The Golden Baobab Prize Search Hero No. 2

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Meet Search Hero Aleya Kassam from Kenya! Aleya is one of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, read the interview we had with her and find out why!

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

The first thing you should know about me is that ever since I could read, I have always had my nose buried in a book; it is almost an affliction. I am an avid bookworm, and I am shameless about trying to get other people hooked on reading. I am Kenyan, and really excited to be living in this country at a time where the creative industry is buzzing, you can almost taste the energy in the air! What else...I come from a big, chaotic Indian family where Sunday lunches are an institution on their own; the doors are flung open around midday, and people stream in all day long. Lunch is an all day affair, going late into the evening, capped by popcorn made by my Grandpa.

What is your day job and what activities do you enjoy in your leisure time?

I am pretty sure I have the best job in the world! I put together the Storymoja Hay Festival, which is a four day celebration of stories, ideas, writing and cultural expression. We bring together poets, storytellers, writers, artists and thinkers from around the world in a veritable feast of juicy discussions, performances, workshops and exhibitions. It is a family affair which Ben Okri called a ‘magical experience’ :)

The children’s program of the festival takes place in the Storyhippo village and it has wonderful activities for kids of all ages, a space where they can publish their own books, storytelling, poetry jams, robotics and innovation is a creative zone where books come to life, imagination takes centre stage and where we hope to infect every child with that reading bug for life. This year’s festival takes place from the 19th to 22nd September at the Nairobi National Museum.

In my leisure time, I read...a lot! I also really enjoy going to poetry events, listening to live music and spending time with people who make me giggle.

Let’s take our reader on a trip down memory lane. What did your 8 year-old self want to become in future and were they in any way influenced by the books you read?

Gosh. 8 years old feels like a long time ago! I remember reading a lot of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and wanting to become a know, the kind that unearths the clues, to solve the puzzle that will lead to the quest and possibly, treasure! I still get excited by the idea of treasure. In a way, those books awakened in me a curiosity to explore and try and understand the world around me. That curiosity is still very much within me, and despite good old Google, nothing beats the giddy high of new discovery. Perhaps that is the allure of books for me, I get to continuously discover new things about the world and about us as human beings. I think even now, life can be like a quest; piecing bits of a puzzle together, getting stumped by dead ends, picking yourself up, persevering, and surrounding yourself with people who support, energize, inspire and make you laugh.

This is the tough one: Who was your favorite storybook character growing up?

Actually, this one is not so tough :) I absolutely adore Roald Dahl, and my two favourite characters are the Big Friendly Giant and Matilda. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent staring at my pencil, absolutely and utterly convinced, that if I just tried hard enough, surely it would move. I am a little nostalgic for that little girl who believed that absolutely anything was possible in this world, no matter how audacious. I love Matilda for making me feel that way, and every now and then I have to remind myself of the power of believing in your dreams.

The BFG is my most favourite. Who can resist that wonderful friendly giant, who blows dreams into your bedroom, eats snozzcumbers and makes whizpoppers! The book was absolutely scrumdidlyumptious! My favourite books took me to other worlds and introduced me to the most fantastical of characters.

What would be your biggest dream for African children’s literature?

I want children from Africa to have this overflowing treasure trove of fantastic books that show their world in it, superheroes that look and talk like them, characters that they can identify with, adventures in the places they see around them, and in a language that is theirs. I want children’s authors to be able to build careers off of feeding children’s imaginations such that children dream of becoming children’s authors themselves.

I want to see children around the world, lining up outside bookshops to buy the latest book that has come out from the Africa, and making the Harry Potter mania look like it was miniscule in comparison. I want our books to be translated into every language in the world, so children all over the globe can enjoy our stories.

I want African children’s literature to be bold, to dip and dive into all sorts of genres, from science fiction, to fantasy, from horror to comics. I want children’s literature not to have a tiny specialist section at the bookshop, but to sit proudly next to and outsell Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and know that the demand for our literature is not just for the novelty of it coming from Africa, but because the stories are just simply irresistible, and the world recognizes them as such.

I want African children’s authors to be celebrated in the way musicians are in our country. I want to climb a matatu and see all the kids in it reading out of sheer pleasure, to have to jostle for space at the bookshop because it is overflowing with people wanting to buy books. What a joy!

How does it feel to be named a Search Hero for the Golden Baobab Prize?

You already know how much I love discovery, and nothing gives me more pleasure than the discovery of a great story. Working at Storymoja, a Kenyan Publishing House, our dream is to get a book in every hand, and we are passionate about promoting African literature for children. I am always really excited to hear of organizations that are also doing great work in this sphere, and I think the Golden Baobab Prize is a fantastic initiative. I am excited to join hands to find our continent’s next crop of writers and stories that will have children staying up past their bedtime, reading with a torch under their blankets.

What kind of superpowers will you be contributing to enhance the Golden Baobab Prize search for captivating African stories for children?

Hundreds of wide reaching sticky tentacles to attract all those writers out there with great children’s stories hidden in the recesses of their brains..or laptops.

A ginormous invisible magenta cloak that spreads the joy of reading and the importance for African children to see themselves in the pages of a book.

Most of all, an infectious passion to discover and share great stories that set alight the imagination of children around the continent so that they may fall in love with reading forever.

Where can people connect with you on the world wide web?

They can follow me on twitter @aleyakassam. They can also keep up with all that is happening with Storymoja on and be our friends on Facebook: Storymoja and Storymoja Hay Festival. On Twitter we are @Storymoja and @SMHayFest.

Well Kenya, there you have it! Look out for Aleya Kassam, Search Hero No. 2 for the Golden Baobab Prize!