Sunday, August 2, 2015

African Americans We Met at Afrifest 2015

I want to continue sharing my memories of Afrifest 2015, which was held yesterday at Northview Junior High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. I mentioned on this blog, stories of that festival will continue to be told, and I want to focus on one aspect: encounters with African Americans.

I was at the festival as an educator, writer, and cultural consultant, with two of my daughters--Assumpta and Zawadi. Several African Americans came to our table and we had a chance to chat with them.

The first to come, soon after the festival started, was a gentleman who appeared to be of my age. As soon as we had greeted each other, he looked at my books and asked if I knew Professor Mahmoud el Kati.

Incidentally, I have known Professor Mahmoud el Kati for almost a decade. He and I have met at events involving Africans and African Americans, and have even featured on panels at such gatherings. This visitor to our table recalled having met me at one such events. He summoned his wife who was standing nearby, and she joined us, as a witness to our conversation, which revolved around Professor el Kati and the events I have alluded to.

At some point during the festival, three young black ladies came to our table, and we immediately got into a lively conversation. With obvious delight, they told us they were traveling to Accra. I could tell, from their accents that they were African American, and when I asked where they were from, they affirmed they were African American. They had not been to Africa before, and they were excited about their forthcoming trip. I told them how Americans who have been to Ghana rave about it, as do those who have been to Senegal, another West African country.

I seized the opportunity, however, to entice them, partly in jest, but also sincerely, with the idea that their next destination should be Tanzania. I also told them what I tell every American traveling to Africa how touched and pleased I am that they are going to my continent, to see and experience it for themselves. I wished them well and they moved on, exploring the exhibits.

Later, out of the blue, we saw a beaming Adrian, an African American friend of mine, coming to our table. As soon as we saw each other, we started waving and shouting our greetings. He and I have known each other for years, and my daughters know him from last year's Afrifest. He and I have some common interests in community engagement to promote Pan African education and solidarity. He is a great fan of my writings. Needless to say, our meeting yesterday was a major highlight of the festival for both of us. We made sure to take the photo seen above.

I have written about these encounters with African Americans because they exemplify the dream of Afrifest, which is to connect Africans and the African Diaspora in order to pursue common goals, such as self enlightenment on historical, socio-political and cultural matters. Despite its Afrocentric name, however, Afrifest embraces the human family.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

African Storytelling at Afrifest 2015

Today, many roads led to Afrifest, which was held at the Northview Junior High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. As is to be expected, many of us texted, tweeted, or wrote about the festival on Facebook, to let friends and the world know what was happening. No doubt, the stories will continue to proliferate. Out of the many things that happened today, I just want to say a word about African storytelling in which I was involved.

As part of the planning for Afrifest 2015, the board of the Afrifest Foundation accepted my idea that we enrich children's experience of the festival with the addition of African storytelling. This was a new feature in the history of Afrifest, but I was eager to do it, given my years of experience as a folklorist and storyteller.

We had many children at the festival today, and when the announcement was made that I was ready to tell folktales, a number of them came with me and we sat under a big tree. The gathering started with three children and an adult woman, but the number quickly grew. By the end of the session, I was surrounded by children and adults.

I chose to start with the tale of "Hawk and Crow," which features in my book, Matengo Folktales. However, I never read folktales to an audience; I perform them ex tempore. Those who have read "Hawk and Crow" in my book will remember that it ends with Hawk fighting and killing Crow in a fit of anger following Crow's attempt to run away with Hawk's chicks. I chose not to tell the kids the bloody end of the story, but concluded with the somewhat mild observation that Crow was beaten in the fight. I worried somewhat about what the adults in the audience might feel about the bloody ending.

Concluding that tale, I thought that one tale was enough. The kids had come from playing games to join me under that tree, and I thought they would want to go back to their games. I was wrong; they wanted another tale. I had no choice but to think about another tale.

I told the tale of "The Monster in the Rice Field," which also features in Matengo Folktales. I chose this one partly because I wanted to see the kids to participate in singing the song that occurs again and again in the tale. This worked perfectly. Each time I sang the song, they clapped their hands together with me, and some made an effort to sing along.

I did my best to refrain from saying that it was a monster that, from day to day, snatched away the children and their parents as they were out in the fields watching over the rice. Instead of "monster," I said "a very big creature."

