Deborah Ahenkorah is the co-founder of the fast-growing Baobab Prize, which is now in its second year. The inaugural award drew participation from nine African countries. The winners were Lauri Kubuitsile from Botswana with “Lorato and her Wire Car”, the best story written for readers aged 8-11 years; Ivor W. Hartmann from Zimbabwe with “Mr. Goop”, the best story written for readers aged 12-15 years and Aisha Kibwana from Kenya, the most promising young writer with “Strange Visitors that took her Life Away”. Based on what Debbie says in this interview, this award will revolutionize African writing and reading.
1.What can you tell us about yourself?
My name is Deborah Ahenkorah and I’m Ghanaian. Lately, I have come to be given the name ‘Debbie from Ghana!’ Now let me tell you that story:
My South African friend Ntshadi, before I met her, once stopped to eat in a restaurant at a random location somewhere in mid-USA. When the waitress discovered she was from South Africa, she (the waitress) gushed and drawled: “Well I neva! You are really from Africa, aren’t you. Goodness me. You must know my friend, Debbie, from Ghana!”
It was a funny-ha-ha-are-you-kidding-me moment. I am certain I do not know this waitress and she does not know me. But I am and will always remain, yours truly, ‘Debbie from Ghana!’
2.What’s the source of your interest in promoting African reading and education? How successful have your book and education drive been?
I believe that deep-rooted change comes through education and so in my freshman year of college, I founded an organization, Project Educate In Africa (PEIA), to organize book drives and fund raising events in support of educational initiatives in Africa.
Building on my work with PEIA, I co-founded the Baobab Prize to encourage the writing of African literature for young readers.
The successes of these two initiatives continue to astound me. In PEIA’s two years of existence, we have shipped close to 8,000 books to more than 35 African countries. We have also raised over $ 7,000 through craft sales on the Bryn Mawr College campus and currently we are hoping to fund the building of a pre-school in Northern Ghana.
The Baobab Prize, now in its second year, has also been incredibly successful. We are now partnering with two major international organizations and a number of top name African publishers.
3.How early were you exposed to reading, and what kinds of books did you read as a child? At what age did you read books by African authors?
I am the last-but-one child of a huge family, so growing up there was a lot of pressure to be as cool as my older siblings. At the time when I was most impressionable, the cool thing to do in my family was to read. The more you read, the cooler you were. So I read. I read my heart out.
My first chapter book was an Enid Blyton from her ‘Famous Five’ series. I will never forget the ecstasy I felt at discovering the ‘joy of reading’- that through a book I could go anywhere, be anyone, do anything. It was glorious!
Unfortunately, I never got around to reading African authors while I was young. I felt at that time that the few African stories I came by were all cut from the same moral-laden folk tale genre. My love affair with African literature started in high school with Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. My copy of this book is tattered and worn, read over and over.
4.I admire your work in the Baobab Fiction Prize. What can you tell us about this award of African literature?
The Baobab Prize is an African literary award that has grown out of a dream that my co-founder, Rama Shagaya and I conceived, to encourage the writing of African literature for young readers. The award was inaugurated in 2008-2009 as an annual contest open to all African citizens, inviting submissions of African-themed children stories. The stories we receive fall in the categories: for readers aged 8-11 years; for readers aged 12 – 15 years. As well, we recognize a ‘Promising Young Writer’ under age 18. We award a cash prize and connect the stories we receive with interested publishers.
5. Why have you focused on young readers?
The focus on young readers is because we have identified young people below the age of fifteen to be African Literature’s most neglected audience. African children’s literature is just coming into its own and my co-founder Rama Shagaya and I are convinced that a crop of young readers who appreciate African literature will develop to become the readers and writers of African works in the future.
6.What is the future of the award? Who funds it?
The Baobab Prize is pushing the literary giants of the next generation into the limelight and producing classic stories that will be appreciated for many years. The Baobab Prize 2010 is funded by the Global Fund for Children, The African Library Project as well as friends and supporters of the initiative. We are proud to be associated with Bryn Mawr College (the alma-mater of Rama and I) that has believed in this idea from the inception.
7.Are there plans to publish prize-related anthologies?
Yes! Give us ten years and you will find African children’s books selling wildly in international bookstores all over the world. And all these hot-selling African children’s books will have one thing in common, a golden stamp on the front cover that reads: The Baobab Prize.
8.Based on your experience reading contemporary African writers, what can you say is the state of African literature?
African writers need to not feel burdened to tell of the ‘authentic African experience.’ What is that anyway? The wider the variety of work we produce, the bigger the audiences we can reach, like the African music industry. With the diverse genres our music industry is embracing and entering, we are amassing an incredible global followership. Rock, Jazz and Reggae fans all over the world for instance, can now find distinctively African music that appeals to the tastes of their genres.
9.Of late, there have been debates about the need for African writers to embrace genre or popular writing. What’s your position on this issue?
YES PLEASE, more diversity (of genre, style, theme, content) in our writing. What will it hurt?
You can imagine how happy we were to see lots of variety in the submissions we received for the Baobab Prize’s first year. The stories came from nine African countries and among them were comic tales, magical fantasies, tragedies, and futuristic sci-fis. More diversity we say!
10.What do you see as the role of social networking sites like Facebook in the promotion of writing and reading? What do you think needs more promotion, writing or reading?
Social Networking sites have changed the face of marketing, advertising and information accessing. Millions of people spend time on these sites looking for information. Writers can benefit greatly by milking this eager audience. I would encourage upcoming writers to utilize these media to sell their work for free. Yes, free. Income will come once you establish an audience base that recognizes and appreciates your work. People WILL pay for what they want.
The Baobab prize has benefited from the free publicity available through social networking sites. We appreciate the support of our Facebook friends and Twitter followers and we always have room for more. Join us in our quest to revolutionize African literature!
For 2010 guidelines visit the Baobab Prize website, and for more infomation, contact Deborah Ahenkorah at baobabprize[AT]gmail.com