Writers Changing Lives: A Chat With Kofi Okyere
By Jennifer Baljko
We started this series last spring to spotlight authors who believed in the same thing we do: Reading has the power to transform lives. Since then, we’ve been engaging with many authors and are happily surprised by their generosity and support.
It’s great to see our author community expand, but often, too, we like to pause and think of our earliest fans. Kofi Okyere comes immediately to mind.
Kofi, a Ghanaian author living in Arizona, was one of the first authors to see the good in Worldreader’s “Books for all” goal. He made To Catch a Monkey (The Coconut Years) available to our kids, and recently donated a second title, his latest book Cabo Corso.
We caught up with Kofi a few weeks ago and chatted about his involvement with Worldreader, his perspective about Ghana’s development and emphasis on education, and, of course, the books that inspire him. Here are excerpts of that conversation.
WR: How did you get involved with Worldreader? How did that connection happen?
Kofi: There are Twitter chat groups — #kidlitchat and #fridayreads – where people in education and publishing meet and discuss projects. That is where Clare, my wife and manager, heard about Worldreader and first interacted with Elizabeth [Worldreader's director of digital publishing].
As the conversation continued, we found out Worldreader had just finished a test pilot in Spain and was heading to Ghana. Elizabeth asked if we would be interested in participating. We said, ‘Yes, of course. We would love to be a part of this.’ That’s something we’ve been trying to do on a smaller scale here in Phoenix, to get more kids reading. And, giving back to the kids at home has always been important to me.
Every once in a while I check the Worldreader website, and I’m just amazed at how much has been accomplished from last year to this year. It’s a brilliant idea, and it’s nice to see brilliant ideas moving forward so quickly.
WR: Tell us a little bit about your background and ties to Ghana.
Kofi: I was born in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashanti region, but my parents and family now live in Accra. I went to primary school in East Africa, in Ethiopia, because my parents worked for the United Nations and that was our home base for a while. We moved back to Ghana when I was 12 years old, and I went to secondary school in Cape Coast. I did my national service in Ghana, moved to Arizona for university, and have been here since. I try to go back to Ghana once or twice a year, and stay connected with the community there.
Every time I go back, there seems to be so much more advancement and development, which is really exciting. Over the last few years, we had so much brain drain and many people left Ghana to look for greener pastures. But, now with the way the country is developing, the amenities and services are increasing and improving, and more people want to stay there. That makes me happy because it means maybe the younger generation will want to stay and improve the country even more.
One day when my kids are older [he has two boys, ages 13 and 11], I’d like to relocate back to Ghana or spend a greater portion of my time there.
WR: What would you like to do there? How do see Ghana progressing?
Kofi: Clare and I have talked about how we could promote literacy in Ghana and get kids reading more. That’s part of why I was interested in Worldreader’s work.
It boils down to two things: your ability to read and to do math. That’s the foundation for everything. Reading can take you everywhere in the world. It opens your imagination, and when you read books set in different places, you learn about different cultures and ways of life. This is especially important for kids in rural areas who don’t have access to books or libraries.
One thing I love about Ghana is that, as a former British colony, education has always been emphasized. It’s very important for people there. But, it’s one thing to stress the importance of education and another thing to have the resources to support it. Even though the Ministry in Education is doing a lot, the rural areas simply don’t have enough funding or supplies to go further.
In many areas back home, you have to pay for school. It’s not government-funded. You often have families pooling their money so at least a few kids can go to school, get an education, and help support the family later on. Generally, though, people see education — and reading — as a way to better themselves and the country as a whole.
What Worldreader does for kids, especially the younger ones, is expose them to so much more by giving them resources to access information and books. This will encourage the kids to reach for the stars and make a difference.
WR: And, now for the big question of the day. What book made you fall in love with reading?
Kofi: My earliest memory when it comes to reading is linked to Bingham Academy in Ethiopia. The librarian would read to us every day, and one day she started The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. We were a rowdy bunch or third or fourth graders, and we all just sat there quietly and listened to her read. I loved the way she read and the intonation of her voice. She carried us to faraway places.
When I started to read on my own, the books that captivated me were Treasure Island and King Solomon’s Mines. In fact, re-read King Solomon’s Mines a few months ago, and read it almost every year. I read different versions of it. It connects me to my childhood, and I enjoy that. I finally convinced my kids to read it too. I recommend lots of books to my kids, but they usually shrug me off and say ‘Oh Dad, that book is so old. I don’t want to read that.’ But, my older son finally read it and said, ‘You know what, Dad? That book was really good.’
Thanks for the chat, Kofi. Follow Kofi on Twitter at @2911ent.
People like Kofi, Chika Unigwe, Meshack Asare, Ellen Banda-Aaku, and other African and international authors are making a big difference in the lives of our kids. They enthusiastically support Worldreader by donating their books, short stories, and personal essays.
Worldreader fans, we hope you’ll give these authors some love. Check out Kofi’s books, To Catch a Monkey (The Coconut Years) and Cabo Corso, or browse our growing list of participating authors and publishers.
If you’re an author and would like to get involved, contact our Director of Digital Publishing Elizabeth Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll also find her on Twitter at @lizzywood.