Saturday, September 24, 2016

David, Son of Jackie Robinson, at the University of Minnesota

On Thursday, September 22, I went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, to hear David Robinson, a coffee farmer in Tanzania. He is the last of the children of Jackie Robinson, the legendary African-American baseball player and indomitable civil rights activist of the forties and fifties, who passed away in 1972.

Visiting Ethiopia as a teenager, David fell in love with Africa and, in the early eighties, decided to settle in a village called Bara, tucked away in the Mbozi district of southwestern Tanzania. He introduced himself to the curious village elders, telling them that he was an African from somewhere in Africa--even though he didn't know where--and that he had been taken from the continent and was lost for several centuries in slavery in far away America. Now he had decided to come back home, and he wanted land to establish a farm.

The villagers showed him a large area and he set about establishing a coffee farm, creating, together with fellow villagers, a cooperative society called Sweet Unity Farms. David talked about the activities of the cooperative farm, the challenges, and the lessons gained along the way.

He talked about not only the work on the farms, but also the business side of things--which is rife with challenges. This includes marketing and selling Sweet Unity Farms coffee around the world. Though located in a rural place, Sweet Unity Farms seeks ways to establish itself in a global market dominated by big multinational corporations.

The photo on the left features David, Limi Simbakalia, a Tanzanian student at St. Olaf College,  where I teach, and me.

There is much information online about David Robinson and Sweet Unity Farms, such as this wonderful article. I have been reading about David Robinson for some years and, in the process, a little about Jackie Robinson. After meeting David, however, I have been learning more about his father and gaining a good sense of the stature and significance of this legendary sportsman and civil rights activist.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Phone Call From Patrick Hemingway

I was resting at home after church today and, at 12:16pm, my phone rang. It was a call from Patrick Hemingway, with whom I speak from time to time. I had called him twice in the last few weeks and left phone messages for him. I was happy to get his call today.

As usual, we talked about many things. He said he has had knee surgery and was recovering well. I was relieved to hear that. Our conversation led right away into Ernest Hemingway. I told Patrick that I am, as I had told him, intent on reading all of Hemingway's works in order to establish for myself a proper framework for understanding Hemingway's African writings. I said that in the last few weeks I have read, in particular, A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.

Patrick recalled that Hemingway had, early on, read a Francophone African writer, and I joined in with the comment that the writer was Rene Maran, whose novel, Batouala, Hemingway read and reviewed in 1922 when he was living in Paris. We talked about how this novel meant so much to Hemingway in terms of exemplifying proper writing, which should make the reader feel, see, smell, and hear what the writer is describing.

I talked about how, in my writing classes, I invoke Hemingway's ideas about writing, such as his notion of "one true sentence," which can be understood as part of Hemingway's broader concern with authenticity in human endeavours such as hunting, bull-fighting, and writing. I also refer to Hemingway's comment that writing comes easily sometimes and sometimes is as hard as blasting rocks.

When I talked about Hemingway's descriptions, in The Sun Also Rises, of the aesthetics of bull-fighting, Patrick brought up Death in the Afternoon, and I mentioned that I had planned to read this novel next.

We talked about the current political situation in East Africa. Patrick noted the longstanding American economic interests in Africa mentioning, for example, American economic activities in Zanzibar from around the mid-nineteenth century. He said that cloth was one most enduring commodities, and he referred to the persistence of a type of fabric called "Amerikani."

As always, Patrick never tires of talking about Tanzania, having lived there for about twenty five years from the early fifties. Today, while I was answering his question about the regions which produce food for the urban centers, I mentioned Rukwa, among these regions, and he recalled that he used to hunt in a place called Mpunga in the Rukwa region. "Doesn't 'mpunga' mean rice?" he asked me, and I said yes.

Patrick is widely read and is an avid reader still, despite his advanced age. Today, he told me about a book he is reading, by Oscar Hijuelos, which deals, in a fictional way, with the friendship between Henry Morton Stanley and Mark Twain. I listened intently, since I knew nothing about Hijuelos and about Stanley and Twain having been friends.

I told Patrick that I am planning to go again to the Hemingway Collection in Boston in October, and that I deliberately planned the trip this way so I can see the ongoing Hemingway exhibit again before it ends. He remarked that there is a new director there. This should not affect my work, however, and besides, the staff members who helped me last time are still there.

