Saturday, May 23, 2015

Afrocentric Dialogues for a Peaceful World

Today I went to Minneapolis for a small meeting of several people convened by Mohamed Dini, founder and director of the Center for African Peace Research (CAPR). Four of us met, at the Somali Mall in South Minneapolis: Mohamed Dini, Ajar Quevi, Mohamed Salad Muhamad, and Joseph Mbele.

We introduced ourselves and affirmed our commitment to the goals of CAPR. We agreed to retain those goals and focus on their implementation. We affirmed the idea that came out of the last meeting: to start where we are, here in the Twin Cities.

We should work with communities, organizations, agencies, schools,and other institutions interested in, or in need of, creating cultures of peace. This will build both real life experience and more credibility for CAPR. We briefly discussed funding opportunities and agreed to consider these as the need arises.

After the meeting in the Somali Mall, three of us went to Columbia Heights to meet with colleagues from the Department of African American and African Studies (AAAS) of the University of Minnesota whom Mohamed Dini had contacted--Vanessa Abanu and Yuichiro Onishi. In less than an hour, we covered much ground, exploring areas of mutual interest between the AAAS program and CAPR.

The AAAS program is planning to revamp its curriculum and foster more engagement with the community. We can work together in the areas of coalition building, fostering unity among disparate African and African Diaspora organizations, including student associations to help promote pan Africanism. The resources and methods we can use include performances, workshops and outreach programs.

One of our most memorable conversations concerned the opportunities our collaboration is bound to create for students, especially internships. Through participating in our programs, students will gain first-hand experience of real life issues affecting our communities--such as conflicts--and ways of addressing them. In many ways, such as demographic and cultural, the Twin Cities and adjacent areas are a microcosm of the world.

(The photo above, taken at the Big Marina Grill & Deli in Columbia Heights, features, left to right, Mohamed Salad Muhamad, Mohamed Dini, Joseph L. Mbele, Vanessa Abanu, Yuichiro Onishi).

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

My Adventures in Literary Theory and Criticism

Today, I spent some time in my office, grading papers. Out of the blue, and for no apparent reason, I pulled out from my shelves some books of literary theory and criticism, arranged them on the floor, and photographed them. I thought I would just feature them on my blog even though I did not quite know what to say about them. Knowing, however, that it would be awkward to not say anything, I chose to say a few words.

I have enjoyed literary theory and criticism ever since my undergraduate days at the University of Dar es Salaam. I studied Theory of Literature under the late Mr. Mofolo Bulane of Lesotho. We focused on Marxist Literary theory.

That grounding in Marxist Literary theory came in handy for me when, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, I took a theory of poetry course--which was Marxist oriented--taught by the late Professor Lawrence Dembo in the English Department. In the Department of Comparative Literature, I encountered Formalism, Structuralism, New Criticism, Semiotics, and Deconstruction.

I read essays that made a lasting impression on me and continue to inform my teaching. Two of these are by Cleanth Brooks: "The Language of Paradox" and "The Heresy of Paraphrase." The other is "The Intentional Fallacy" by William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Monroe C. Beardsley. Roland Barthes's S/Z greatly influenced my understanding of the reading process, as did Reader-response and Reception theories.

I was fascinated by the concept of literary evolution, intertextuality, and the interface between orality and literacy as articulated especially by Walter Ong. I became interested in psychoanalysis, especially in the context of my study of Folklore. Alan Dundes, one of the world's foremost psychoanalytic folklorists, came to Madison and gave lectures which compounded my interest in the psychoanalytic approach.

In the more than twenty years I have been teaching at St. Olaf College, I have developed a keen interest in Post-colonial Theory and Feminism, and have been following debates around issues of language and decolonizing the mind.

I find reading literary theory and criticism fascinating despite the challenge posed by an ever-increasing diversification of trends. Fortunately, the books I buy, such as the few featured in the photo above, embrace most of the key theorists, especially of the twentieth century and this early part of the twenty first.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Pursuing Peace, One Step at a Time

Today I went to Columbia Heights, Minnesota, to meet Mohamed Dini, a Minnesota resident originally from Somalia. A mutual friend, Abshir Daacad, who is a great fan of my work as a cultural mediator, had told Mohamed about me and my work, including my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

When Abshir connected us, by phone, I learned that Mohamed had founded a non-profit organization called the Center for African Peace Research. During our meeting today, Mohamed told me more about his organization, and we talked about how I could contribute to its work, which is to promote peace, human rights and good governance in Africa.

I shared with him the work I do as a cultural consultant, emphasizing, for example, that unlike others who focus on conflict resolution, I concentrate on preventing conflicts by fostering understanding among people of different cultures, since many conflicts stem from cultural differences. Since he had read my book, he readily understood my perspective.

We explored many aspects of these goals, as well as strategies and  modalities of advancing them. We agreed we can work together fruitfully.

