Monday, January 16, 2017

Ericka Huggins at St. Olaf College

Ericka Huggins, a veteran of the Black Panther Party and an educator, spoke at St. Olaf College this evening as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. Having witnessed and participated in difficult and dangerous struggles for justice, she stands tall as a testimony to the strength of the human spirit, warm and generous.

She shared a message of love and endurance in the face of adversity and suffering. She shared her faith in people, transcending racial, religious, gender, and other categories. She touched us deeply with her tenacious optimism about our common future as human beings. Visit her website.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Gift From Ramble Pictures Honouring Hemingway

A few days ago, I received a special gift from Ramble Pictures, a film production company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is a framed picture announcing a documentary titled Papa's Shadow, which deals with Hemingway in East Africa. Much of the documentary is a conversation between Patrick Hemingway and me about Hemingway's African experiences as reflected in his writings, as well as his ideas about writing, culture, and life in general.

The picture features Ernest Hemingway, Patrick Hemingway and me, as well as Mount Kilimanjaro, the vast plain below it, and a plane in the air. This scenery magnificently evokes Hemingway's famous short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

I am humbled to be featured alongside Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers in the English language, as well as Patrick Hemingway, his son and only remaining child, who knows my country and East Africa very well, having lived there for twenty five years, and who has been my mentor in my efforts to study Ernest Hemingway.

I am equally humbled that Patrick is also a great admirer of my work, such as my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. In Papa's Shadow, Patrick refers to it and he is seen reading a passage from it, in Swahili and my English translation.

Papa's Shadow focuses on a dimension of Ernest Hemingway that is not well known: his life long fascination with Africa. In the course of studying Hemingway, I realized this deficiency and decided to create a course, Hemingway in East Africa, which inspired Jimmy Gildea, one of the students, to create Papa's Shadow. I highly recommend this documentary. To order it, contact Ramble Pictures. email:, telephone: (952) 426-5809.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Another Day With the Tanzania Program of Gustavus Adolphus College

Today I spent several hours at the Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center talking with students of Gustavus Adolphus College who are going to Tanzania on a study program. They have been undergoing pre-departure orientation, and Professor Barbara Zust had invited me to speak with them, as I reported in a previous blog post.

As in the past, the students, have been reading my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, and my meeting with them was an opportunity for them to meet me and ask questions.

After introductions, I started by commending these students for their decision to go on a study abroad program and experience a culture different from their own. I shared my own experience in the U.S.A. and the positive effects it has had on me, enabling me to be a bridge, so to speak, between Africans and Americans.

With those remarks, the conversation began. The questions the students asked, concerning appropriate behaviour, not only showed clearly how well they had thought about what I say in my book, but also afforded me valuable opportunities to clarify what I had written as well as what I had not. I did say, however, that I have been aware, for some years, of the need to write on matters I did not address in my book, and that I am working on that project.

This was another remarkable group of students from Gustavus Adolphus College. We talked for over two hours and were very pleased, as the photo above shows. Professor Zust is seen in the back row, next to me, and in the front row, on the right, is Pastor Todd Mattson, co-leader of the program. The group departs for Tanzania on January 4. For updates, visit withonevoiceTanzania.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Ghost of Hamlet's Father

In the past several days, I have been reading Shakespeare's Hamlet, not only to experience again the power of a creative genius of unequalled talent, but in order to reflect on the ghost of Hamlet's father, one of the characters in that play that has always fascinated me. Ever since I watched a film version of Hamlet, in which Laurence Olivier played the role of Hamlet, I have remembered the ghost of Hamlet's father. This was in 1971, when I was a student at Mkwawa High School, Tanzania.

The ghost's eerie appearances in that film, and his voice,  have continued to haunt me, so to speak. The encounters between the ghost and the sentries and between the ghost and Hamlet are among the most memorable moments in the play. I remember most of all the tale the ghost tells Hamlet which begins this way:

     I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.... (Act 1: Sc. V)

In subsequent years, reading Alex la Guma's novella, A Walk in the Night, set in apartheid South Africa, I encountered the ghost of Hamlet's father in a memorable way. One of the characters in this novella, Uncle Doughty, is an old, poor Irishman, who lives in a poverty-stricken place, "dying of alcoholism, diabetes and old age". We see him with Michael Adonis, a troubled black man, having an agitated conversation while drinking liquor. The topic of their conversation is life's troubles, and Michael Adonis thinks that, being a white man, Uncle Doughty cannot have troubles.

"Worry? Worry? the old man whined. We all got something to worry about." He mustered himself for a moment and shook a dried twig of a finger at Michael Adonis. "We all got our cross to bear. What's my white got to do with it? Here I am, in shit street, and does my white help? I used to be an actor. God bless my soul, I toured England and Australia with Dame Clara Bright. A great lady. A great actress she was." He began to weep, the tears spilling over the sagging rims of his eyes and he reached for the bottle again. "We're like Hamlet's father's ghost. I played the ghost of Hamlet's father once, London, it was."
   "You look like a blerry ghost, you spook," Michael Adonis said bitterly. He jerked the bottle from the old man's hand and tipped it to his mouth and took a long swallow, gagging and then belching as he took the neck from his lips. His head spun and he wanted to retch. (25)

Every time I teach A Walk in the Night, I point out the presence of the theme of the ghost of Hamlet's father as a clear example of the inter-textual dimension of this novel. I also invoke Richard Wright's Native Son, pointing out the striking similarity between the difficult living conditions of the people in the two novels and the suspenseful police pursuit of Bigger Thomas in Native Son and Michael Adonis in A Walk in the Night.