After this conversation, which lasted one hour and five minutes, I went online and looked up information about Hijuelos and his novel. I am delighted to have spent time reading about this author and his novel. I have also learned about Stanley's immigration to America from Wales, his meeting Twain, and their subsequent life-long friendship. I am grateful to Patrick for opening my mind to such things. He always does.

Friday, September 9, 2016

I Started Teaching Today

The fall semester started yesterday here at St. Olaf College, and I started teaching today. I will be teaching on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the courses on each day are First Year Writing, African Literature and Muslim Women Writers.

As I always do on the first day of class, today I talked about myself, my teaching philosophy, and my courses, highlighting, in particular, my commitment to academic freedom, vexed as that concept is. I don't plunge into the course on the first day of class, mindful that it is rife with uncertainties. I want first to put the students and myself at ease.

It is pleasant to be on the threshold of another season of academic engagements: reading, exploring and discussing ideas, writing, challenging ourselves, and broadening our intellectual horizons. It is a privilege to be a teacher, entrusted with the mission of inspiring a new generation of critical thinkers and socially responsible citizens of the world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Last Week of Summer School

Tomorrow, August 24, is the last day of my African Literature summer course. As I reflect on the experience of this course, I am particularly pleased to have taught Athol Fugard's Valley Song, Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences and Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, all of which I had taught only once before. Teaching these works again has enriched my understanding. I have also taught, for the first time, Mariama Ba's Scarlet Song.

Valley Song is a short play set in a rural location in post apartheid South Africa. There is an Afrikaner farmer who is rooted to this place and his granddaughter, Veronica, who dreams of going to the city of Johannesburg to pursue a career as a singer. The grandfather is worried, because his daughter, the aspiring singer's mother died in the city, having left the rural village. Fortunately, the matter is resolved, finally, and the old man allows Veronica to leave. There is optimism in the air, akin to the optimism of a farmer who sows pumpkin seeds and awaits a bountiful harvest of pumpkins.

The Tuner of Silences is a deeply moving text, riddled with paradoxes, suspense, and surprise endings. Unfolding under the shadow of the devastation of war, on a landscape rendered as an apocalyptic wasteland, the narrative is infused with existentialist sentiments, with spiritually broken human beings in a world that lacks a moral anchor. It is a tale of man's inhumanity to man, signified by betrayal and oppression, especially of women, and the violence of an unpredictable and disoriented father towards his own sons.

This is not, however, a depressing tale without redeeming qualities. In the midst of all the grimness, we see a bond of friendship blossoming between two women--one white and one black--born of a shared heartbreaking experience of betrayal by the same man. It is a natural bond, in the truest sense, neither sullied nor encumberred by racial differences, but transcending them.

Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears is a tale centered on three African young men, from Ethiopia, Kenya, and Congo, who find themselves in the same city in the USA, trying to make it. Despite the challenges they encounter, they exude a spirit of courage and perseverance.

It is not only immigrants who struggle in America. There are poor people and beggars, prostitutes and drug addicts, the homeless and the jobless. In the midst of all this, the human spirit shines bright. The solidarity among the three African young men, who look out for each other, and a friendship between the Ethiopian young man and a white woman Judith and her young daughter is heartwarming.

Our penultimate text for the course was Mariama Ba's Scarlet Song. I had not read this novel, even though I had bought my copy of it on July 21, 1987, in Dar es Salaam. I have been greatly moved by this novel. It dwells on themes found in Ba's first novel, So Long a Letter, especially polygamous marriage in the Islamic society of Senegal. In Scarlet Song, the theme is complicated by the fact that the protagonist, a Senegalese man, marries a French woman, against the wishes of her parents.

Although the woman converts to Islam before the marriage, and although the couple beget a son, cultural differences make her life very difficult, leading to her mental breakdown. In this state, she fatally poisons her young son. It is a tragic ending to an engaging novel which explores the complexities of human behaviour, religion, culture, and race relations.

I had wanted us to conclude our course with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories. We ran out of time and managed only to discuss the first two stories. In my introduction to Adichie, I had mentioned that her fiction dwells often on life of academics and their families on the campus of Nsukka University, which is where she herself was born and raised.

