Sunday, August 30, 2015

African Folktales Without Happy Endings

On August 2, 2015, during Afrifest 2015 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, I performed African folktales as part of the festival program.  I chose two tales--"Hawk and Crow" and "The Monster in the Rice Field"--from my book Matengo Folktales. The photo on the left shows me as I was impersonating the monster in the second tale, who was snatching away members of a family, one after the other, as they were out in the field, away from home, watching over their rice.

Neither of the tales has a happy ending. The first ends in a bloody fight between Hawk and Crow in which Crow is killed. In the second tale, the monster takes away the entire family. With the disappearance of each member of the family, the tale builds suspense, with the audience wondering with increasing anticipation what is going to happen next. The last member of the family is taken away by the monster, and that is the end of the tale.

When I declared to my Afrifest 2015 audience that the tale was over, I knew what to expect. There was spontaneous laughter mixed with disbelief and puzzlement, and at least one person exclaimed, "We want a happy ending!" I had told tales from Matengo Folktales to audiences across the United States and, again and again, the endings left the audiences puzzled or incredulous.

There is a general expectation in American society that tales should have a happy ending, as is underlined by the famous sentence, "And they lived happily thereafter." This expectation is related to the idea of the pursuit of happiness which is deeply ingrained in  the minds of Americans.

African folktales tend to emphasize that life consists of ups and downs, that it is a mixture of joy and sadness, good luck and misfortune, success and failure. In life, good is not always rewarded and evil is not always punished. This is not an anomaly in African cultures. Traditionally, African youths were brought up to face challenges and be brave, through practices such as initiation practices, which were difficult, to say the least, meant to prepare boys and girls for the responsibilities of adulthood, marriage and parenthood.

I was not surprised at Afrifest 2015 that people expected happy endings. I felt they have succumbed to the American fantasy of the pursuit of happiness. But I have to honour the African storytelling tradition. There are certain changes a storyteller can make in the telling of tales, and some changes are inevitable, because performers don't usually memorize a text or read from a book. In a way, they create in performance. Nevertheless, there are core aspects of the tale that must be kept intact.

As we explore different folktale traditions and the cultures they spring from or operate in, we will encounter surprising and even shocking aspects. Researchers have noted this from the earliest days of the tradition of recording folktales, exemplified by the German brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm since the early years of the nineteenth century. With the passing of time and the rise of such influences as Disney films, there have evolved expectations about folktales such as I have described, including happy endings.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Afrifest Foundation Board Meeting, August 27

The board of the Afrifest Foundation held its meeting--via teleconference--this evening. We started with a review of this year's Afrifest, which was held on August 2.

We noted that the event went well, with an array of vendors and activities, including children's games, drumming, storytelling, and soccer games. The attendance was greater than last year.

We are glad to have been joined by the Multicultural Kids Network, which kept the children engaged with drumming and other activities. We look forward to the participation of Multicultural Kids Network in Afrifest next year and beyond.

We talked about what we have learned from this year and what we need to do for next year. Foremost among these is the need to start our planning early, reaching out to potential sponsors, vendors, and volunteers.

We reminded ourselves about the special nature of the mission of Afrifest, which is to showcase and celebrate the cultural achievements of Africans and the African Diaspora, promote education about the historical and global African experience. Afrifest distinguishes itself from many other organizations in that it fosters education and the spirit of Pan Africanism.

We also discussed our existing relationships with organizations such as the Council on Black Minnesotans, and affirmed our desire to cultivate relationships with various African organizations in the Twin Cities and beyond.

We are grateful to our volunteers, vendors, media partners, and the City of Brooklyn Park, whose support was crucial for the success of this year's Afrifest. We look forward to Afrifest 2016.

For photos and videos of this year's festival, please visit Afrifest 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Faribault International Festival, 2015

Yesterday I was in Faribault, Minnesota, participating in the Faribault International Festival. I arrived at Central Park, the venue, at 10:10am. Most of the vendors had set up their tables and booths and people had started arriving.

The place was a hub of activity, with music blaring and children running around joyfully. In the middle of the Festival grounds, flags of different countries fluttered in the wind.

From time to time, performers came on the main stage, singing and playing music from different traditions. Aztec dancers showed up as well, as they have done in previous years. 

There was a flag ceremony, one of the highlights of the Festival, starting a few minutes after 1 o'clock. Representatives of different countries carried the flags and processed in single file to the main stage. There they took turns to talk about their flags and the countries they came from. Some sang the national anthems of those countries.

