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“Millions of children, especially girls, could be encouraged, empowered and inspired to great achievements by the words we put on paper. The importance of empowerment for girls in Africa can never be over-emphasized.”
–Watchen Johnson Babalola
On this special day dedicated to honouring the women in our world, CODE proudly acknowledges the inspirational women with whom we have the privilege of working every day, all the year through. They are our country partners, program managers, expert volunteers, teachers and librarians.
From leading workshops that help to break down women’s stereotypes in Mozambican children’s books to organizing safe “girl’s only” reading corners in Ethiopia, these dedicated and passionate people are ensuring that today’s girls will be tomorrow’s literate and empowered women – ready to be all that they can be.
It starts with girls being encouraged to learn by supportive teachers and librarians who create safe learning environments for them. It continues with these girls having access to high quality, mother-tongue books. Books that depict strong female protagonists – not extraordinary heroes but just regular, identifiable characters who take chances, work hard, stand up for what they believe in or overcome obstacles to reach a goal. Everyday, relatable goals like the one Isatu has in Watchen Johnson Babaola’s popular book Shoes that Fit.
Watchen has written four books for CODE’s Reading Liberia collection –working closely with CODE’s partner in Liberia, the WE-CARE Foundation. She is a gifted writer, business executive and mother of four girls and an inspiration to all of us at CODE and to anyone who has had the pleasure of reading her books.
The We Care Foundation invited me to attend a CODE workshop for Liberian writers. There I met Charlie Temple, Kathy Stinson and other CODE expert volunteer workshop leaders. It was a fabulous time of sharing our experiences as writers and getting to know just how similar our passions are. Many of the poems and short stories that I have written since then have come out of working sessions at CODE workshops over the years.
Oh boy, it seems I came out the womb with a pen in my hand! I started keeping my writings when I was promoted to the fourth grade. But I was writing rhymes long before that. As far back as I can remember, I could look at a scene unfolding, and make up a rhyme about it. Some would be so hilarious, I would laugh myself to tears.
From the 2nd grade at school. My favorite period was reading. My teacher was magical. She would read a story to the class and I could hear the dripping of rainwater from the roof into an old metal bucket and feel the soft mud squish through the toes of the character as she walked barefooted through a puddle on a dirt road. I lived for reading period.
I ran through books as a young girl. I read every book twice. I was such a greedy reader. The first reading was always like a drive by.; flip, flip, flipping pages. Then, when there was no book in the house that I had not already read, I’d begin to read the old ones. The second reading was calmer and deeper. I clicked with the good guys and wanted nothing but mishap for the bad ones (smile) I really got to know and understand the characters. Thankfully, by high school, I outgrew my drive by reading.
My church presently has a charity outreach program in a very small village about 39 miles away from Monrovia. I am known as Auntie Watchen there. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the young ladies in the village approached me one day as we were about to leave the village and asked, “Are you Watchen Johnson Babalola? Do you write stories?” I said yes, I am. She turned to a group of other young girls who were watching from a distance and shouted, “I told you. It’s her!” and they all began cheering loudly as they ran toward me. They surrounded me wanting to know more about my stories. They were interested in the young female characters who were able to identify creative ways to solve problems. Since then, I’ve incorporated lessons about determination, perseverance, self-worth and the importance of education into the lessons that we teach in the village. Lessons that can be learned from the characters in the stories I write.
It’s at times like those that I feel humbled to realize the responsibility that comes to someone with a gift like mine in a country like my own. Millions of children, especially girls, could be encouraged, empowered and inspired to great achievements by the words we put on paper. The importance of empowerment for girls in Africa can never be over-emphasized.
My Mother. She’s 80 years old now. My four daughters carry her name as their middle names as a tribute to her strength and grace.
My four princesses; Francesca, Nicole, Deirdre and Daphne. All readers and all writers to different degrees. Daphne is growing into an illustrator as well. I do not remember explicitly encouraging them to read or write; it was just something they caught from their very contagious reader/writer-Mom. A lot of our family time was spent reading to one another.
I remember fleeing the war in Liberia and being in a queue of people trying to cross the border on foot. Every individual had big bags or boxes on their heads carrying their most precious possessions. Guess what was in the box on my head… BOOKS!
When my younger two were in primary school I would come home to a house so quiet you’d never believe children lived there. I would find each of them in their favorite comfortable spot, reading, BY CHOICE. Not because Mommy told them to but because they had grown to love books.
Oh, you horrible person. You’re asking me to choose between my children… Shoes That Fit. For several reasons. I had a lot of fun writing the story. I play act my stories while writing and the characters in Shoes That Fit amused and fascinated me. Almost all of them are strong enough to be a main character in another short story. And I love the interjection of the 2 short rhymes in the story. The rhymes were not planned; they just flowed from my pen onto paper in response to the joy that Isatu felt. Lastly, I’ve been sought after and asked to write other short stories many times because of Shoes That Fit. One of my characters called Pehn-Pehn Ben was commissioned by an adult literacy group and I wrote 10 short Pehn-Pehn Ben stories for their classes. They got to know me through Shoes That Fit.
I work for ArcelorMittal which is a fast paced environment. At my level, there are many balls on the court at the same time, all of the time. As a writer, you have to purpose to write daily and ensure that you remain connected with a writers group. I learned this the hard way.
I did not write for close to 3 years when I first joined the company. I was “just too tired at the end of the work day to be inspired.” I had very good friends in the Liberian Association of Writers who kept encouraging me until I began writing again but almost 3 years had gone by. So now, even if I am tired, I make it a point to run through some of my material in progress if only to stay in touch with the characters and unfolding situations in the stories. I presently have 2 novels for youth and young adults in progress as well as some patriotic/nationalistic poems that I wish to someday publish as an anthology. And of course several short stories and rhymes for children.
On this International Women’s Day, help women like Watchen continue to encourage and inspire girls and women in Africa to be all that they can be – today and tomorrow – through the power of education.