proud to still have books and programming taking place in Ghana and to have served children in the country as part of my legacy.
For more like this, read: Becoming Mrs. Ashlee