There was a young woman who carried the flag of the United Nations. She spoke briefly about the United Nations and its mission in the world. It was a special moment, reminding us all that though we have our separate countries, we should not forget that we are one world.

It was interesting to witness the diversity of countries represented, from Cambodia to Honduras, from Germany to Somalia. South Sudan, the newest state, was represented.

I was happy to bear the Tanzanian flag, and say a word about my country. I also sang our national anthem, knowing that that might have been the first time that the Tanzanian national anthem has been sung publicly in Faribault. I was also surprised at how well I sang it.

The flag ceremony was a valuable learning experience. I appreciated hearing an Asian- looking young man proclaim that he was Cambodian and was carrying the flag of that country. It was equally notable to hear a young woman proclaim that she was from Honduras and the flag she was carrying was that of Honduras.

She said, rightly so, that she was not Mexican. She named the countries of Central America, emphasizing that she was from Honduras, one of those countries. It was a powerful reminder that not everyone who looks Mexican and speaks Spanish is Mexican.

The International Faribault Festival was, clearly, for everybody. We heard people talk about their Swedish, German, and other European heritages, and we heard people talk about their African and Asian heritages. We heard people talk about their American heritage, incorporating different countries of the American continent.

The booths and tables were not just places  to see and buy things. They were also educational resources. The vendors were sources of knowledge about what they were selling, the countries they came from, and their cultures.

Imagine moving from on booth to the next, from one table to the next, asking about the foods, the drinks, the art objects, the clothing, the jewelry and ornaments, and being able to learn about them.

Thinking about this, I recall the many times I answered questions about my books and my work as an educator, author, and cultural consultant.

I had brought along a poster for a forthcoming documentary about Ernest Hemingway titled Papa's Shadow. The documentary features me in conversation with Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Ernest Hemingway. We are discussing Ernest Hemingway's life, travels, and writings, especially those connected with Africa.

In my studies of Ernest Hemingway, I have realized that he exemplified the ideal of learning about and appreciating the world's cultures.

I met people I had met before in the International Faribault Festival and on other occasions. I also met new people, including two who teach English as a second language, with whom we talked about cultural issues, such as the ones I deal with in my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

I used to be a member of the board of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, which started the Festival--under the name of the International Market Day--intending it to be an occasion to bring together the diverse population of Faribault to share their traditions and cultures. When the Faribault Diversity Coalition ceased to exist, its mission was adopted by the International Festival Faribault Committee, which now organizes the annual International Festival Faribault.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the Faribault International Festival is not a small-town event, and I have said as much in a previous blog post.

I was thinking about this yesterday, as I was tweeting and sending out Facebook messages and photos during the Festival. I knew I was involving people from around the world in what was going on, as did others who also sent out messages and images.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

My African Literature Summer Course is Over

Yesterday, August 19, was the last day of my African Literature summer course. During the last week or so we had been reading Leila Aboulela's Minaret. In my syllabus, I had planned to conclude the course with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck. As it turned out, however, we found ourselves going slowly through Minaret, having worn ourselves out in the previous five weeks of meeting daily, except on Saturdays and Sundays.

Nevertheless, I am pleased we were able to read Minaret, a novel that had a major impact on my students when I first taught it. Its deft and nuanced exploration of the world of Muslims was a valuable learning experience that was also aesthetically satisfying.

I was able this time to focus on aspects of Minaret that I had not dwelt on when I first taught it. Given the works we had read before, I made connections across them. I was interested, for example, in the occurence of letter writing in Minaret, a feature we had observed in Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences as well as in Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. I also gained a deeper understanding of the thematic aspects of Minaret and of the relationship among its characters.

Thinking about letter writing as a literary device led me to bring up the tradition of the epistolary novel. I explained this concept and cited examples that came readily to my mind, including Mariama Ba's So Long a  Letter and Fyodor Dostoevsky's Poor Folk.

Concluding the course yesterday, I gave the students the following final examination:

Answer Two Questions.

1) Based on the works we have discussed in this course, write an essay titled, "Language in African Literature."

2) Write an essay titled, "Religion in Leila Aboulela's Minaret."

3) What kind of person is Najwa, the main character in Leila Aboulela's Minaret?

4) Discuss the Western (i.e. European and American) influene or presence in Leila Aboulela's Minaret.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

International Festival Faribault, August 22

August 22, 2015, the International Festival Faribault will take place in Faribault, Minnesota. This will be the 10th year of the festival, which brings together the various nations represented in Faribault, to share their cultures and foster mutual understanding.

