At 24 years, Deborah Ahenkorah is living proof of the heights a person can reach just by trying.
A native of the Eastern Region, Deborah grew up with her parents in Ghana’s capital Accra. She attended North Ridge Lyceum, and later enrolled at Wesley Girls’ High School in Cape Coast. Consequently, she proceeded on scholarship to Bryn Mawr College in the USA, for her university degree.
“I had no reason to want to come back to Ghana. I’m going to America, why would I want to come back to Ghana? But in the four years that I was in school various experiences, you know, switched my mind 180 degrees,” Deborah recounted.
According to the self-proclaimed adventuress who once hawked children’s clothing at the Makola Market in Accra out of sheer curiosity, her epiphany lay in acknowledging both the privilege and responsibility that came with her Ivy League Bryn Mawr education.
“I was trying to be a lawyer, make some good money, you know? But then it became really more than that,” she said. “It became: Look, like it or not your education gives you some privilege. What are you going to do with it?”
What Deborah did was to start an on campus book drive in 2007 in order to get more literature to children and youth across Africa. However she soon realized that the real issue was not a lack of books, but rather access to literature that Africans could actually relate to.
Deborah explained: “How was it an okay solution that: African children can’t read. Well, let’s get them American books to read because American people are writing their books? I felt that African people had to write their own books too.”
Thus begins the story of the Golden Baobab Prize.
Building Blocks & Shoe-String Budgets
Idea rooted in mind, Deborah sought out funding opportunities, including the 100 Projects for Peace. While she didn’t secure that particular grant, she did have a pretty good draft proposal which she improved upon and submitted for minor grants at her college. This time around, she got the money she needed.
Money in hand, the next step was to identify someone, a field supervisor, who would not only share her vision, but also offer guidance in implementing her idea.
Deborah found both in Rama Shagaya, a Bryn Mawr and Harvard Business School alumnus who, at the time, was was on the lookout for Africa-related projects to get involved in. Between them, the Golden Baobab Prize officially took off in July 2008.
“So I got some money, came home one summer, plugged myself in an internet cafe, and the goal was to start the first – okay well, at that time it wasn’t even that ambitious – the goal was just to organize this writing competition.”
Things didn’t turn out so simple. Golden Baobab needed a website, judges, and a good amount of publicity and promotion to reach the furthest corners of Africa. To top it all off, Debbie was still a full-time college student.
“I had no experience at web design. I had to build a website that summer,” Debbie remembered. “But it worked.”
With only 12 entries submitted that summer, and on the verge of writing off the literary award as a failure, Deborah received some invaluable advice from a mentor.
“One of the older mentors that I have was like, actually no. Since you run it you can decide whether it has failed or not,” Deborah remembered. “You can say this has not failed because I’m going to extend the deadline and put in more work to get more people to write.”
And so she continued.
A couple of months later, the number of entries submitted totalled 76 stories from 9 countries, something Deborah describes as “a great success for something we marketed with zero dollars.”
She added: “What was interesting about the first year was that we were going to give 3 different prizes, $800 each. I didn’t have any of this money.”
To raise the funds, both co-founders dipped into their pockets. The book drive club which Deborah started at Bryn Mawr also helped raise $800 for one prize. The remainder was covered after Deborah “literally went around to people begging.”
Challenges, Motivation, and Personal Growth
According to Deborah, the key aim of Golden Baobab is to discover, nurture and celebrate promising writers of African children’s stories.
The fact that the prize is overseen primarily by a team of volunteers demonstrates just how passionate the organization is about its cause. Unfortunately, not having a full-time team has also been a major challenge.
“My friends were just so supportive. People believed in it and they’d help out a semester, one year, whatever,” Deborah said. “But it just wasn’t consistent; because whenever someone new comes, you have to retrain that person.”
Nevertheless, Deborah believes Golden Baobab’s impact is enough reason to keep striving on.
Her favourite “success story” involves a lady who happened to be a librarian at one of the Canadian libraries Deborah frequented as a child in Ngoye, Krobo.
After having someone type up her story for her, the librarian, who didn’t know how to use a computer, broke down in tears when she heard she was a shortlisted candidate for the Prize during the first year.
Deborah said: “She sat down and she just cried. Here’s a woman whose read countless of books to children and never thought that her story could potentially be worthy of anything.”
“That’s when it hit me that oh goodness, this is not just me behind my computer at the internet cafe. This is actually writers and actually people with dreams and people with stories who want to tell these stories and who want people to read these stories,” the young entrepreneur said.
Aside helping make the dreams of others come true, the Golden Baobab Prize has had a profound impact on the co-founder herself.
“Personally I think one of the most difficult things has been developing confidence in my ability to make this work, because this is not what I set out to do,” Deborah admitted.
With her mind set on being a lawyer, Golden Baobab first started off as a short-term project for Deborah. That she could handle. What shook her to the core however was when things evolved and started “getting out of control.”
“How can I, just barely graduated school, run a pan-African literary prize, you know, that is saying that it’s going to change the African literary landscape? What skills, qualifications do I have to make this work?” Deborah asked herself.
Apparently, enough. Three years down the line, Golden Baobab’s Executive Director is coming into her own and acknowledges her role in making the Golden Baobab Prize what it is today.
“I guess my resilience and passion for it thus far is evidence that I can continue to take it places. And, I guess just with doing it for three years I’ve realized that actually I can do it a little bit,” she said.