Talking with Mohamed, one gets the idea that he is a serious person with big dreams. In addition to the pursuit of peace in Africa, he is passionate about promoting a true and realistic image of Africa, irritated, like the rest of us Africans, by the stereotypes and negativity that characterize conventional representations of our continent.

For more information, please visit the Center for African Peace Research and Africonexion: Cultural Consultants.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Self Publishing

In the academic world, self published books do not carry as much value as peer reviewed ones. Self published books are supposed to be second-rate. I have doubts about this conventional wisdom.

My Notes on Achebe's Things Fall, a self published work, has been, and continues to be, widely used in academic settings. It featured, for example, as a resource for students of Cornell University studying Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart.

My Matengo Folktales, also self published, has been used by academic institutions such as the University of California San Diego, College of St. Benedict/St. John's University, Colorado College, St. Olaf College, and Montana State University.

My Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences has been, and continues to be, used in study abroad programs of such institutions as the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM), Augustana College, Gustavus Adolphus College, South Central College and Minnesota State University Mankato.

My other book, CHANGAMOTO: Insha za Jamii, is in Swahili and not well known. It might, some day, attract the attention of some Swahili instructor and be used as a reader for advanced students.

These works are not perfect. No work is, even with editorial input or peer review. It is possible that my books might have benefitted in some way from a professional editor's input, but I wanted them to speak with my own voice.

If society allows me to speak in my classes without the intervention of reviewers, I do not see why I should be required to submit my work to peer review simply because it is meant for publication. I am skeptical of the cult or fetishism of peer review, mindful of the clever prank Alan Sokal perpetrated on it.

I know the justification of peer review. I do submit articles to peer reviewed journals and have published that way. But I do want to exercise my right to decide which of my works to submit for peer review and which to publish as I see fit, to project a voice that is truly mine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

I Got My National Flag Today

Today, I got the flag of my country, Tanzania. Its colours bear symbolic significance. The green represents our beautiful land, the yellow our minerals. The black stands for the people, while the blue represents our country's water bodies, notably the Indian Ocean, lakes, and rivers.

The immediate impulse for my buying the flag has been my experience in festivals where participants represent their countries bearing their national flags. I felt bad being in those situations without my national flag.

One of the most unforgettable, if not embarrassing, experiences was the International Faribault Festival held on August 23, 2014. I watched from my vendor table while other Festival participants stood on the main stage bearing their national flags, said a few words about their countries, and then paraded in single file, to place their flags in the middle of the open space where they fluttered the whole day. I vowed to get my own flag.

Like most people, I love my country, but I was also taught, as I was growing up, to respect all countries. We desired to be friends with any country on the basis of mutual respect, and we would not allow anyone, even our friends, to choose our enemies for us. Such was the blend of nationalism and internationalism our first president, Julius Nyerere, inculcated in us, which has guided our country since the earliest days.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Papa's Shadow: A Hemingway Film by Ramble Pictures LLC

A 2014 graduate of St. Olaf College, Jimmy Gildea has embarked on a career in filmmaking. After several years of hard work, he has produced Papa's Shadow, his first film (2015 Ramble Pictures, LLC). He is already working on his next one, "A Place Called Nowhere," about refugees at Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Since, alongside Patrick Hemingway, the only surviving child of Ernest Hemingway, I feature prominently in Papa's Shadow, I will let others comment on it. However, the film comes with the following description:





Jimmy and I have been in constant communication from the time he enrolled in my Hemingway in East Africa course, several years ago. We took the photo featured here on April 21, 2015, when he visited me at St. Olaf College to talk about Papa's Shadow.

Jim says that these films will be premiered at festivals in America throughout the year. Eventually, they will be available for purchase. I will keep readers of this blog posted on these developments.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Teaching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Works

Like countless other people around the world, I am an ardent admirer of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's works. I first read and taught Purple Hibiscus, her first novel, in 2006, reading as I taught.

Then she published Half of a Yellow Sun. On October 14, 2006, she introduced it at the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis. I attended her reading and book signing and posed for a picture with her.

Proud of my signed copy, I was sure that someday I would teach Half of a Yellow Sun. I did, in the summer of 2013. I had thought that given the sadness and tragedy of its theme, this was a bitter novel. I was surprised to discover, as we moved through it, a story of the resilience of the human spirit.

I then decided to teach Americanah, which I did this semester. A dazzling artistic tapestry, it explores themes such as immigration, relationships between men and women, and between races, with remarkable insight and sophistication. I enjoyed Ifemelu's reflections on American culture, often resembling my own in Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

Ifemelu, the main protagonist, shares her reflections on these themes through her blog, and the very theme of blogging, so pervasive in Americanah, reminded me of the conversation I had with Adichie on the day we met. She talked about a blog she was involved with, which was dear to her.

Now, I am preparing to teach a summer course on African Literature. I have already decided to include Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, which I have not read. I have no doubt that it is going to be a great experience for my class.