A Journey Towards Representation
Deborah Ahenkorah, founder of numerous literary organizations, shares her passion to improve representation of African voices and culture throughout literature for children both in Africa and around the world
Growing up in Accra, Ghana I had a strong love for reading. Books were tangible travelling machines that allowed my mind to go on endless adventures. Some of my most precious memories as a child include waking up early on a Saturday to go to the community library to borrow another storybook, or sitting nose-deep in a book in the corner of the school library during break time, or walking wide-eyed into a bookstore with my heart giddy at the sight of freshly minted books. However, I grew up reading mostly about children and cultures in other parts of the world. Rarely did I come across books that reflected my culture or showed children that looked like me.
At the age of 18, I left Ghana for the first time and went to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania on a scholarship to study Political Science. That was where I started my first children’s literary organization, Project Educate in Africa. It began as a book drive to collect books from the college community to send to children’s libraries and schools across Africa. One day as we were organizing a shipment, I came across a book with a cover illustration of a black girl. It was the first time I had seen a book that represented the children who were receiving them. It dawned on me that we needed to put in more work to ensure that African children have access to more culturally relevant storybooks. This is what spurred me on to start another organization, Golden Baobab, to ensure increased representation of African culture and people in children’s books.
Over the next few years while still in college, I began working on Golden Baobab with the limited resources I had as a student. I am so proud that from those humble beginnings we have come a long way over the past decade to now be considered one of Africa’s most respected and recognized children’s literary organizations. Our Golden Baobab Prize has encouraged the creation of over 2,000 new and original children’s stories from more than 15 African nations. And I attribute all this to one thing: my consistent love for books from a young age.
Like everything under the sun, Golden Baobab changed a lot over the years and its mission evolved. We started with running the Golden Baobab Prize – a prestigious children’s literature award that offers publishing opportunities and cash prizes to talented African authors and illustrators. Through the prize, we nurtured groups of promising storytellers by providing training and connections to publishing opportunities. But in running Golden Baobab, I realized another parallel need – the need for published children’s stories from Africa to meet the world-class standards so they could travel to readers around the world. This led me to start another organization, a publishing company called African Bureau Stories.
I established African Bureau Stories to ensure that we could provide increased publishing opportunities for African authors and illustrators and be able to reach young readers across Africa and throughout the world. African Bureau works to bring African stories to life. It also establishes partnerships to help our books reach young readers everywhere. In this we work with organizations to reach children in disadvantaged communities with our books. In reaching readers globally we have recently entered an exciting partnership with British editor, Sarah Odedina, where we will be mentoring and developing African authors for worldwide publication. African Bureau Stories fulfils the goal of ensuring that children across Africa have a consistent supply of high-quality children’s stories that represent them and their daily experiences.
I started this journey with belief and determination. My vision for my organizations is for millions of African children, no matter where they are in the world and no matter what their language, to have access to diverse and culturally relevant storybooks. Beyond that I want readers around the world to be able to enjoy African stories through children’s books. Over a decade into this journey, this dream is still being realized and it’s evolving for good.
What I hope my own story shows is that one girl with a consistent love for books can channel that passion to help make a difference to a lot of people. Words, stories, books have the potential to be very powerful, especially when infused with cultural sensitivity and diversity.
Deborah Ahenkorah is the founder of Golden Baobab, a literary organization increasing African representation in children’s literature. Golden Baobab finds and supports the continent’s most talented writers and illustrators through the Golden Baobab Prize and connects them to publishing opportunities and skills development training. Deborah is passionate about producing strong content that inspires the imaginations of African children in a celebration of African heritage and cultures. Deborah is also the founder of African Bureau Stories, a publishing house that produces high-quality books by African writers and illustrators for children.