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13-year-old girl steals the show in African writing competition

Saturday February 23 2019

Participants in the Afro Young Adult competition in Nairobi pose for a photo after the workshop at the Goethe Institut.

Participants in the Afro Young Adult competition in Nairobi pose for a photo after the workshop at the Goethe Institut. From left: Joyce Mango, Ruth Kenyah, Dennis Mugaa, Selam Teshome, facilitator Kinyanjui Kombani, Valerie Kidarisi, Caroline Biegon and Goethe Institut's Susanne Gerhard. PHOTO | COURTESY 

VALERIE KOGA
By VALERIE KOGA
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Selam Teshome has always loved reading and writing. And as far as the 13-year-old can remember, she began writing poems and short stories from the time she could hold a pen.

Selam published her first book, In The Land of Shammah, in 2016 when she was only 10. Currently, her second book is with her publishers and she hopes it will be out soon. But before then, she continues writing and reading vastly to increase her knowledge, even entering competitions so she can engage with other writers and improve on her skills. Writing is “an itch that can’t be scratched,” Selam says excitedly.

Last year, when the Goethe Institut called for applications for a writing competition targeting stories for young adults, Selam and 199 other people sent in their applications for the Nairobi leg, which culminated in a weeklong workshop from February 11-15, for seven people who had the most compelling stories.

With Selam were second-year medicine student Valerie Kidarisi; Dennis Mugaa, a financial economist graduate who took time off to follow his passion for writing; lawyer Joyce Mango; teachers Gloria Mwaniga and Caroline Biegon; and creative writer Ruth Kenyah. The workshop was facilitated by prolific writer Kinyanjui Kombani, who won the 2018 CODE Burt Award for African Young Adult Literature. Renowned writer Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o also had a talk with the budding writers, encouraging them to aspire to change the world through their writing.

TALENT SEARCH

The Nairobi participants have all been published before in various mediums such as blogs, online writing journals and some by media houses; and most of them were also working on short stories and books that they hope to publish soon.

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But one thing they were happy about was the exposure to the different stories by each writer, the chance to get professional critique from Kombani, Prof Ngugi and each other; and the joy that their stories were good enough to be considered for publication in an anthology.

The Afro Young Adult writing competition was a talent search for African writers to write for young people. It was envisioned that it would help fill in a gap in African literature for people between 13 and 19 years, as it was noticed there was limited content for them.

Renowned novelist Zukiswa Wanner felt there was a gap in young adult literature written by Africans, vis-à-vis literature for young children and for adults. She yearned to see more fiction stories targeting 13 to 19 year-olds, according to Susanne Gerhard from Goethe Institut, Kenya. So Zukiswa thought that a competition would encourage more people to write for this group, and liaised with the institute. And the Afro Young Adult competition was born.

Following the 435 applications received from all over Africa, 52 participants were selected to attend workshops in eight different countries. Participants selected for Kiswahili stories attended the workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The French language workshops were held in Dakar and Lome, while the workshops in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Kigali, Accra and Lagos were for stories written in English.

Out of the seven who were selected for the Dar es Salaam leg, five were Kenyans. Other countries also hosted their citizens and nationals from other areas in Africa.

ANTHOLOGY

Selam was the youngest participant in the whole competition after her love thriller Savannahs and the Sun won the hearts of the panel of judges in Nairobi shortlisting the stories for the workshop.

In a Goethe press release following the selection, Zukiswa said: “Through the Afro Young Adult initiative, not only do we hope for an anthology that Young Adults across Africa will relate to and enjoy, but that this can get more people writing in this genre so that we can have as much diverse YA fiction in short and long form as we do short stories and novels for adults.”

Zukiswa facilitated the workshop in Kigali, Rwanda.

During the workshops, writers were guided on developing their stories and were to submit their edited versions after the workshop. A jury has been set up in each country to select the two best stories from the workshop in that country.

The successful stories will be announced in early March and published in an anthology in September. The anthology will be published in three languages: English, Kiswahili and French.

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