I had also said that she goes beyond that space and writes about the lives of Nigerians abroad, especially in the USA, where she went to school and spends considerable time. There is a marked cosmopolitanism in both Adichie's life and fiction, and those aspects are evident in the first two stories in The Thing Around Your Neck. Having taught and greatly appreciated other works of Adichie, I plan to teach The Thing Around Your Neck in the future.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Faribault International Festival 2016

The Faribault International Festival took place today. I had hoped to set out from Northfield at around 9:00am, but it was raining. I waited, knowing that the Festival would not start while it was raining. Eventually, at around 10:30am as the rain got down to a slight drizzle, I set out. I got to the Central Park in Faribault, the Festival venue, at 11:00 am. The drizzle had not stopped, but vendors booths dotted the area, under tents of various colours and sizes. Flags of different countries stood in the center, hardly fluttering because they were wet.

I did not set up my table right away, hoping that the drizzle would stop. Instead, I decided to walk around, checking out the booths. Only several minutes passed before I saw two ladies, I knew. I joined them in their booth and we talked for a while.

The clouds cleared somewhat and the sun shone down. Soon several dance groups appeared on stage in succession. One of the groups performed a Somali dance, something I had not seen before at the Faribault International Festival. In any case, the Somali population of Faribault, which in the earlier years of the Festival appeared reticent, has in the last few years come to embrace the Festival. I consider this clear evidence of the positive impact of the Festival.

While the dance performances were in progress, I set up my table and had the opportunity to talk with people who stopped by. I knew several of them. Several I had forgotten, but they remembered me from past years. We had good conversations about my books, my teaching, and my work as a cultural consultant. It was exciting, as usual, to share jokes and anecdotes about the differences between African and American culture.

I had the longest conversation with a woman who showed great interest in literature, and was particularly interested in my work on Ernest Hemingway.

As a regular participant in the Faribault International Festival, I note some unique elements every year. Apart from the increasing participation of the Somali population, I saw today, a booth displaying information about Islam. I thought this a very valuable addition to the Festival.

I wish to commend the Faribault Diversity Coalition for organizing the Festival, which is a great opportunity for people of different cultures to learn about one another.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Summer School Started Today

Today, the second term of summer school started here at St. Olaf College. I did not teach the first term. Instead, I pursued my interests in Ernest Hemingway. I went to the J.F. Kennedy Library to do research in the Hemingway Collection, and, upon my return, read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, The Sun Also Rises, and a few of his letters and stories.

Returning to the classroom today felt like embarking on a new adventure, even though the course I am teaching this time, African Literature, is familiar territory. I met my students and talked about myself and my teaching philosophy, and about basic issues of the course, starting with the significance of Africa as the cradle of humanity, language and story telling, which evolved as an oral tradition and later embraced writing.

Before we dispersed, I told the class that I would continue my introduction during our second meeting. I want to reflect on the evolution of written African literature, starting from ancient Egypt and moving into the colonial era, which created the conditions for the emergence of African literature in European languages.

Here are the works I have decided to use this term:

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, The Thing Around Your Neck.
Aidoo, Ama Ata. The Dilemma of a Ghost and Anowa.
Ba, Mariama. Scarlet Song.
Couto, Mia. The Tuner of Silences.
Fugard, Athol. Valley Song.
Mengestu, Dinaw. The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Death of a Matador

Today came the shocking news that Victor Barrio, a famous matador, was fatally gored by a bull in Teruel, Spain. Viewers around the world saw the heart-wrenching television footage of the episode. What a sad day.

For me there is something uncanny about the news, coming when I was halfway through reading Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Riseswhich concerns, in large measure, the Spanish tradition of bull fighting. Having traveled from Paris, the characters in the novel have arrived in Pamplona for the San Fermin festival, and the story of the running of the bulls and bull fighting is in progress.

Readers of Hemingway know that he was an avid and very knowledgeable fan, an aficionado, of bull fighting, which served as a focus of his meditation on life and death, and which he held in high esteem as both a perfect exemplar of his ideal of courage and as a window into Spanish culture. He devoted a subsequent book, Death in the Afternoon, to bull fighting.

Reading The Sun Also Rises under the shadow of the tragedy that struck today in Spain intensifies my feelings arising from my reading. The intimations of danger in Hemingway's descriptions of the running of the bulls and of bull fighting assume an ominous aspect, and the coincidence between what I am reading and the tragic event will remain permanently etched in my memory.