I have already signed up as a participant. I will have a table where I will display my books and talk with people about my work as an educator, writer, and cultural consultant. I consider events of this kind an extension of my classroom, whose spirit of give-and-take is highly rewarding. What I learn on these occasions enriches my teaching in various ways.

The International Festival Faribault is an opportunity to meet people from different parts of the world and to see the cultural items and other things they display, watch their performances, and sample their foods. Year in and year out, I have found the conversations with different people enlightening.

This year, I will also talk about a documentary film on Ernest Hemingway titled Papa's Shadow, produced by Jimmy Gildea, a 2014 alumnus of St. Olaf College, who was one of the students who came to Tanzania in 2013 on my Hemingway in East Africa course. The documentary features me in conversation with Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Ernest Hemingway, born in 1928. We are talking about Hemingway's life, travels, and writings, especially those concerning East Africa.

Hemingway was an avid world traveler, who was genuinely interested in, and respectful of, other cultures. As an African, I like sharing my great admiration for Hemingway's lifelong fascination with Africa, an aspect that is not well acknowledged by readers and scholars alike. Indeed, Hemingway exemplified the kind of spirit the International Festival Faribault stands for.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I Am Teaching Leila Aboulela's "Minaret" Again

This week, in my African Literature summer course, I am teaching Leila Aboulela's Minaret. We started the course with Ama Ata Aidoo's Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa, went on to Athol Fugard's Valley Song, then Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences, then Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

I am teaching Minaret for the second time, having first taught it in the spring. As I did then, I have started with an introduction to Islam, because Minaret deals with the lives of Muslims. I also feel privileged to talk about Islam in view of the widespread ignorance of it in American society. Having been born and raised in Tanzania, about half of whose people are Muslim and about half Christian, living in relative harmony, I enjoy sharing with students my experience of Islam and Muslims.

This time around, having talked about the origins and the five pillars of Islam, and about the Qur'an and the hadiths, I have started focusing on the novel, intending to go through it at a measured pace, in order to explore it as well as possible.

With its opening words, "Bism Allahi, Ar-rahman, Ar-raheem," Minaret inducts the reader into the world of Islam. In class today, I dwelt on this phrase, which means "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful," and explained its significance in Islam and in the daily lives of Muslims. I went on to explain other references to Islam featured in the first several pages of the novel. I have no doubt that my students will both enjoy and learn much from this novel.

On my part, especially today, I have been thinking about other works of fiction I have taught, written by African Muslim women. These are Mariama Ba's So Long a Letter, Alifa Rifaat's Distant View of a Minaret, Nawal el Saadawi's Woman at Point Zero and The Fall of the Imam. I am dreaming of someday creating a course on writings by Muslim women. As Muslims say, Insha Allah, God willing.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Author Seenaa's Book Event, Minneapolis

On Sunday August 2, I got a Facebook message from my friend Peter Magai Bul who lives in Chicago telling me that a sister, Seenaa Oromia, activist and author of The In-Between: The Story of African Oromo Women and the American Experience, was coming to Minneapolis to do a book signing the following day. I had not heard about this author and about the event, and I thanked Peter and told him I would make every effort to attend.

I did go. When I arrived, the proceedings were underway. There were quite many people in the audience, and several people kept coming. I even saw two young women and one young man who had been my students at St. Olaf College. We were delighted to see one another.

Several speakers spoke about the condition of the Oromo people at home in the Horn of Africa and here in the U.S.A., their efforts to advance their struggle for justice in their homeland and in the USA. They spoke about the condition of women in Oromo society, which is male dominated, and the need for emancipation and equality. Another speaker spoke about Seenaa and her book.

Then Seenaa was invited to speak. She talked about her upbringing in Oromia and how her mother inspired her to be strong and self-confident and to value education. She talked about the sorry condition of women and the need to fight for women's rights and called upon religious leaders--Christian and Muslim--to use their influence in society to advance those goals.

Then there was a question and answer session. When this was over, a book signing followed. She signed the books while photos were being taken. As I approached the table, Seenaa recognized me, recalling that Peter Magai Bul had told her about me. Needless to say, we were delighted to meet and had our pictures taken.

I learned much that evening and met some new people. I was impressed by the turnout for the event and how attentive and engaged the audience was in the presentations and discussions.

I have begun reading The In-Between, eager to learn more about issues concerning the Oromo--especially women--from a woman's perspective. It is clear, right from the beginning of the book, as it was from her talk, that Seenaa sees the issues as not only specific to the Oromos but as universal.

I wrote about this book event on my Swahili blog, but when word of it spread, several Oromos inquired about it, and I promised I would write in English as well.