I don't remember ever having done what I did today. In telling folktales to audiences--including children-- in different parts of the U.S.A, I have always told the tales the way I recorded them, complete with monsters and killings.  When I asked the children whether they found the tales scary, and they always said no.

I have found this intriguing, especially because I know that many modern parents tend to worry about such references in folktales. This is a complicated issue, which has bedeviled scholars from the very beginning of the discipline of folklore. Still, I did what I did today, and I don't know why.

Nevertheless, we all had a great time. After the storytelling was over, my daughter Zawadi asked a little girl how the storytelling went, and, with a thumbs up, the little girl said, "It was awesome!"

Friday, July 31, 2015

Afrifest 2015 is Here, August 1

Time flies, and the much anticipated Afrifest is no longer months, weeks, or days away. It is tomorrow, August 1. I wrote about it in an earlier blog post.

Stop by and experience a rich and varied display of Pan African history and culture, through exhibits, performances and interactions with people of different regions of the Pan African world and beyond, ranging from children to adults.

Afrifest, a family event, is an occasion for enlightenment and entertainment. It will take place from 10am to 9 pm, at Northview Junior High School in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

For the full festival program visit this site.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

My African Literature Summer Course, 2015

On July 13, I started teaching a summer course on African Literature. I have chosen to use the following texts.

1. Leila Aboulela's Minaret.
2. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck.
3. Ama Ata Aidoo's The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa.
4. Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences.
5. Athol Fugard's Valley Song.
6. Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

I have decided to teach Leila Aboulela's Minaret after teaching it last spring and seeing the impact it had on my class, as I mentioned in a previous blog post. Leila Aboulela is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because most us do not consider Sudan when we think about Anglophone African Literature. We equate Sudanese Literature with writers like Tayeb Saleh, who write in Arabic, and have their works translated into English. Having seen how well Leila Aboulela's Minaret worked for my class, I am already thinking about teaching her other works in the future.

I am familiar with the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, having taught several of them, as I mentioned on this blog. I have not, however, read The Thing Around Your Neck. That is why I wanted to teach it this summer. Having greatly enjoyed Adichie's Americanah, I want to keep teaching her works.

Ama Ata Aidoo's Dilemma of a Ghost is one of the African works whose profound implications I have been discovering in the course of teaching it again and again. This summer, I wanted to focus in a particular way on Aidoo's use of the techniques of oral storytelling and folklore in general. I wanted to dwell, for example, on the roots and ramifications of the theme of the dilemma, common in African folktales, and on the motif of the bird of the wayside.

Athol Fugard is another writer whose works I have taught, as I wrote in a previous blog post. So far, his Sorrows and Rejoicings has been my favourite play. I wanted to try a different work by Fugard and settled on Valley Song. We discussed it early this week, and it has left a lasting impression on me.

I have never taught any Mozambican writer here at St. Olaf College. Yet, I have always remembered how I used to enjoy Mozambican writing since my undergraduate years at the University of Dar es Salaam, 1973-76. These ranged from the short stories of Louis Bernardo Honwana to the poetry of Marcelino dos Santos, Noemia de Sousa, Jose Craveirinha, Valente Malangatana and others, all translated into English. As I was planning my summer course, I decided to revive my old love for Mozambican writing and chose Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences. We have just started reading it.

Dinaw Mengestu is another writer I am teaching for the first time. When most of us think about Anglophone African literature, we rarely think about Ethiopia, just as we do not think about Sudan. Yet, Ethiopia has a steady stream of writing in English, going back to Sahle Sellassie. In the subsequent years, names such as Nega Mezlekia have come into the picture. From the available options, I settled on Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Afrifest 2015, August 1

Planning for Afrifest continues apace, as the date of the festival, August 1, approaches. The board of the Afrifest Foundation held a final teleconference on July 16 to review progress.

Our plans have continued to take shape, not only in the broad outlines I mentioned in a previous blog post, but also in the specifics. The City of Brooklyn Park, which has stepped in as a sponsor of the festival, has already started publicizing the festival in various media and avenues, in addition to paying for t-shirts. The KMOJ radio station has been broadcasting a memorable advert.

We will have soccer matches, vendors, and children's games. On my part, in addition to displaying my books and talking about my work as an author, educator, and cultural consultant, and in addition to offering a panoramic view of the global African experience, I will also share African folktales. This is a new thing for Afrifest. Using traditional tales, such as Matengo Folktales, I will offer a taste of the African contribution to world culture. Traditional tales embody and express the African ways of thinking about life, the human condition, relationships, and values.

I will share something else congruent with the mission of Afrifest. For some years, I have been studying Ernest Hemingway and discovering his life-long interest in and respect for Africa. He exemplifies the kind of ideals Afrifest stands for, especially understanding, respecting, and appreciating different cultures.

Readers and fans of Hemingway might be interested to know that they will soon be able to see a documentary, "Papa's Shadow," which features me in conversation with Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Hemingway--now 88 years old--about Hemingway's life, his philosophy, his travels in East Africa and his writings based on those travels.

Afrifest is more than a cultural event in the conventional sense. It fosters understanding of Africa and the African Diaspora through exhibits and performances. A family event not to be missed, Afrifest will be held on August 1, 2015, from 10am to 9pm, at the Northview Junior High School, in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Memories of the 28 June Deep Valley Book Festival

The Deep Valley Book Festival, which I mentioned a few days ago, took place, as planned, on June 28, in Mankato. It was organized by the Betsy-Tacy Society.

My daughter Zawadi and I arrived at the Festival venue about 11: 10am and set up our table. I displayed my books and several other items.

When we arrived, most vendors had set up their tables, and visitors were already streaming in. I always enjoy watching people coming to book festivals. I am both impressed and inspired by their interest in books and their authors, publishers, editors, and illustrators. Like them, I find it hard to miss such events.

Across from us, we saw author Becky Fjelland Davis, whom we knew. She had invited me to South Central College in Mankato a few weeks before, to give talks as part of the orientation for a group she was taking to South Africa. Zawadi came with me on that trip, which Becky wrote about on her blog. In the photo on the left, Becky, on the right, is sitting with writer Kirstin Cronn-Mills, who told me she had attended my talk at South Central College.

Becky had also invited me in 2013, to speak with a group of students she was taking to South Africa. My visit was part of the orientation for the trip, and she reported it on her blog.

I enjoy attending book festivals. I am touched in a particular way when I see children. Fortunately, the Deep Valley Book Festival, like other festivals I have attended, featured children's authors.

We had barely settled down when the first visitor came to our table. From then onwards we had a string of visitors, coming at manageable intervals, enough to keep us occupied but not overwhelmed. Most memorable were visitors who had been to Africa: Botswana, Namibia, and Tanzania. It is, indeed, a small world.

My daughter and I went to the Deep Valley Book Festival expecting to meet people who had traveled to South Africa with Becky. Our expectations came true; we saw several of them.

In the photo on the left, my daughter and I are seen with Becky and Paul Dobratz. They regaled us with tales of their adventures in South Africa. It was a memorable reunion, considering that we had met in Mankato before their trip.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Note on Leila Aboulela's "Minaret"

One of the works we read in my Post-colonial Literature course this Spring was Leila Aboulela's Minaret. I planned to focus on two areas of the Post-colonial world: Africa and South Asia. We started with Athol Fugard's Sorrows and Rejoicings, read  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and then Minaret, before venturing into South Asia.
Minaret explores the lives of Sudanese Muslims in Sudan--especially Khartoum--and in England. It unfolds initially at the University of Khartoum, where we encounter Najwa, the main character. We see how she relates to the community around her, especially fellow students, whose adherence to Islamic principles--such as praying five times a day--she observes with a certain aloofness.

Mostly middle or upper class, the characters in Minaret are a diverse community in terms of their political beliefs and their degrees of attachment to Islam. Cosmopolitan in outlook, they embrace, or easily coexist with, foreign, especially Western, influences. They communicate with friends and relatives abroad, and are able to travel abroad themselves.

Following a coup in Sudan, and the execution of her father by the new regime, Najwa finds herself in exile in England, together with her brother. Though she had not been particularly religious back in Khartoum, after arriving in England and experiencing alienation and other social problems, she embraces Islam, finding meaning and comfort in being a pious Muslim woman. Leila Aboulela presents this transformation in a seamless, persuasive manner.

Minaret offers a refreshing image of Islamic Sudan, a place which many associate with a rigid, conservative society. In contrast to conventional negative stereotypes, Minaret humanizes the Muslims, showing them as people like any other. My students and I liked this novel, and I plan to teach it again this summer.