Saturday, October 22, 2016

Kenya Heroes' Day in Rochester, Minnesota

I returned this evening from Rochester, Minnesota, where I attended a get together organized by the Kenya Community in Rochester to celebrate Heroes' Day, popularly known as Mashujaa Day.  Mashujaa is the Swahili word for heroes. Kenyans hold this annual celebration on October 20, to honour their national heroes, from the struggle for independence to the present time.

I learned about today's gathering from Olivia Njogu, who is seen second from right in the photo on the left. She is a member of the board of the Rochester International Association, which organizes the Rochester World Festival. She met me at this year's festival, which I wrote about on this blog. Recently, Olivia read my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences and wrote me, saying how much she appreciated it. I am grateful to her.

This is not the first time I have attended Kenyan events here in the U.S.A, and I have always enjoyed them, as I have written on this blog. I had the same experience today. I had hardly parked my car when several Kenyans came out to receive me. It did not matter that I knew none of them. We introduced ourselves and launched into animated conversation.

This was a family event, involving children, young people, and adults. In addition to endless conversation, joy, and laughter, there was plenty of food and African music. Kenyan music touched my soul with gentle waves of nostalgia for the times I visited Kenya, starting in 1989.

The ladies in the photo on the left manifest the cheerful spirit that permeated the whole event.

Most of the people who attended I had not met before, but there were several who remembered me from this year's Rochester World Festival. It was a humbling experience to be recognized that way.

This was not a wholly Kenyan affair; even though I did not get to talk with everyone, I did talk with a guy from Nigeria and another guy from Uganda.

Having established a sizeable network of friends and acquaintances among the Africans in the Twin Cities area, I am happy to see myself doing the same in the Rochester area. As a writer and educator, I know that all this is good not only for me, but also, and more importantly, for the future of our African diaspora community, for Africa, and the world.

Monday, October 17, 2016

How I Missed "Woza Albert" at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg

From 14 to 18 June, 2012, I was in Johannesburg attending the ACLS African Humanities Program conference, which I mentioned on my Swahili blog. On June 17, with several other conference participants, I went on a tour of Johannesburg.

One of the places we visited was the Market Theatre, a famous institution in the history of South African drama, which we associate distinguished theatre personalities such as Barney Simon, Athol Fugard, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema.

As our tour guide walked with us around the area called Newton, I did not know which sites we were going to see until we encountered them. On hindsight, I appreciate the tour guide for keeping it that way. Suddenly, I saw posters advertising a performance of Woza Albert, and I realized that we were approaching the Market Theatre.

Inspecting the poster, I realized that the performance was due to start in two hours time. Unfortunately, our tour schedule prevented us from staying there that long. That is how I missed the chance of a lifetime.

We did, however, enter the building to take a look. I couldn't believe that I was in such a hallowed space. I was grateful on my own account and because my visit there gave me something to share with my students.

In teaching South African Literature, I had on several occasions shown students a video recording of a performance of Woza Albert. Now, visiting the Market Theatre, I thought that, no matter who the actors were, it would have been a great experience watching such a performance there.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Teaching "The Thing Around Your Neck"

In my African Literature course this semester, one of the works we have been discussing is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck. I have taught Adichie's works before, as I wrote on this blog, but not this collection of stories.  reads like a panoramic survey of modern African Anglophone literature in terms of the themes it covers.

In terms of its themes, The Thing Around Your Neck reads like a panoramic of modern African Anglophone literature. At the same time, it deals with themes common in Adichie's works: life on a Nigerian university campus, which features in Purple Hibiscus; the Nigerian civil war, the focal point of Half of a Yellow Sun; the experiences of Nigerians abroad, which is a key theme in Americanah; as well as corruption in its various guises and manifestations.

Though often dealing with painful themes, such as abuse and alienation, Adichie infuses her stories with humour and sarcasm. The last story in the collection, "The Headstrong Historian," bears the influence of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, moving briskly through the main themes of that novel, while reworking them in various ways.

Adichie's fictional works are notable for their cosmopolitanism; they tend to feature contemporary urbanized Africans for whom the world is indeed a global village. They travel between Africa and the outside world, especially Europe and the USA, and maintain their global networks wherever they are. This is a feature of much contemporary African literature, as can be seen in works I have taught, such as Athol Fugard's Sorrows and Rejoicings, Leila Aboulela's Minaret: A Novel, Doreen Baingana's Tropical Fish: Tales From Entebbe. and Dinaw Mengestu's The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Africa Network Conference: Denison University

This weekend, September 30 to October 2, I have been at Denison University, Ohio, attending the Africa Network conference. It has been a time of intense intellectual engagement and reflection, with about a dozen scholars presenting papers on various topics pertaining to Africa.

The topics ranged widely, including the importance of early African history in African studies, new trends in African studies, the use of exhibits and digital resources, quality in higher education, music as a bridge between Africa and America, classroom and community, study abroad, and the anthropology of multinational corporations in Africa.

The Africa Network conferences have the advantage of being relatively small, enabling participants to explore issues in depth and to their satisfaction. Another notable feature of these conferences has been that though the participants represent different disciplines, the presentations and discussions have always managed to remain accessible to everyone.

A recurring theme of the conference was the need to challenge ignorance and stereotypes about Africa. We know that we have to deal with people who think of Africa as a country, a relatively easy stereotype to dispel. However, there are also more insidious and stubborn misconceptions and biases, such as the tendency to see Africa solely or predominantly in terms of needs and deficiencies.

As usually happens in conferences, many interesting and memorable encounters occur on the sidelines. This conference has been no exception. In the picture on the left, I am standing with two professors. On my right is Stephen Volz of Kenyon College, who said that he is scheduled to lead students of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest to Botswana and is using my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, for cultural orientation.

On my left is Kristofer Olsen of Montana State University. Last year, while teaching a course on mythology, he used my book, Matengo Folktales, and requested me to talk with his class via Skype, as I reported on my blog.

In his presentation to the conference, Professor Olsen talked about that class, noting that his students appreciated seeing me and hearing my singing of the songs in the folktales.

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.