Winning the Echoing Green Fellowship
It’s been three years since the Golden Baobab Prize took off. Since then Deborah and her team have taken many bold steps in overseeing the annual literary award which has received over 200 entries since inception. They have also gotten literary giants like Ama Ata Aidoo to actively participate in their mission.
In June 2011, Deborah was named one of “today’s boldest social change visionaries” by Echoing Green; an acclaimed lending network with over two decades of experience in supporting ideas aimed at addressing some of society’s most pressing issues.
She applied for the Echoing Green fellowship after the application was forwarded to her – three days to the deadline – by Maya Ajmera, founder of the Global Fund for Children, which helps fund Golden Baobab through grants. Prior to that, a friend had forwarded the fellowship application to her via email. Her response? “Haha. Delete.”
“The funny thing is I was on the Echoing Green mailing list and had seen them sending the mail that people should apply for the fellowship. But it never even crossed my mind to apply for it. I was like, there’s no way I’m going to get this. This is for high rollers,” Deborah explained.
It would seem, however, that destiny would not take no for an answer. With the deadline three days away, Deborah spent an entire day contemplating whether or not to put in the needed effort. By day two, she was working feverishly on an application which many take months to complete.
While the Echoing Green application process was by no means painless, Deborah regards it as a very “powerful” experience which drastically shifted her thinking to the impact of the Golden Baobab. Through what she calls the “friendliest competition” she’d ever been in, she also got to network with likeminded individuals who “were just all so excited about each other’s projects”.
“It was a very empowering process for me in many ways and I didn’t think that I would even make it to the semi-finalist round, but that was okay because it had been a positive application experience,” she recounted.
But make it to the semi-finalist round she did, and as her mother rightly predicted, she sailed through to the finals as well. Ultimately Deborah was one of the final 15 fellows selected from 2,800 applications and initiatives.
“It was a very positive experience and, again, the competition was clearly top-notch, so nobody could be comfortable or confident,” Deborah said. “I certainly was not comfortable or confident and it was a huge shock to me when I realized that I’d been selected.”
With the generous support from Echoing Green, Deborah and Golden Baobab can kiss their shoestring days goodbye as they push on in their quest to rival the Heinemann African Writers series and change Africa’s literary landscape.
“I’m very excited because it’s going to open a lot of doors for Golden Baobab, and it comes at a time when I think Golden Baobab really needs that push,” she gushed. “It locks me in for two years so there’s no running away. It’s just going to mean a lot of really good things for Golden Baobab.”
The Golden Baobab Prize
So what exactly does it take to submit an entry to the Golden Baobab Prize? Well, first off, you have to be a citizen of an African state to apply and you can apply all-year round.
“It doesn’t matter what race you are, doesn’t matter where in the world you are, so far as you’re a citizen,” Deborah emphasized.
Stories accepted tend to be between 1000 to 5000 words and are reviewed in two separate judging sessions by a diverse panel of some of the best people in the children’s literature or African literature fields.
Entries which make it past the initial reading session and into the top 10 tend to “speak to any kind of person, not just literati.” In addition, they need to be solid stories.
“One thing that definitely we look for, I think, is just imagination, solid writing and a story that reflects something African. You know it could be uniquely African, faintly African, but a story that is an African story without doubt,” Deborah said.
There are two main categories for consideration: ‘Stories for readers aged 8-11years,’ and ‘Stories for readers aged 12-15 years’. In addition, there’s a special prize for the most promising writer below age 18.
“This is a very exciting category. It’s one of those that I’m really excited about because this is identifying a writer at the beginning of their career,” Deborah explained.
She continued: “[It’s] saying that we see a lot of promise in you, you’re going to go places, and we’re going to try our best to help you go places and to help you not to lose your dream for writing.”
Ahmed Farah, a 16-year old Kenyan boy who submitted five stories to the prize in 2010, won last year’s “promising writer” title with Letters from the Flames. Set in his home country during the 2007-08 post-election crisis, Ahmed’s story is about an 11-year old Kenyan girl who writes letters to her dead father.
“It was written so convincingly in the voice of an 11-year old Kenyan girl,” Deborah exclaimed. “This is a 16-year old Kenyan boy. That spoke so much to us that who is this boy who dares to write as an 11-year old Kenyan girl?…It was exciting to discover him and his work.”
In addition to winning the monetary prizes, winning authors and stories are connected with leading publishing companies in order to produce African books for children and young adults to enjoy.
Moving Forward – How Can You Get Involved?
Aside the obvious – writing and submitting entries to the Prize – Golden Baobab is on the lookout for support to “fully establish” itself. That said, if you’re – or know someone who is – a corporate sponsor, grantmaker, publisher, illustrator, writer or passionate individual who identifies with Golden Baobab’s mission and vision, you might want to keep tabs on Deborah and her organization via the organization’s website,Facebook, and/or Twitter.
“Our goal in ten years is good quality, beautiful written and illustrated African books in bookstores all over the world,” Deborah shared.
As someone who’s already proven that she can transform an idea into reality, here’s what Deborah has for African youth:
“My advice or word of inspiration would be that – so cliché – but just do it. I feel like a lot of people have really great ideas and stall on those ideas because they think they can’t do it. That was me. I thought I couldn’t do it, but I had to do it and then I realized that oh I can. And I don’t think that’s a unique story. I think we have the capacity to do what we want to do. If we would just do it, we’ll realize that we could.”
Thumbs up to Deborah and the Golden Baobab Prize! We look forward to many more exciting stories. All the best as you continue along your visionary path!
This is a post from our archive, written by Jemila Abdulai and published on September 7, 2011.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.