Contemplating the ghost theme in Hamlet and A Walk in the Night reveals interesting connections. I note, for example, how murder features in the two situations. The ghost of Hamlet's father tells Hamlet the story of his father's murder and urges him to take revenge. Uncle Doughty, the "ghost" in  A Walk in the Night, is eventually killed, accidentally, by Michael Adonis. The shock that Michael experiences as a result can be compared to the shock that Hamlet feels at the news of his father's murder. I wish I could write more, but this is a simple blog post, not a scholarly essay.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

African Storytelling at St. Olaf College

This evening, following an invitation by Karibu, a St. Olaf College student organization, I made a presentation on African storytelling. I am passionate about sharing the heritage of the African people of which I am deeply proud. I have done this in the past, at St. Olaf College and other places.

This evening, as usual, I began by highlighting the central significance of Africa as the cradle of the human race. This has important implications, including the fact that Africa is where language and storytelling originated. I went on to briefly explain the functions of storytelling, such as mediating the human endeavour to interpret and understand the world and the human condition.

In order to illustrate the African way of philosophizing about life, I discussed three proverbs: i) Before you cross the river, don't insult the crocodile's mouth. 2) Even though you may be taller than your father, you still are not his equal. 3) It is because of man that the blacksmith makes weapons. The last two proverbs, from the Ashanti, are published in Harold Courlander's A Treasury of African Folklore.

After this, I told two folktales: "The Chief's Daughter," from the Gurensi people of Burkina Faso, which is published in Steven H. Gale's West African Folktales, and "The Coming of the Yams," an Ashanti tale published in Harold Courlander's A Treasury of African Folklore. Both tales are complex and profound meditations on the dilemmas of life.

In my evolution as a folklorist, I have come to believe that when I am invited to perform folktales, I should never read them to the audience. If I do not know the tale, I read it in advance, and then perform it in front of the audience. That way, I feel I am staying true to the reality of oral performance. The Ashanti tale I told today is one I did not know before. I read it a short while before performing it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Waiting to Meet Gustavus Adolphus College Students

I have received an invitation from Professor Barbara Zust of Gustavus Adolphus College to speak with students she is preparing to take to Tanzania on a study abroad program. She has informed me that the group will meet on January 2 and 3 at the Mount Olivet Retreat Center for their pre-trip orientation. I responded right away that I will join them on January 2.

Professor Zust has led this program again and again and has always invited me to talk with her students about cultural issues. Before our meetings, she has the students read my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

I always look forward to these opportunities to talk with Americans about what they should expect when they go to Africa or when they interact with Africans in the U.S.A. This is the work I do under the auspices of

I have always been touched and humbled by what the students say when they are in Tanzania and after their return to the U.S. A. They admire and appreciate the hospitality of the Tanzanians, and they note how their experiences in Tanzania accord with what I say in my book and in our orientation meetings about cultural differences. As I reflect on all this, I tell myself: what a great way to foster mutual understanding in our world, which is increasingly becoming a global village.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

My First Meeting With the Nu Skool of African American Thought

On Friday 25, I found myself in the midst of a gathering of members of Nu Skool of African American Thought, an organization that functions like an informal school exploring issues pertaining to the global African community. I only knew about this organization earlier this month, when my friend Adrian Mack told me about it and invited me to lead a class. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we did not hold the class as planned, but, instead, held an informal discussion. I was asked to present brief remarks on issues that I thought would be pertinent and suitable for a discussion.

I talked about the need for Africans and African Americans to continue the tradition of Pan African solidarity that was inaugurated more that a century ago and was carried forward by such figures as Henry Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, W.B. DuBois, George Padmore, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Jomo Kenyatta, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Julius Nyerere. We had an engaging discussion, exploring such issues as contempoary alienation between Africans and African Americans, and ethnic divisions and tensions among some Africans in Africa and abroad.

We also touched on the issue of African values that, across the ages, have sustained African societies and manifest themselves in some ways in African American life and could be the basis upon which we might build the kind of relationships and mindset that will enable us to deal with contemporary challenges. In response to a question about the trickster figure in African and African American folklore, I briefly highlighted the fact that the trickster is an embodiment and projection of social consciousness. Such are the issues I intend to address in my forthcoming Nu Skool presentation.

I was delighted to be part of that gathering, which included Professor Mahmoud El Kati, whom I have known for some years and with whom I have appeared on discussion panels on Pan African issues. It was a pleasant surprise to meet Njia Lawrence-Porter, after we first met in 2007, when she was preparing a group of students from the University of Wisconsin River-Falls for a trip to Uganda under the auspices of a program called Building Tomorrow. For cultural orientation for the trip, she had selected my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, and she and her group came to St. Olaf College to talk with me. It was exciting to meet again, this past Friday, after all these years.

Adrian announced that the talk I was scheduled to give, on African thought as expressed in folklore, will be held in early January. Given the camaraderie and intellectual excitement I witnessed at the gathering on Friday, I look forward to this event, which will be largely based on my book, Matengo Folktales.