“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”
Saturday, June 22, 2013 will long be remembered as a special day in the community of Gambibgo near Bolgatanga in the Upper East region of Ghana.
This was the day of the ceremonial Grand Opening of The White Library and Meeting Hall. It was also the culmination of a project that started when my son, Spencer, was a senior at Santa Clara University’s School of Engineering.
The School of Engineering of SCU has really taken the lead, especially in recent years, in developing an academic and research program focused on scholarly activities associated with sustainability. These activities include renewable energy, low-impact and disaster-resistant buildings, water supply, transportation and communications. Furthermore, Santa Clara University has a long-term tradition of activism by means of community involvement and improvement of the human condition based on Jesuit traditions and a paramount concern for social justice.
The White Library was built in Gambibgo in 2010 through the collaboration of Santa Clara University, Village Projects International, and other partners. The goal was to respond to the need for inexpensive, improved and sustainable building technologies in Northern Ghana where structures are often made of earth, wood and thatched roofs and are therefore vulnerable to wind, rain and floods. The idea was to eliminate the burden of rebuilding every few years so people could focus more effort on improving other aspects of their community such as education, healthcare and technology (specifically solar lighting and communication technologies).
The design for the library was a prototype structure with a double-arch vaulted roof aimed at achieving a maximum footprint while decreasing the proportion of bricks to usable square feet. Other design features included increased ventilation and cooler interior temperatures, extremely important in this part of the country where temperatures are in triple digits much of the year.
One of the major concerns for the structure was the long-term durability of the bricks themselves. The earthen blocks consist mostly of clay particles mixed with a small amount of cement and water that are then cured in the open air. These bricks were subjected to numerous tests to determine a standardized brick-making process that would prove durable and sustainable.
Construction began in December of 2009 when four Santa Clara students, along with Father James Reites from SCU, traveled to Ghana to oversee the process and to experience the culture and community of the people who would one day use the building. The students (Brie Rust, Laura Skinner, Erica Fieger, and Spencer Ambauen) worked closely with numerous people from the Gambibgo community. The SCU faculty advisors to the project were Mark Aschheim PhD (Chair and Professor of Civil Engineering) and Sukhmander Singh PhD (Wilmot J. Nicholson Professor).
One of the Gambibgo elders, Muhammed Akugre, was tremendously helpful in organizing construction efforts and in obtaining the land required for the building site. Akabare Ayine Chadory was also pivotal to the success of this project through his work as translator and liaison to the Santa Clara students.
Construction of the building itself required the combined efforts of multiple community members. Skilled masons, as well as numerous other laborers, often volunteered their time in order to construct this building. They worked extremely hard and took pride in the opportunity to do something good for their community.
NOTE: A second structure was built by a subsequent team of SCU students with the help of the community and will serve as a meeting hall.
The project stalemated however in 2011 and 2012. Chadory, the local Project Manager, became enmeshed in the bureaucratic red tape of registering as an NGO (non government organization) in order to get donated books into Ghana. There was talk of converting the library to a basket weaving facility or transitional housing for builders who might come to Ghana to learn the La Voute Nubienne building method.
Enter Dennis Callahan, Peace Corps Volunteer. Dennis is an agriculture volunteer in my group who had the good fortune of being assigned to Gambibgo. As luck (or destiny) would have it, he was able to meet Spencer when Spencer was in Ghana in November of 2011 while Dennis and I were in Peace Corps training. Dennis then met Chadory shortly after he came to Gambibgo and that, as they say, was the beginning of a very fruitful relationship. Dennis worked with Chadory and Ayamga James, CEO of the Bolgatanga Basket Weavers Cooperative Club to obtain book donations from America and desks and bookshelves from the community. The response was overwhelming.
Being able to attend the event of the grand opening was truly a blessing for me. It was a day overflowing with emotions – pride in what my son and his colleagues had initiated, gratitude that our investment in Spencer’s education was truly a gift that goes on giving, appreciation that my colleague Dennis would see the worth of this project and see it through to completion and love for the children and the community as they so clearly embrace all that the library and its contents have to offer.
Many dignitaries spoke throughout the day’s program – The Assemblyman of Gambibgo, the Municipal Director of the Ghana Library Board, the Director of Education and the Chief Executive. Over and over they sang the praises of the students of Santa Clara University and the Peace Corps volunteers.
Spencer wrote some words for me to share on his behalf since he was unable to make the trip to Ghana for this momentous occasion:
“It is our hope that the White Library will serve Gambibgo for many years to come as a facility of learning and a gathering place for the community where the bonds between individuals can be strengthened to form one cohesive family and a cooperative, functional community.”
Chadory’s parting words to me as I left the library site amidst hugs and handshakes were “God is good”. Amen.