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Hamilton man set to open a library in Liberia — a dream 10 years in the making

After more than a decade of work, Hamiltonian Leo Nupolu Johnson is preparing for the opening of a library and learning centre in his home country of Liberia.

The Liberian Learning Center in West Africa will have a dedication ceremony in February

A person stands by a large stack of bricks.

Leo Nupolu Johnson still remembers his first visit to the Hamilton Public Library.

"I stood speechless for five minutes because prior to that, I knew a library to be a 40-foot shipping container with random storybooks in it. I couldn't believe that this entire facility was a library," Johnson said. "It left a mark on me forever."

His perspective was informed by growing up in Liberia, which he left to escape war in 1998, and the eight years he spent living in West African refugee camps before coming to Hamilton in 2006.

With much of its infrastructure destroyed by war, Liberia lacks books and educational materials, Johnson said. UNICEF reports access to education in the coastal country is limited, especially for girls. Fifteen per cent of schools there have a library.

Soon, in large part thanks to Johnson and other Hamiltonians, Paynesville, Liberia, will be home to a state-of-the-art library and learning centre.

Johnson, who founded and directs the Hamilton-based charity Empowerment Squared and was until recently the president of the Liberian Association of Canada, has been leading the development of the centre for over a decade.

WATCH | Johnson shares why he wanted to build a library:

Leo Nupolu Johnson on giving the gift of learning

17 hours ago

Duration 1:13

Leo Nupolu Johnson shares why he wanted to help his home country of Liberia by building a library and learning centre.

When CBC News first reported on Johnson's initiative in 2013, the plan was for it to open in 2015.

The Ebola virus crisis delayed the groundbreaking until 2019. COVID-19 slowed things down soon after that. But now, Johnson said, the building that will house the library is 90 per cent complete.

Johnson will attend an on-site dedication ceremony on Feb. 23, and that first part of the centre should be operational this year, he said.

"It really hasn't hit me," he said, after all the years of work on the project.

The facility is on the grounds of Paynesville City Hall and will eventually consist of three buildings: the library, which is nearly done and will also have space for start-ups, a recreation centre, and an event space.

The goal, Empowerment Squared says on its website, is to serve about 250,000 people in the region. The community sits just outside of capital city Monrovia.

Doing development work differently

The organization has been funding the project through donations and is currently seeking to raise about $1.3 million to complete the remaining phases of construction, and fund the centre's operation for its first three years, Johnson said.

Initially, Johnson said, many people, including in Liberia, did not think he could pull this off. "It's very rare to see local Liberians doing this, so no one believed me."

People assumed he must be connected to a big non-governmental organization, Johnson said, but in his experience, only so much good can come from the sorts of projects big aid groups do. He said foreign development projects can leave locals without a sense of ownership, and that if locals aren't involved in their creation, they may struggle to manage projects long term.

"I've been on the receiving end of that my whole life," he said. "There's no way I was going to repeat what I went through."

Several years before breaking ground, Johnson said, his team conducted in-depth research and consultation with locals, asking what they wanted and following up to see if plans for the learning centre met expectations.

'An incredible experience': Ontario architect

"Most of the time, people have the best solution to their problems," he said, pointing to the centre's use of earth-compressed bricks, which are primarily made from materials including soil, sand and clay. That idea came from locals, who are familiar with the technique, he said.

Johnson said that construction material is efficient — the bricks have built-in gaps through which wiring and plumbing can run — and environmentally friendly.

According to Willems Ransom, the project architect, the bricks are one aspect of how the learning centre is built to be environmentally friendly and resilient. Thick masonry walls will help shade and cool the building, and natural ventilation will limit the need for fans or air conditioning.

Ransom works for McCallumSather, a design firm headquartered in Hamilton, with offices in Kitchener, Ont., and Kincardine, Ont. They've worked to train the Liberian workers to maintain the building long-term, he said.

"This has been… an incredible experience for me personally and and for our firm," Ransom said, adding he's looking forward to attending the Paynesville dedication next month.

Hamilton, McMaster libraries team up

Another Hamilton-to-Paynesville knowledge exchange is taking place on the library side. Paul Takala, CEO of the Hamilton Public Library (HPL), said the plan is to have a long-term partnership and make the centre a symbolic "sister" library.

HPL and the McMaster University Library work with Empowerment Squared to help the Liberian Learning Center with logistics and the how-tos of creating a library. They're also working to connect it with other libraries around the world and helping build a digital book collection. It's a model Takala said he thinks other libraries will want to follow.

The goal is not to tell Liberians what to do, but to share knowledge, Takala said. "You can't come and build something and say 'OK, take this over.'"

A library, he said, is not a handout, but a place that provides access to the things people need to learn and achieve their goals by themselves.

Johnson said once it's operational, Liberians will run the centre.

"For me, going back and giving back [to Liberia] had to be a gift that was tangible enough to inspire change. It couldn't be a gift that just brought relief for a period of time," Johnson said.

"And there was no better way to do it than a learning centre. Because the gift of learning is the gift that nobody can take away from you."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Chandler

Reporter

Justin Chandler is CBC News reporter in Hamilton. He covers all sorts of stories but has a special interest in how public policy affects people. Justin covered current affairs in Hamilton and Niagara for TVO, and has worked on a variety of CBC teams and programs, including As It Happens, Day 6 and CBC Music. He co-hosted Radio Free Krypton on Met Radio. You can email story ideas to justin.chandler(at)cbc(dot)ca.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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