Tuesday, February 2, 2016

I am Struggling to Write

For the past several days, I have been struggling to write. I should say, rather, that I have been labouring on revisions of several projects: short articles for a sequel to my Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences and a review of Isidore Okpewho's book, Blood on the Tides, for Western Folklore.

I have been trying to be productive, but have constantly hit a snag. On each attempt, after revising a mere paragraph or a little more, I have routinely felt tired. All writers experience writer's block, but that knowledge has been no consolation, especially because my predicament has been somewhat protracted.

In the midst of all this, I have found myself recalling Ernest Hemingway's description of the writing process:

There's no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

I know that I will eventually complete my current tasks to a satisfactory degree, but in the meantime, the work does feel like drilling rock.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Teaching "The Trickster and the Hero"

For the last three weeks, I have been teaching a January course titled "The Trickster and the Hero." I designed this course in 1990, when I was teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam. I had just been hired by the English Department at St. Olaf College to introduce Post colonial literature and the department chair asked me if I would like to design and teach a January course.

I knew right away that I would like to teach a course on the hero and the trickster. I had done my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980-86 and had written my doctoral dissertation on The Hero in the African Epic. Professor Harold Scheub, one of my professors and my main dissertation advisor, had sparked my interest in the hero and the trickster. 

Almost every year, for the twenty five years I have taught at St. Olaf College, I have taught my hero and trickster course. I start with Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in North American Indian Mythology. After that, I usually teach some more trickster tales from other traditions, drawn from various traditions, such as Anansi, Gizo, Nasreddin Hodja, and Hare, the ubiquitous trickster of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. I often incorporate trickster tales from my own collection, Matengo Folktales.

After exploring oral traditional trickster tales, I move on to epics. Over the years, I have used The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Book of Dede Korkut, Gassire's Lute, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, and Ibonia. I then move on to works of fiction. I have used novels such as Things Fall Apart, The Guide, and The Lonely Londoners, which afford further opportunity to explore the figure of the trickster and the hero in written literature. Then we read Things Fall Apart, and we are now reading The Guide. I hope to conclude with theoretical works which deal with the hero from the perspective of formalism, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

This January, we started with Paul Radin's The Trickster, watched a recording of comedian Louis CK, went on to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ibonia, Things Fall Apart, and The Guide. With only three days to go, I am in the process of concluding with theoretical perspectives as I have noted above.

Studying the trickster is an opportunity to reflect on a major figure in folklore and literature. So is studying the hero. I say as much in my course description:

The figure of the trickster is one of the most enduring of all the characters we encounter in literature and folklore, from the earliest times to the present. The figure of the hero is equally prevalent and engaging. In this course, we will study manifestations of these figures in the folklore and literature of various cultures and epochs. Our focus, though, will be Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean traditions. We will try to understand the social origins and functions of hero and trickster tales, using theories such as those of Paul Radin, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Alan Dundes. We will try also to explore the manifestations and influences of the hero and trickster archetypes in our lives. In addition to folklore stories, we will study selected literary texts, in order to understand how they appropriate the motifs and patterns of trickster and hero narratives. This is a great way to understand an important dimension of the making of literature.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tempo Afric TV Celebration

On January 9, 2016, I attended a celebration of Tempo Afric TV, at Jambo Africa Restaurant in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Tempo Afric TV is the brainchild of Malick Sall, a Senegalese enterpreneur based in the Twin Cities.

People from various African countries and the U.S.A. attended the event. With Malick as host and Josiah Kibira, founder and director of Kibira Films International, as master of ceremonies, speakers--including the keynote speaker Farida Nabourema--expressed lofty sentiments about Tempo Afric TV: the road it has traveled, its growing impact in the world, and its future.

Started by amateurs, Tempo Afric TV now produces an array of programs, embracing economic, political, social and cultural issues. It showcases Africa and the African Diaspora, channeling and projecting the realities, accomplishments, and aspirations of people of African descent.

