A continent of stories: Slaying the dragons of hate with words

Deborah Ahenkora has long believed there's a "book famine" throughout Africa. The most acute shortage is in books written by Africans for Africans — especially children's books in which African children can see themselves reflected. So she decided to rewrite that history to ensure African stories are both told and read.

African children’s books hold secret to puncturing stereotypes, says prize-winning publisher

Deborah Ahenkora is a publisher based in Accra, Ghana. She is also the founder and executive director of the Golden Baobab Prize — an award that promotes reflecting African culture and everyday life in literature for children. (Connie Tsang Photography)

* Originally published on February 5, 2020.

Imagine if Anne of Green Gables lived not in Avonlea, P.E.I., but in Harare, Zimbabwe. Would she have become the household name she is now around the world?

What would such a widely read, classic children's novel have done to western notions of life in Africa? Or to the way children throughout Africa see themselves?

Publisher and literacy advocate Deborah Ahenkorah, who loved Anne of Green Gables as a girl, believes the books African children read should reflect their realities — and at the same time appeal to children around the world.

We can make the world of children's books look like the world that we live in today.​​​​​- Deborak Ahenkorah

On a continent rich with hundreds of cultures and languages, Ahenkora believes its stories could hold the secret to what she calls "slaying the dragons of hate" worldwide. She says that early exposure to the rich diversity of Africa's people will help children see differences positively and puncture rampant stereotypes.

The problem, says Ahenkorah, is that the continent of Africa doesn't produce enough books for its own consumption. The implication is that while children around the world see themselves reflected in books, African children don't — not often enough.

Bahiya, the Little Zebra, is a picture book from Tanzania and Egypt that was written by Nahida Esmail and illustrated by Randa Abubakr. (African Bureau Stories)

That "book famine," as she terms it, is what she set out to change when she founded the Golden Baobab Prize for African writers of children's literature in 2008 — when she was just a 19-year old university student.

She is now also running a publishing company that focuses on producing books in which African children can see their realities reflected back, and which help promote a more inclusive worldview.

Her efforts to rewrite the future of African children's literature turned the prize-giver into a prize-winner. In 2019, Ahenkora won the Global Pluralism Award, given every two years by the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. The centre was founded by the Aga Khan and the Canadian government.

It was Ahenkorah's own experiences as a book lover growing up that led her to become an advocate and ambassador for African children's literature at home and abroad.

"Books changed my life," she said in an interview with IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed in Toronto after accepting the prize at a ceremony in Ottawa.

"Statistically, I shouldn't be here… Statistically, I shouldn't have done as well as I did. But books did that for me."

Ahenkorah (top and centre) stands with the drummers and singers from St. Rene Goupil Catholic Elementary School in Scarborough, Ont. The group performed at the Aga Khan Museum where Ahenkorah delivered a lecture highlighting her crusade to ensure African children see themselves reflected in the books they read. (Connie Tsang Photography)

Most of the books Ahenkorah read as a girl were books from the West. Most books in Accra's bookstores, she says, still come from abroad — and local writers and illustrators, who are already challenged by poverty and colonial legacy, have a hard time getting books published.

Ahenkorah has a vision of a world where African children's books can be as ubiquitous as the western classics she read as a girl.

What would the world look like if young Canadian girls were growing up reading about a little girl living in Harare?

"That's what the world looks like. We don't live in silos. We live in parallel realities," says Ahenkorah.

"We cannot solve poverty in two years. We cannot end world hunger in two years. But we can solve representation in children's books in two years," she told the audience after accepting the $50,000 prize in Ottawa.

"We can make the world of children's books look like the world that we live in today."

WATCH | Deborah Ahenkorah's lecture on her crusade to ensure African stories get told

* This episode was produced by Nahlah Ayed. Readings by Leah Akse-Kelly

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