Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Africa Network 2017 Conference

From September 29 to October 1, the Africa Network held its conference here at St. Olaf College. About 50 scholars came together to discuss various topics concerning African studies in the undergraduate curriculum. We talked about study away programs, globalization, Afropessimism, and Afropolitanism. We heard presentations on teaching Africa through simulation, collaboration and fieldwork.

We talked about the necessity of studying and teaching Africa on its own terms, not through foreign perspectives. We talked about teaching and studying that inculcate empathy. We talked about misconceptions and stereotypes about Africa, such as the idea of tribe.

We explored the situation of Americans taking students on study abroad or internships in Africa. The point was raised that in such situations, local professors should teach the American students and the American professors who accompany the students should be taking notes, not teaching. I think, however, that professors should be able to both teach and learn.

There were topics that I had not encountered at previous Africa Network conferences, such as entrepreneurship, African sport history, and teaching Africa in Scandinavian studies courses. The issue of cultural differences came up again and again. This issue interests me in a special way as a cultural consultant.

I had proposed that Papa's Shadow, a documentary on Hemingway in East Africa, be introduced at the conference. This documentary is largely based on a study abroad course I taught in Tanzania titled "Hemingway in East Africa." We invited Jimmy Gildea, who had taken that course and produced the documentary. He showed a trailer of Papa's Shadow and trailers of two other Africa-related documentaries: one on Sudanese refugees at Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, and the other on me presenting African storytelling.

Papa's Shadow features an extended conversation between Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Ernest Hemingway, and me, discussing Hemingway's travels in East Africa, his writings about that experience, and his philosophy of life, writing and other matters, such as hunting, which he thought of as an artistic pursuit, alongside bull fighting.

One of the main aims of the Africa Network is to facilitate the sharing of academic, pedagogical and other resources. At this conference, an open access digital pedagogy journal was launched by editors Matt Carotenuto and Fiona Vernal.

From all accounts, this was a very successful conference in many ways, including the quality of presentations and the good number of attendees. The Africa Network continues to attract new scholars year after year.

I appreciate the experience I have gained of working on the conference planning committee, and I thank fellow committee members--Matt Carotenuto, Anene Ejikeme, Fiona Vernal and Todd Watkins. I thank St. Olaf College for readily taking on the role of conference host and ensuring that the conference went smoothly.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rereading Alex la Guma's "A Walk in the Night"

This semester, I am teaching a senior class on Post-colonial literature. The focus is on South Africa, through the writings of Alex la Guma and Nadine Gordimer. This week, we have been discussing Alex la Guma's A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, which I first read as an undergraduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam. In 1976, my final year, Alex la Guma came from London where he was in exile and taught us for about a week.

Reading A Walk in the Night and Other Stories this time has been an interesting experience. From the first line, I found myself reading more carefully than in th past, paying attention to the sentences, determined to gain what I might have missed in previous readings of the novella. I came to page three and followed Michael Adonis's entry into the restaurant:

It was warm inside, with the smell of frying oil and fat and tobacco smoke. People sat in the booths or along a wooden table down the center of the place, eating or engaged in conversation. Ancient strips of flypaper hung from the ceiling dotted with their victims and the floor was stained with spilled coffee, grease and crushed cigarette butts; the walls marked with the countless rubbing of soiled shoulders and grimy hands. There was a general atmosphere of shabbiness about the cafe, but not unmixed with a sort of homeliness for the unending flow of derelicts, bums, domestic workers off duty, in-town-from-the-country folk who had no place to eat except there, and working people who stopped by on their way home. There were taxi-drivers too, and the rest of the mould that accumulated on the fringes of the underworld beyond Castle Bridge: loiterers, prostitutes, fah-fee numbers runners, petty gangsters, drab and frayed-looking thugs.

This passage reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's description of a pub on the first page of A Moveable Feast, which I read last year:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. you would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the teminal and the Cafe des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run cafe where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all  of the time or all of the time they could afford it; mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter of liter. Many strangely named aperitifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on. The women drunkards were called poivrottes which meant female rummies.

As far as I remember, in my previous readings of A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, I just read the novella. This week, however, I have read the other stories as well. "Tattoo Marks and Nails" is one of the best short stories I have ever read. It concerns life in a prison packed with inmates in deplorable conditions. It is very hot in this prison, and Alex la Guma describes the heat in vivid terms: "The heat was solid. As Ahmed the Turk remarked, you could reach out before your face, grab a handful of heat, fling it at the wall, and it would stick."

The prison is a perverse world of its own, in which the more hardened and brutal prisoners rule over the others, even conducting "trials" and dispensing "justice" and punishments for such "offenses" as "bootlicking a guard, or rightly or wrongly accused of giving evidence against, squealing on, his fellow prisoners, or having annoyed them in some other way."

