BMC student, alumna establish Baobab Prize to encourage African literature for young readers

Posted November 3rd, 2008 at 10:22 am.

Deborah Ahenkorah ’10

As a child, Deborah Ahenkorah ’10 was a voracious reader; she practically wore out her library card. But despite the fact that she was born and educated through secondary school in the West African nation of Ghana, she had little opportunity to read the work of African authors until she took a course in African literature here at Bryn Mawr.

Young readers’ lack of access to African literature is a problem, Ahenkorah explains: “Without access to books by and about Africans, young people grow up not knowing much about the diverse cultures of their vast continent. And especially when all they read is Western literature, they have very little reason to feel proud of their national identities and continental heritage.”

With the help of the Bryn Mawr International Internship Fund and alumna Ramatoulaye Diallo Shagaya ’98, Ahenkorah has taken concrete steps to ensure that African literature can be enjoyed by young people all over the world.

This summer, Ahenkorah and Shagaya collaborated to establish the Baobab Prize, an annual award “designed to encourage the writing of African literature for young readers.”

Shagaya, who is originally from Senegal, went from Bryn Mawr to investment banking to Harvard Business School. After earning her M.B.A., she spent several years working for Endeavor South Africa, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in emerging markets around the world; she is currently working in Nigeria as a consultant to both businesses and venture-capital funds.

Ramatoulaye Diallo Shagaya '98

Ramatoulaye Diallo Shagaya ’98

She and Ahenkorah met through a Facebook group that Shagaya started for Bryn Mawr students and alumnae with an interest in Africa.

“I was lucky to find her,” Shagaya says of Ahenkorah. “She’s an incredibly energetic and creative person.”

Ahenkorah told Shagaya about the work she had done at Bryn Mawr, beginning with a campus book drive to help supply African libraries. The drive helped a local organization fill up a shipping container, Ahenkorah says, but the campus community continued to donate books. Jennifer Russell, Bryn Mawr’s international-admissions coordinator, offered to deliver a second shipment on her next visit to the continent.

Interest on campus remained high, and Ahenkorah founded Project Educate in Africa. The student organization raised about $1,500 for educational initiatives in Africa with craft sales and bake sales. It also collected more than 3,000 books in its first year of existence.

“I was so pleased with how well everything was going,” Ahenkorah says. “Encouraging literacy is such an important task. But we realized that almost all of the books we were sending were by Western authors, and I remembered that those were the books I had read as a child.

“They were wonderful books and I loved them, but I wished there were more examples for African children of books by and about Africans,” she continues.

During one of her exchanges with Shagaya, she floated the idea of a contest to recognize African literature for young readers.

If there’s anything Shagaya knows, it is how to encourage, nurture, and guide the kind of entrepreneurial spirit Ahenkorah possesses. She helped her develop her ideas, offered to serve as Ahenkorah’s field supervisor for a College-sponsored summer internship in Ghana, and donated funds toward prize money for the contest’s first year.

Ahenkorah did most of her work on the project from an Internet Cafe in Ghana, communicating with Shagaya, who was in South Africa at the time, through e-mail, instant messaging, and VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), or Internet telephone.

The competition opened this summer, when Ahenkorah posted the project’s Web site and sent announcements to literary and educational organizations all across Africa. When the entry period closes Dec. 15, Ahenkorah, who is now stydying abroad in France, will pass the submissions on to the panel of prominent African writers she has recruited to judge the contest.

In this, the contest’s inaugural year, three $800 Baobab prizes are offered: one for a work of fiction intended for readers aged 8-11 years; one for a work of fiction intended for readers aged 12-15 years; and one for a story by a writer under the age of 18.

Ahenkorah is now concentrating on raising enough money to ensure that the competition will become an annual event.

As for Shagaya, she is learning firsthand about the market for African children’s literature: her first child, a daughter, was born in early October. By the time she reaches reading age, she can expect to benefit from a shelf full of Baobab Prize winners.

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