Golden Baobab Prize

In­spired by her own search for iden­tity, a young wo­man es­tab­lishes a lit­er­ary prize to en­cour­age sto­ries about young lives in her part of the world.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By DAPHNE LEE

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 – three No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture win­ners, for in­stance: Wole Soyinka (1986), Na­dine Gordimer (1991), and J.M. Coet­zee (2003) – who have achieved in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion through pow­er­ful ac­counts of life in the var­i­ous African na­tions they hail from, there are no African chil­dren’s au­thors of sim­i­lar stature.

Deb­o­rah Ahenko­rah, 24, co­founder and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Golden Baobab Prize, grew up in Ghana read­ing Nancy Drew, the Fa­mous Five and The Babysit­ters Club books.

She says in an e-mail in­ter­view: “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 re­alised 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.”

Ahenko­rah was a sopho­more at the Ivy league Bryn Mawr Col­lege when she and sev­eral like-minded fel­low stu­dents in their late teens started Project Ed­u­cate in Africa (PEIA), an ini­tia­tive that would even­tu­ally ship 8,000 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 were lost on my 16-yearold brain.”

No books on 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 po­lice­woman?’ he cried. Ev­i­dently, the con­cept of am­a­teur de­tec­tives was not a very Ghana­ian one!”

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

Such in­ci­dents made Ahenko­rah deb­o­rah ahenko­rah wants to fill the shelves of li­braries — such as this one for chil­dren in ac­cra, Ghana — with books more suited to african cul­ture and life­styles rather than the Western­cen­tric books the con­ti­nent tends to im­port. — Pho­tos cour­tesy of deb­o­rah 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 very ev­i­dent African con­tent”. As Ahenko­rah ex­plains, “African ex­pe­ri­ences are 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.”

An­other sub­mis­sion guide­line is that all sto­ries should be in English. This, to 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 have 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 comes 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 that 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 some of Echo­ing Green’s 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!”

n For more in­for­ma­tion, visit: gold­en­ and echo­ing­green. org (un­leash­ing ‘next gen­er­a­tion tal­ent to solve the world’s big­gest prob­lems’).

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