Interview: Deborah Ahenkorah

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First published on 11th October, 2011 in StarMag

AFRICAN children have something in common with Malaysian children. They have limited choice when it comes to books that reflect their lives. Although the continent has produced many great novelists who have achieved international recognition through their powerful accounts of life in the various African nations they hail from, there are no African children’s authors of similar stature.

Twenty-four-year-old Deborah Ahenkorah, co-founder and executive director of the Golden Baobab Prize, grew up in Ghana reading Nancy Drew, the Famous Five and The Babysitters Club. She says, “I didn’t really realise the absence of African stories in my reading diet until I went to college in the United States on scholarship and I realized that I couldn’t answer any questions on Africa because I didn’t know Africa. I wanted to talk about America and Europe all the time, I knew those places … through my books.”

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Ahenkorah reading with children at a library in Accra.

Ahenkorah was a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College when she and several like-minded fellow students started Project Educate in Africa (PEIA), an initiative that would eventually ship 8000 books to over 30 African countries. PEIA evolved into the Golden Baobab Prize (launched in 2008), an award that Ahenkorah hopes will help provide African children with the African stories they so badly need.

Ahenkorah recalls that although she started reading a few African novels when she was in middle school, “Most of these books were written in the post-independence era (circa the 1960s) so unfortunately much of their depth and insights that were lost on my 16year old brain.”

No books about 16-year-old Africans were available to Ahenkorah and she feels that the greatest effect of the lack of African children’s books was on her sense of identity. “I was always trying to be like the young people I read about but their realities were so different from mine,” she says. She tells of the time she announced that she was going to be an amateur detective like her hero Nancy Drew: “My dad shot up, alarmed, from his seat. ‘Wait, you want to be a police woman?’ he cried. Evidently, the concept of amateur detectives was not a very Ghanaian one.”

Then there was the time Ahenkorah decided to start a Babysitters Club in her hometown of Accra. Alas, the concept of paid adolescent babysitters does not exist there as families or hired help care for children, much like in Malaysia.

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Ahenkorah at a children’s library in Accra, Ghana.

Such incidents made Ahenkorah increasingly aware that she was not like the people she read about. “For a bright, active and smart little girl this realisation was a lot of rain upon my sunshine parade,” she says. “It’s so important for children to be able to see themselves in their reading experiences, and if no one else will represent them, then they must represent themselves. The Golden Baobab Prize, now in its third cycle, addresses this issue directly by encouraging African writers to write stories that young people in Africa can relate to.”

The submission guidelines state that “stories must be set in Africa or have a very evident African content”. As Ahenkorah explains, “The African experiences is so varied that it is quite impossible to define what an African story is. So by ‘very evident African content’, we mean to say to our entrants, “Define your own Africa!” The Golden Baobab Prize is searching for stories that young people in Africa can relate to. Africa should be evident in a story through setting, theme, characters, food, clothing etc. At the end of the day this is a very important but loosely defined requirement.”
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Ahenkorah with critically acclaimed author Helon Habila, who was a a judge for the Golden Baobab Prize in 2011.

Ahenkorah with Helon Habila, 2011 Golden Baobab Judge and a winner of the Caine Prize for African Literature at the 2010 Gothenburg book fair in Sweden.

Another submission guideline is that all stories should be in English. This, Ahenkorah, just makes logistical sense. “In Kenya there are 69 languages, in Ghana 79, in Mali 50 languages. And in Nigeria alone…wait for this… there are 521 languages!” she says. “We’ve a complicated linguistic labyrinth made even more complex by the fact that most countries have adopted their former colonial languages as their official languages. There are lots of interests at play therefore when it come to language in Africa.”

She adds that she hopes that there will be a French version of the prize in the next three years. In the meantime, “We’re very much aware of the important role local language literature plays in early childhood development and once our books are published in English we are extremely happy to partner with organisations who wish to translate them into other languages.”

It will be interesting to see how the Golden Baobab, which is sponsored by the Global Fund for Children and the African Library Project, develops. In June this year, Ahenkorah was named a 2011 Echoing Green Fellow, which bodes well for the future of the prize and speaks volumes about its credibility. (Echoing Green is a non-profit group that helps launch non-profit, for-profit and hybrid organisations that aim to solve intractable social problems. Teach For America, Genocide Intervention Network and SKS Microfinance are just of Echoing Green’s past alumni.)

“It’s an incredible honour,” says Ahenkorah. “Echoing Green named the Golden Baobab as one of the leading social innovators in the world today – a powerful game changing organisation that will transform the children’s literature industry in Africa. It’s phenomenal to be recognised by such a worthy organisation.”

Naturally, she hopes to prove herself and the prize deserving of the honour. She has big plans and bigger dreams. “Our immediate plans include a workshop programme for children’s writers and illustrators, and cementing partnerships to get our winning stories published and into the hands of young people in Africa and around the world. Hopefully in a couple of years there’ll be Golden Baobab books in some Malaysian bookstores and some Malaysian books in our bookstores in Ghana!”

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Ahenkorah with Meshack Asare, a 2010 Golden Baobab Prize judge and multi-prize-winning children’s author and illustrator.

 

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