Having read Shakespeare's Hamlet, I have found myself thinking deeply about old Uncle Doughty, who "was an Irishman and was dying of alcoholism, diabetes, and old age," and had been an actor who toured the world in that role. Talking about his present situation and the situation of people around him, he says, "We're like Hamlet's father's ghosts. I played the ghost of Hamlet's father once. London it was."

There are great and exciting new voices in African literature, no doubt, but there is something to be said about older works like A Walk in the Night and Other Stories which have stood the test of time. Though firmly anchored in the grim realities of apartheid South Africa, Alex la Guma's work is a penetrating meditation on the various dimensions of the human condition, embracing not only hostility, anger, and sadness, but also joy, kindness, and hope.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Sister Spokesman Education Event in St. Paul

Today, I attended a Sister Spokesman event at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Sister Spokesman is an affiliate of the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, an African American newspaper. The theme for today's event was "Education Should not be a Debt Sentence."

As an educator and cultural consultant, I knew I would have a busy day sharing my ideas and learning from other people. I displayed my publications and had interesting conversations with people who came to my table.

Tracey Williams-Dillard, MSR Publisher/CEO, led the proceedings. In the picture on the right, she is seen introducing the three panelists who discussed the event theme. Sitting from left to right are Ea Porter (Community Liason--College of Education, Leadership & Counseling, University of St. Thomas), Dr. Cheryl Chatman (Executive Vice President & Dean of Diversity, Concordia College), and Janet Tauer (Director, TRIO/Educational Opportunity Center).

The three panelists shared information and advice about many aspects of college education, such as grants and other financial support.

Conversations among participants and networking opportunities are a great addition to the value of the gatherings.

I had lively conversations with people who came to my table. I remember, for example, a question I was asked about whether I highlighted cultural differences among Americans based on race. I responded that in my book, I was highlighting traits and tendencies that define Americans. Similarly, in talking about Africans, I seek to identify traits that define them, irrespective of ethnic and other differences.

I was equally delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the rich heritage of African folklore as a treasure of profound reflections on values, relationships and the human condition.

I am pleased to share, on this page, some pictures which demonstrate a sense of the spirit that pervaded and guided today's event.

Having attended a previous Sister Spokesman event, I salute Tracey Williams-Dillard and her Sister Spokesman collaborators for their infectious enthusiasm for connecting people and engaging them in explorations of issues vital to the life and well-being of African Americans and humanity at large.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Roma's "Zimbabwe" Song

Roma, a Tanzanian composer and singer, has become a household name in Tanzania, albeit controversial, on account of his compositions. His latest song, "Zimbabwe," has just been released to much acclaim, but also reservations. It is a charged piece that is bound to raise sentiments and maybe ruffle a few feathers.

"Zimbabwe," is a music video that brings up seemingly disconnected and random images and references incorporating ideas, sentiments, and pleas. Clad in flowing robes, like a prophet, Roma traverses an expansive landscape proclaiming his message, which sounds like an apocalypse. I think of Yeats's vision--in "The Second Coming"--of a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, but Roma's vision is not entirely dark and ominous.

The plight of prophets is often uncertain and Roma's is no exception. He has experienced rejection, censure and even kidnapping, which is a key theme, if not the impetus, of his "Zimbabwe" song. A prophet can be rejected, becoming a voice crying in the wilderness. In this video, Roma appears in the wilderness much of the time, but he has a sizable following, heading with him towards the distant horizon beyond which, presumably, Zimbabwe lies.

I have stated that this song pulls together seemingly disparate and random ideas, sentiments, and references, but there is method in the madness. Running through the song is a mood, not of celebration or joy, but sadness, which is sustained by the repetitive beat of soulful sounds. The sadness and somber feeling is conveyed by references to kidnappers and their evil deeds, and is reflected in the faces of the people and accentuated by the image of a crying child. The randomness of images and references can also be read as a mirror or an oblique but caustic commentary on, or indictment of, the political system of today's Tanzania, which critics berate for what they consider its erratic and impulsive modus operandi.

Roma's song exemplifies Cleanth Brook's idea that the language of poetry is the language of paradox. The very image of Zimbabwe is paradoxical. Given the global, media-driven image of Zimbabwe as dismal and dysfunctional, Roma's song appears to present Zimbabwe as the Promised Land. We see Roma leading a multitude across the wilderness, in an exodus towards this Promised Land, in the manner of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament.

On the other hand, the image of Zimbabwe in this song can also be interpreted as bitterly ironic, with its suggestion that one is much better off being in Zimbabwe than in Tanzania. Although this might spark contention among Tanzanians, my interpretation shows how Roma turns the negative image of Zimbabwe on its head, essentially signifying upon the media-driven stereotype I have mentioned. Roma is a kind of trickster figure, driven to upsetting conventional perceptions and exposing the ambiguity of things.

The juxtaposition of Zimbabwe and Tanzania in the song can be further deconstructed. We can say that the song implies that Tanzania is deteriorating so fast that we had better escape to Zimbabwe before it is too late. This interpretation, needless to say, is not likely to please many Tanzanians. But I am not claiming that this is what the poem says. My reading of it might, in fact, be contested by other readings, which is the norm in the field of literary interpretation.