About a dozen key volunteers were recognized and awarded certificates. The photo above, by Dr. Alvine Laure, shows, from left to right, Josiah Kibira, Petros Haile, founder and director of African Global Roots, and Malick Sall.

Tempo Afric TV volunteers are passionate visionaries, committed to making a difference not only here in Minnesota and in the USA, but around the world. They seek to counter the colonial and neo-colonial legacy of marginalization and misrepresentations, mindful of the fact that we have the means now, in the form of communication technologies, to tell our own story.

I am a relative new comer to Tempo Afric TV, having been introduced to it last year by Petros Haile, who interviewed me on issues pertaining to my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. However, having attended the Tempo Afric TV event on Saturday, I am more inspired than ever to fully involve myself in its work, so noble and indispensable.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Cultural Learning is a Two Way Street

For a number of years, I have been offering cultural orientation to Americans going to Africa or those dealing with Africans here in the U.S.A. I have been doing the same to Africans who live in the U.S.A.

I have noted that Americans tend to be quite aware of the need to learn about the African ways. Wanting to do the right thing, they do not hesitate to ask for guidance. I can testify to this from the requests I get to offer such orientation.

My experience with fellow Africans in the U.S.A. has been somewhat different. These Africans have been mostly immigrants and refugees, who tend to desire to be understood and accommodated by the Americans. The Somalis, for example, who have moved into a number of cities in Minnesota and beyond, consistently appeal to the fact that they are Muslims and need to be able to abide by the norms of their religion, such as praying five times a day, not eating pork or drinking alcohol.

I think these are appropriate expectations, and as I have noted, Americans tend to want to understand them in order not to offend anyone. American society has evolved to a point where people are wary of offending any one or any group.

Still, I feel that the Africans and other foreigners who have come to the U.S.A. should learn about American culture and live by it, unless there are valid reasons not to do so, such religious beliefs.

I remember an episode from a talk I gave to immigrants, mostly Somalis and other Africans, in Mankato, Minnesota, about raising children in the U.S.A. During question time, a Somali woman, in typical Somali Islamic attire, asked me to advise her what to do with her daughter who was wearing jeans.

She was very concerned, and I had a hard time finding the right way to respond. I did emphasize, however, that this is a different culture, and jeans are acceptable in this culture, even for young women. I told her she should just pray and be grateful that her daughter was not breaking the laws of this country. She seemed to understand my point, but I do not know if she was entirely satisfied.

Yes, cultural learning is a two way street. That is what I emphasize in my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. It is the point I make whenever I offer cultural orientation, whether in Africa or in the U.S.A.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Memorable Meeting in Minnesota

Today was a special day. I had a memorable meeting with Dr. Barbara Poole Galyen, a friend of many years, who is based in California, but has been visiting relatives in Minnesota, a short drive from Northfield, where I live.

Barbara and I met for the first time in 1995, when she came to Tanzania as a volunteer on my research project on epic folklore of Northern Tanzania, sponsored by Earthwatch. We worked on Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria.

Barbara told me that time, and has kept telling me, that that experience sparked her interest in Africa and launched her on her subsequent professional life. She went to Kenya to work for the United States International University, and later started a consulting company dealing with cultural issues in the global context. She has traveled the world and made many connections.

We were delighted to meet today, having met for the last time in 1997 in Kenya. We shared stories about our time in Ukerewe, current politics, and a new course I will be teaching in the spring--"Muslim Women Writers." I signed for her a copy of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, which relates to our mutual interests as cultural consultants.

Here is what Barbara herself wrote today on her facebook page about our meeting:

I enjoyed a wonderful visit with Dr. Joseph Mbele who was the one who originally introduced me to Africa in 1995 on an "Earthwatch" adventure. I give him credit for changing my life completely after I moved to Kenya as a result of our fascinating studies on a remote island in Lake Victoria, TZ. Born in Tanzania, Dr. Mbele is currently a professor at St. Olaf College in MN where he continues to work on special projects around the world! He's inspiring me again to get more involved in heart-felt projects globally.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Honouring Bukola Oriola

I have heard, with much delight, that President Barack Obama has appointed Bukola Oriola to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Bukola is a Nigerian-born woman living in Minnesota. I have known her from 2009 when I first met her. Before then, I knew only her name from an African community newspaper published in Minnesota.

One day, I read a statement she made that she had written a book manuscript but didn't know how to get it published. Having self published two books, I felt the urge to help her. I called her, even though we did not know each other, and I told her I had read her statement and wanted to help her publish her book.

Bukola came to St. Olaf College, and I showed her how to publish online. Soon thereafter, she published  Imprisoned: The Travails of a Trafficked Victim. We kept in touch, and I invited her to the Twin Cities Book Festival which was held on October 10, 2009, so she could see the kind of work writers do after publishing a book. The photo on the left shows the two of us at my table.

The book facilitated Bukola's work of conveying to the public her message about human trafficking. In addition to giving talks to various audiences, she started a television program as well as a non profit organization, The Enitan Story.

Bukola is a passionate advocate for the victims of human trafficking, while fostering people's awareness of this global problem. I am impressed and inspired by her work. I recall how I first contacted her, how we met, and what she wrote in the acknowledgement section of her book:

     I would also like to thank those who worked with me to get this book published. My profound gratitude goes to Prof. Joseph Mbele of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, who showed me how to get my book published, otherwise it would have been another Word Document on my computer. It would have not been able to give the message of hope to the hopeless. God bless you sir.

President Obama's selection of Bukola is a great honour to her. I have witnessed the excitement it has generated in Minnesota, around the USA, and, in a special way, in Nigeria. Bukola sees in all this the workings of destiny. She believes that the suffering she underwent as a victim of human trafficking was part of God's plan to prepare her for her mission. You can hear her in this interview:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Swahili Translation of Pope Francis's Prayer

In his encyclical, "Laudato Si," Pope Francis includes a prayer for our earth. I was deeply moved by the encyclical, and I wanted to translate the prayer into Swahili, for fellow Tanzanians and Swahili speakers elsewhere, since it captures succinctly the spirit of the encyclical itself.

With my experience of translating Matengo folktales and Swahili poems into English, as well as English poems into Swahili, I know the challenges, frustrations, and delights of translation. I know what a humbling experience it is to translate such a thoughful, nuanced, and soulful message as Pope Francis's prayer. Still, I wanted to convey some sense of it to Swahili speakers.


A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.p
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

Sala Kuiombea Dunia Yetu

Mungu mweza yote, upo kila mahali

na hata katika viumbe vyako vidogo kabisa.
Unakumbatia kwa upole wako kila kilichopo.
Tufurikie nguvu ya upendo wako
ili tuuhifadhi uhai na uzuri.
Tujaze amani, ili tuishi
kama kaka na dada, bila kumdhuru yeyote.
Ee Mungu wa maskini,
tusaidie kuwanusuru waliotelekezwa na kusahauliwa katika dunia hii,

ambao wana thamani isiyo kifani machoni mwako.
Tuletee uponyaji maishani mwetu,
ili tuihifadhi dunia badala ya kuwania kuipora,
ili tustawishe uzuri, si uchafuzi na uharibifu.
Gusa mioyo
ya wale wanaowania maslahi yao tu
yanayowagharimu maskini na dunia.
Tufundishe kuibaini thamani ya kila kitu,
kujawa na uchaji na tafakari,
kutambua
 kuwa tumefungamana
na kila kiumbe
tunavyoelekea kwenye nuru yako isiyo na mwisho.
Tunakushukuru kwa kuwa nasi kila siku.

Tuhimize, tunakuomba, katika juhudi zetu
za kutafuta haki, upendo na amani.