interviewBy Leon Ong'onge
The market for children's books in Africa is dominated by literature from outside the continent, much of which does not relate to the realities of African readers. This has inspired Aspen Institute 2013 New Voices Fellow Deborah Ahenkorah to start Golden Baobab, an organization that has fostered the creation of more than 850 stories for children and young adults since its inception five years ago and is now renowned for its annual Golden Baobab Literary Prize. Ahenkorah was identified in 2011 by Playing for Change Foundation as one of Ghana's "leading social entrepreneurs working to make the world a better place for children and youth." She is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper for Accra, Ghana. Ahenkorah recently received the New Voices Fellowship at the Aspen Institute for her work to improve child literacy. She sat down with AllAfrica's Leon Ong'onge to talk about her project, Golden Baobab.
What inspired you to start Golden Baobab?
Children's literature is very important to me. Before I started Golden Baobab, I had started another organization that promoted literacy on the African continent by collecting donated books and raising money in the United States to support schools and libraries across Africa. That work was great, but I realized that I could have greater impact if I made books that children would relate to because they reflected their cultural identity. I think if you are able to make children love reading, they can discover the joy of reading at an early age and a lot of adult literacy problems would then be solved. Also, books allow children the opportunity to have a childhood full of joy, laughter and imagination, which is not available to many children on the continent.
How can writers submit their work to be considered for the Golden Boabab Prize?
We are currently calling for submissions. The next deadline is July 14. Writers should submit unpublished stories, to be adjudicated by a panel of prestigious judges who then select the winners.
Anyone can submit his or her work for judging. One entrant who was shortlisted for the prize is a children's librarian who spends her time reading books to children in her village outside of Accra, Ghana. She's not computer-literate so she couldn't type and she did not know how to email her story to us. Someone encouraged her so she wrote a story and the person submitted it on her behalf and the story was shortlisted. When she heard that the story had been shortlisted she broke into tears because she never thought her story would be considered for an African literature prize.
What challenges have you faced in setting up Golden Baobab and where do you see the organization in the future?
As a social enterprise, part of the challenge is a reliance on fundraisers. We haven't been able to find strong philanthropy based on the continent - a lot of the money that we've gotten has been from other parts of the world. To overcome this, we are approaching corporations based in Africa to pitch the idea of the literature prize as the only literature prize of its kind in the world that can have an extraordinary impact on the lives of millions of children in Africa.
Golden Baobab is five years old and for those five years we've been able to inspire the creation of 850 stories. If we continue with this trajectory, in the next five years we should have a receptacle with over 5,000 African children's stories. Over the next 10 to 15 years we want to build an organization that can promote talent capable of creating incredible African stories that will capture the imaginations of children across the continent. We intend to save parts of those stories for generations to come, which will be important in shaping an African identity. Look at what contribution the African movie and music industries are making to various economies like Nollywood in Nigeria. Why can't we have an African children's literary content industry for books, games, toys and characters that come from stories that are tailored to African children?
We are essentially putting out a call to action for like-minded people to come together and help us make this vision a reality because African children deserve this future. If we can put our hands together and make this happen that would be really beautiful!
How do you think the New Voices Fellowship at the Aspen Institute will benefit you and Golden Baobab?
The Aspen Fellowship is an incredible opportunity. I am personally very aligned with its mission, which is giving African voices an opportunity to tell African stories. It is an incredible honor for me to be part of the inaugural fellowship group, and I am looking forward to the opportunities that the fellowship provides to be a platform to push the agenda that my organization stands for in the larger context economic and literacy development in Africa.