If we view the notion of paradox in the broad terms outlined by Brooks, Roma's song is packed with paradoxes. These manifest themselves not only in the image of Zimbabwe but in other ways as well, such as the image of the old African lady playing the piano. I doubt if there is any Tanzanian who associates old African ladies with piano playing. Yet, if we take a historical and broad view, we find that African women, especially old women, have been prime carriers of our artistic heritage--storytelling, music, and song. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for example, portrays a mother who tells stories to her children. In East Africa, there is a long tradition of female poets and singers, such as Mwana Kupona, Siti binti Saad, Bi Kidude and Shakila Said. The image of Roma's old woman playing the piano is not as far-fetched as it appears.

The discourse of Rama's song is propelled as well by both significant hints and direct statements. Among the hints are those relating to kidnapping and the experience of captivity. Among the direct statements is the challenge to the unnamed authority figures to lay down their guns and engage in debate propelled by reasons. In the context of the growing belief that Tanzania's political system is becoming dictatorial, the song's statement is a direct indictment of that reality.

In generic terms, "Zimbabwe" can be read as the continuation of the tradition of African prison poetry which includes poems such as Liongo Fumo's "Wimbo wa Saada," and Abdilatif Abdalla's Sauti ya Dhiki, from the Swahili tradition, as well as Dennis Brutus's Letters to Martha and A Simple Lust.

Following Brooks's warning against what he called "the heresy of paraphrase," I will say that Roma's song, like any work of literature, speaks for itself. No interpretation will adequately capture its complexity, nuances and its capacity to generate meanings, which is limitless. For me, however, this song, unsettling as it is, remains timely, relevant, and indispensable. It is a mix of disturbing sentiments and images made palatable, nevertheless, by melodious and irresistible music that will endure in people's memory for a long time. I feel it has the makings of a classic.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Thank You Message From Global Minnesota

On July 10, I mentioned on this blog that I had been invited to speak at Global Minnesota. I did make the presentation and described it on my Swahili blog. Subsequently, I have received a letter of appreciation from Global Minnesota, which says:

Dear Dr. Mbele,

On behalf of Global Minnesota, I would like to thank you for speaking at the Global Conversations program on "African Folktales to Contemporary Authors" at the Minneapolis Central Library on July 12.

Your extensive knowledge and skillful storytelling captured and kept our audience's attention throughout the program. The program was both informative and entertaining, and the feedback we received from the attendees and our partners was extremely positive.

We were also so pleased that you brought your daughters to the program and rekindled an old MIC/Global Minnesota connection.

Thank you for partnering with us on this program and helping us in our mission to bring greater awareness and appreciation of African culture to the general public in Minnesota. We look forward to engaging with you again on future Global Minnesota programs!

I can only say that I am always ready and happy to share whatever knowledge I have that people want me to share with them. I have a high regard for Global Minnesota. I got to know about it when my daughter Assumpta worked there as alluded to in the letter above. I look forward to future collaboration.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Forthcoming Presentation to Global Minnesota

I have been invited by Global Minnesota to give a presentation on African verbal art on July 12.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Global Conversations: African Folktales to Contemporary Authors

JULY 12 @ 6:00 PM CDT / Free

From ancient oral traditions to contemporary literature, African stories reflect wisdom, cultural identities, and social values developed over countless generations. Join us, St. Olaf College Associate Professor Joseph Mbele, and Augsburg College Associate Professor Mzenga Wanyama for an exploration of how these stories find expression today, both in Africa and in the African diaspora.

Joseph Mbele, Associate Professor of English at St. Olaf College, is a folklorist and author. His writings, including Matengo Folktales, illuminate the underlying values that shape cultures. Dr. Mbele has done fieldwork in Kenya, Tanzania, and the U.S., and has given lectures and presented conference papers in Canada, Finland, India, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the U.S. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and before coming to St. Olaf in 1990 to teach post-colonial and third-world literature, he taught in the Literature Department at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Over the years, he has taught courses such as Swahili Literature, Theory of Literature, African Literature, Sociology of Literature, Postcolonial and Third World Literature, The Epic, and African-American Literature.

Mzenga Aggrey Wanyama, Associate Professor of English at Augsburg College, was born and raised in Kenya where he received his bachelor’s of education and master’s degrees from the University of Nairobi and then taught English language and literature in Kenyan High schools and at Kenyatta University. In the United States, he had a two-year stint in the graduate program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before attending the University of Minnesota where he earned a Ph.D. in English. Mzenga also worked as an Assistant Professor of English at St. Cloud State University where he taught courses in literature and writing. His areas of focus are Postcolonial theory and literature and African American literary history.

Presented in partnership with the Friends of the Minneapolis Central Library.

Global Conversations: African Folktales to Contemporary Authors
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
6:00 PM