Ghana's Deborah Ahenkorah received the 2019 Global Pluralism Award In Ottawa Canada on November 20.
Few Africans remember reading children's books written by African writers. They remember reading and trying to relate to, for instance, a Rapunzel from the German fairy tale whose golden hair, unlike African hair, could grow so long as to be used as a staircase. Then there was Snow White and the Seven dwarfs. The word snow itself was puzzling. What was snow?
We were taught to see African fables as worthy of oral sessions not easily translatable into books written in colonial languages. We didn't question it.
Deborah realised very early in life that she never saw anyone who looked like her, no dark skins and African hair, in the children's books she read. She had grown up loving books but unable to afford them, prompting her to spend time in a library she had access to. She was lucky to get a scholarship to Bryn Mawr College in the US where she contributed, through a friend, towards building more libraries in Ghana. However, the problem she had realised as a child kept nagging her as the libraries were again stocked with books that had no one who looked like her.
She put her finger on the problem and found her calling with the realisation that there was a book shortage of African stories written by African writers. It was impossible, for instance, for a South African Xhosa child, to access the culture of a Ghanaian Ga child through a book. She wanted to find writers who could transport a Bambara child from Mali into the culture of a Baganda child in Uganda. She wanted African children to grow up loving their own cultures by seeing people who looked like them in books.
Deborah began working towards a world where anyone could walk into any bookshop in the world and find a high-quality African children's book written by an African.
Deborah founded Golden Baobab and its prize, dedicated to finding, matching and supporting Africa's most talented writers with illustrators of children's books. She then connects them to skills development training and publishing opportunities. They have produced some of the best quality content one can find in the world, published by among others, African Bureau Stories, a publishing house Deborah also founded, Penguin Random House South Africa, Oxford University Press, Quramo Publishing and Cassava Republic Press. The books are by Ghanaian, Tanzanian and South African writers and South African, Tanzanian, Egyptian and Nigerian illustrators.
In a recent meeting with Deborah and Bibi Bakare Yusuf founder of Cassava Republic Press at the recently held International Publishers Association Seminar hosted in Nairobi, we reminisced on our book experiences. Deborah told us of her commitment to right the wrong of so many African children not seeing themselves in the books they read. We agreed with Deborah. When African children do not see themselves in storybooks, they begin to believe that what they see in the books is what life is and should be and their own African lives, not reflected in books is inferior.
CULTURE AND VALUES
As the tradition of oral storytelling diminishes, many children grow up effectively ignorant of the culture and values passed on through stories. Many people, however, realise the importance of changing this narrative of children not reading or having access to African stories written by Africans and African children still not seeing themselves in enough storybooks. Deborah's books provide the mirrors African children need of their lived reality. They give children a connection between the past and the present.
In many of our major African cities as well as international markets, it is still not easy to find books written for African children by African writers. However, thanks to among others, Golden Baobab, the situation is changing for the better.
Next time you walk into a bookstore to buy children's books, ask for books written for African children by African writers. Raise awareness of the existence of these books. Tell schoolteachers to popularise this genre of books.
Deborah, through Golden Baobab and African Bureau Stories, has taught us that a continent cannot outsource or delegate the telling of its own stories and what its children learn.
Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides.