Saturday, February 25, 2017

My translation of "A Time to Talk" (Robert Frost)

Today, out of the blue, I decided to translate Robert Frost's short poem, "A Time to Talk," into Swahili. From time to time, I translate folklore and poetry, undeterred by the perils and uncertainties of the process. I work with three languages: Matengo, Swahili, and English. My most ambitious work of translation so far is Matengo Folktales.

I encountered Frost for the first time when I was a high school student in Tanzania, 1971-72. We read Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken." It was only three years ago that I first read "A Time to Talk," when my daughter Zawadi bought me an anthology of Frost's poems poems, Robert Frost: Selected Poems. I was then in hospital in Minneapolis, and my daughter, knowing that I am a bookworm, thought a book of poems would lighten my days.

As soon as I got the book, I started reading it. Among the poems that struck me the most was "A Time to Talk." I marveled at how Frost evokes rural life and realities and expresses his sentiments about alienation and the erosion of human values.

A TIME TO TALK (Robert Frost, 1874-1963)

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.


Rafiki anaponiita kutoka barabarani
Huku akipunguza kwa makusudi mwendo wa farasi wake,
Sisimami tu na kuangalia huko na huko
Kubaini idadi ya vilima ambavyo bado sijalima,
Na kisha kupaaza sauti pale nilipo, Vipi?
Hapana, hapana kwani kuna muda wa kuongea.
Nasimika jembe langu katika ardhi tepetepe,
Ubapa wa jembe ukiwa juu futi tano toka ardhini,
Na ninatembea: ninaelekea kwenye ukuta wa mawe
Kukutana na rafiki.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

KMOJ Radio Interview: Charles Dennis and Joseph L Mbele

On February 4, 2017, I was a guest on the African Roots Connection program of KMOJ Radio, Minnesota. Program host Charles Dennis and I had a wide-ranging conversation. You can listen to it here:

(photo by Zawadi Mbele)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

An Evening of Storytelling at St. Olaf College

I have started this year with a spate of presentations in the community. This evening, following a request by Karibu, a St. Olaf College student organization, I made a presentation on story telling. The event was part of Africa Week, an annual program organized by Karibu to showcase and share knowledge about Africa.

As requested by Karibu, I emphasized the role and meaning of storytelling in African culture. I shared my admiration for oral cultures, constituted by individuals who are walking, dynamic encyclopaedias, so to speak. I invited the audience to contemplate the fact that these cultures, for the major part of human history, had to preserve and transmit all their knowledge without writing.

I engaged the audience in reflecting on proverbs and a Haitian folktale, "The Frog and the Well" published in Harold Courlander's A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Storytelling Event

This evening, as I had reported on this blog, I went to Brooklyn Center to make a presentation on African and African Diaspora storytelling. I had a the opportunity to express my desire to help illuminate the African and African Diaspora contribution to world culture.

In addition to mentioning and commenting on several African and Jamaican proverbs, I told several folktales; a Gurensi one, which I had told before, a Haitian one, and one from Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men. I did this to demonstrate how our ancestors thought about the world and the human condition.

The tales in Mules and Men that account for why Black people and Black women in particular work so hard harking back to the days of slavery, are particularly significant. They project with a touch of humour the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

I told my audience that I want to make such presentations in the future, not only on storytelling, but also on cultural differences, along the lines of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. I said that my experience as a cultural consultant has taught me that there is a great need for on-going conversations about cultural differences in the world.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

African and African Diaspora Storytelling: February 9

Countee Cullen, a major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a famous poem titled "Heritage," which began thus:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?

Countee Cullen directed our attention to Africa, the birthplace of not only Black people, but the entire human race. As a folklorist and literary scholar, I highlight the fact that Africa is the birthplace of language and storytelling.

In the last few days, I have had great opportunities to share my views in different settings, such as the Nu Skool of African American Thought, and the African Roots Connection show of KMOJ Radio.
I have been talking about the role of Africa and people of African descent in world culture.

Along the same lines, on February 9, I will make a presentation on the evolution of story telling in Africa and its continuation in the African Diaspora, particularly the Americas. Come and experience the wisdom of our ancestors, how they reflected on the world, on life, human nature, and the lessons they bequeathed to us, which can help heal our broken world and reorient us along the right path.

Copies of my books, such as the popular Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, will be available for purchase, with proceeds going towards the Afrifest Foundation. Donations for the same purpose will also be welcome. The event will be held at 5701 Shingle Creek Parkway, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, 4th floor conference room, from 6:00 to 8:00pm

For more information about me, visit Africonexion: Cultural Consultants or call 507 403-9756

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Another Evening with the Nu Skool of African American Thought

Yesterday evening, I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, attending a meeting of the Nu Skool of African American Thought. I had been invited to give a talk, as I reported on this blog. After consultations with me, Nu Skool facilitator Adrian Mack had formulated the topic of my talk as "Cultural Continuity From Africa to the Americas: Black Creativity and Resistance."

The evening started with announcements and a reading of a poem by Adrian Mack which dwelt on the historical experience of Africans and people of African descent. We split into small groups and discussed several issues, such as what resistance meant for us and how we conceptualized the continuity of African and African Diaspora cultural expression.

Then I was introduced to the audience, so I could initiate the main discussion. I started by observing that the previous remarks had highlighted the key issues I might have wanted to dwell on. However, I underlined what I consider most vital considerations.

First I said that in my role as a teacher of Literature and Folklore, I pay great attention to Africa as the cradle of the human race, which means that Africa is where language, literature and other forms of cultural production originated and evolved. I pointed to the present day Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia as the places most closely associated with human origins.

I said that humans migrated from there to other parts of Africa and the world after having acquired the knowledge and skills required for survival and further development. Not wanting to dwell too much on this, I fast forwarded my account to Ancient Egypt, where writing evolved, enabling the production of written records, including religious teachings and folktales, such as the "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" and "The Tale of the Two Brothers."

I talked about the "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" as a precursor, so to speak, of tales such as The Odyssey of Homer, "Sindbad the Sailor," Daniel Defoe's  Robinson Crusoe, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Beyond the Ancient Egyptian tradition, for which we have written evidence, I dwelt on oral traditions that flourished in Africa, such as the ones which enslaved Africans brought to the Americas.

I highlighted the fact that these traditions expressed the African philosophy, value systems, imagination, aesthetic consciousness, and creativity. I cited proverbs as an example of how Africans thought about values and the human condition. In the absence of books, archives and libraries, each one of those ancestors of ours was a walking encyclopaedia, and a dynamic one at that, since there was unending interaction and communication between people, whereby each individual's knowledge  was being constantly refreshed and enriched.

Such is the heritage that enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. Tales, songs, proverbs, skills, customs, and beliefs were brought here, which have been extensively documented over the last two centuries or so. I mentioned, for example, the work of Zora Neale Hurston in the southern United States and the Caribbean. But, I noted, Africans were taken to other parts of the world also, where some distinguished themselves in various fields.

I gave the example of Antar bin Shaddad, the pre-eminent poet of pre-Islamic Arabia, who is still celebrated by the Arabs. I mentioned another black poet of Baghdad who was famous there at the beginning of the 9th century AD and then moved to Spain where he made significant contributions to Andalusian poetry. I also mentioned Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, who had African ancestry. The list of such notables is long.

In response to questions from the audience, seeking clarification on the connections between African traditions and African American traditions, I talked about "playing the dozens," as an example of the continuation of the African tradition of joking relations in general and banter in particular. I also mentioned trickster tales. Trickster tales, such as those of Brer Rabbit, exemplify this connection.

If time had allowed, I would have told a tale or two with both an African and an African American version. In line with the theme of my talk, notably the idea of resistance, I would have wanted to focus on the trickster tale. Trickster tales in the time of slavery in the Americas, as well as songs of protest, even in the guise of spirituals, are most obvious expressions of black resentment towards and resistance to oppression. Tales such as those of High John the Conqueror, Shine, and Stackolee, not only served as a strategy of psychological survival through laughter at the expense of the slave master as he was outwitted by the tricksters, but also expressed the aspirations of slaves to triumph over the slave master. In all, there is much to say about folklore as both an expression and a vehicle of resistance.