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Kathy Knowles spreads the written word in Africa

The Transformational Canadians program celebrates 25 living citizens who have made a difference by immeasurably improving the lives of others. Over several weeks, readers were invited to nominate Canadians who fit this description. A panel of six judges has selected 25 Transformational Canadians from among the nominees.

Kathy Knowles, founder of Osu Children's Library Fund, has been named one of 25 Transformational Canadians.


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Last week, Kathy Knowles returned to Winnipeg from Ghana with a memory fresh in her mind. It was of helping a student in her 40s at one of the six libraries that her Osu Children's Library Fund has built in and around Accra, Ghana's capital, write her name for the very first time.

"She wrote it and we all clapped, and for me it's really exciting and so empowering for that individual to be able to write her own name," says Ms. Knowles, 54, the founder and volunteer director of the organization. "Otherwise, your identity is really only a thumbprint."

Over the past 20 years, the library fund has improved life prospects for many Ghanaians by giving them access to books, literacy programs and outreach activities. Ms. Knowles, who leads the fund from her home in Winnipeg, also teaches communities in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and several other African nations how to set up and manage libraries. All told, she has worked with more than 200 libraries across the continent.

Ghana is a second home for Ms. Knowles, who is a nurse by training. In 1989, when her husband took a finance job with mining company there, she moved to Accra, and then gave birth to their fourth child.

In 1990, she gave her children's books to their driver, cook and other staff so their children would have something to read. Next, she held an informal weekly library under a tree in her garden.

By 1993, before leaving Ghana, she found the popular library a permanent home: a 40-foot shipping container she installed on a friend's property. She filled it with 3,000 books collected with help from donors. "The container library is still thriving," she says.

Most of the books in the fund's libraries are in English because few titles are available in local languages. "Fortunately, the Ghanaian publishing industry is growing gradually and our libraries now reflect many African writers," Ms. Knowles says.

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Today the Osu Children's Library Fund has about 55 paid workers, all employed by their home communities in Africa. Ms. Knowles runs her Winnipeg operation – whose funds mostly come from Canadian donors – with a group of volunteers.

In 1998, Ms. Knowles established a library in the urban Accra slum of Nima by securing a rundown building from the local government. When a volunteer noticed that many of the children who visited were lethargic, the fund launched a daily food program. It also founded a high-school scholarship program, and in 2005 built an adjacent reading hall and theatre that is now home to a full-scale company.

The organization is also finding ways to sustain itself. Seven years ago, Ms. Knowles began publishing and selling photo-illustrated books and using the proceeds to pay for staff bonuses, health insurance and Christmas parcels. "The income from all the books stays in Ghana, so that helps to support those extra things that the government doesn't take care of," she says.

The libraries have helped produce a new generation of avid readers. On her recent visit, Ms. Knowles met Deborah Ahenkorah, who frequented the shipping-container library as a child and went on to win a full scholarship to Pennsylvania's Bryn Mawr College.

Ms. Ahenkorah went on to co-found the Golden Baobab Prize for African children's literature.

For Ms. Knowles, seeing these changes is its own reward. "To have young people who came through the library system who are now so passionate about literature, you just stand back and you think, 'Wow.'"

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Kathy Knowles on leadership

With the work I do in Ghana, I would say patience is crucial. If you're not a patient person, you wouldn't go forward because there's so many obstacles. You would throw in the towel if you didn't have patience, because so many decisions take forever and a day.

Determination – being able to think of ideas. Because solutions are not always there, and if you can think of an idea to overcome that [problem], well, then you move further along. You have to be passionate. When you're working with people where so many are living at the poverty line, you need to be a listener to hear their problems.

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