Sunday, June 28, 2009

What is Development? Colonialism Deconstructed

The following article appeared in the inaugural issue of Kwanza Jamii, April 2009, under the title "Maendeleo ni Nini?" At the request of some Americans, I translated it into English, and here is the English version.

What is Development? Colonialism Deconstructed

By Dr. Joseph Mbele
The Urban Fly
The concept of development is everywhere, in our personal lives and in the lives of communities and countries in general. We all believe that we need development. If we do not strive to develop, we get pressured in one way or another to do so. Other people try to force development on us. Read more....

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Teaching South African Literature

This Spring semester, 2009, for the first time since I came to St. Olaf College, I taught South African Literature. It was the first offering of a course I designed last year, titled African Literature. Designing the course afforded me the opportunity to showcase the rich traditions of my continent. Africa is where language and storytelling evolved, since that is the original home of humans. The African Literature course is meant to be open ended. It can dwell on a particular region, a set of authors, a topic. For this semester, I chose to focus on South Africa.

Over the years, I have encountered the works of many South African writers. In secondary school, back in Tanzania, I read Peter Abrahams’s Mine Boy, and was moved by it. I also read short stories by such writers as Ezekiel Mphahlele, Richard Rive, James Mathews, and Alex La Guma. The little collection, Quartet, published by Heinemann, created a lasting impression on me.

As an undergraduate at the University of Dar es Salaam, 1973-76, I read more works, such as the plays of Athol Fugard and Lewis Nkosi, as well as poetry by Dennis Brutus, Keorapetse Kgositsile and other poets. Both Alex la Guma and Kgositsile taught us at the University of Dar es Salaam, as did Mofolo Bulane of Lesotho, who introduced us to the study of folklore. Then, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, 1980-86, I studied more south African literature, including the oral tradition, under professors Daniel Kunene and Harold Scheub. Kunene’s expertise on SeSotho poetry and Mofolo’s works, and Scheub’s expertise on oral narratives greatly enhanced our understanding. We studied the Xhosa intsomi, Shona praise poetry, and the Zulu izibongo, A.C Jordan, Mazisi Kunene, Athol Fugard, and many other writers. It was during that time that I read the works of critics such as Lewis Nkosi, whose book, Tasks and Masks, left a lasting impression on me.

In the course of my own career as a teacher, I have taught the works of many South African writers, including Thomas Mofolo, Peter Abrahams, Alex la Guma, Nadine Gordimer, Dennis Brutus, J.M Coetzee, Bessie Head, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema.

No wonder that when the English Department at St. Olaf College asked me to design a course on African literature, I thought right away of South African Literature. I felt well prepared. I could have, as easily, designed a course on Nigerian Literature, Kenyan Literature, East African Literature, Contemporary African Women Writers or on some theme. The possibilities are numerous and equally interesting. In a way, the choice of South Africa was arbitrary, but, again, not quite so.

I taught Mofolo's Chaka, Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy, Nadine Gordimer's July's People, J.M. Coetzee's Foe, Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys, Mbongeni Ngema's Woza Albert, and Zakes Mda's Madonna of Excelsior. I like to include, in my reading list, works I have not read before. This time, I tried Madonna of Excelsior. I discovered, as we read it, that it is moving story that explores the realities of contemporary South Africa, ranging from illicit racial relations between white men and black women under apartheid to the corruption of power in the wake of apartheid.

Re-reading works one had first encountered in earlier years always turns up something new and fresh. I experienced this most clearly with Mine Boy, which brought back memories of my first encounters with Zuma, one of the main characters. Zuma's coming from a village into the city and experiencing the strange ways of the city reminded me of “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg’s famous poem, in which Sandburg describes the move from the rural to the urban space as entailing the loss of innocence. When I first read Mine Boy, I was but a teenager. In subsequent years I read widely, including Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, which neatly illuminates Leah’s comments on the role of money in Zuma's new world.

We ended the course with a selection of poems, including Dennis Brutus’s “Nightsong: City” which, for some reason, I have always liked very much. In the final examination, I asked students to discuss this poem alongside “Night of Terror,” another searching, soulful poem, by Willie Adams.

Overall, I found the course most satisfying, and I look forward to teaching it again and again.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tourists and Folklore in Tanzania

Tanzania is one of the places where humans evolved. They did so through making and using tools, as well as creating and using language. From the earliest days, these were the defining characteristics of human beings.

Making and using tools enabled these humans to wrest a living from their environment, providing food, shelter and other necessities, including the skins, bark cloths and other materials they used to cover their bodies against the elements. Language enabled these early humans to name everything around them, thus codifying and storing vital knowledge for themselves and for posterity. Naming is a fundamental form of storytelling.

As they traversed the landscape, dealing with the environment and with one another, humans enhanced their awareness and curiosity about nature and society, which they expressed through myths, legends and folktales.

There are stories about why the two peaks of Kilimanjaro are the way they are, how the hyena got his spots, and why the bat flies at night. There are stories about human behaviour, relationships and the human condition. Through incantations, prayers and ceremonies, humans sought to influence phenomena in this world and beyond.

All these creations, tangible and intangible, passed on informally from person to person, generation to generation, together make up folklore. Folklore embodies and promotes entertainment, education, imagination and critical thinking, even in stories using what appear to be animal characters.

Such is the heritage that today we call Tanzanian folklore. Flowing to us like a current from the past, it gathers new material and acquires new dimensions, expressing the experiences, consciousness, anxieties, joys, and aspirations of contemporary Tanzanians.

As we travel around the world, meeting people and seeing places, we seek stories. Visiting Tanzania, tourists crisscross the vast Serengeti Plain, the Ngorongoro Crater, villages and towns, armed with cameras, notebooks and laptops--to construct stories about landscapes, animals, experiences and people, through photographs, journals, blogs and videos. The locals, in turn, tell their own stories about the tourists. Through the ages, humans remain what they have always been: storytellers.

(Note: At the request of Thomson Safaris, I wrote this article for the Thomson Safaris Safari Journal, 2007. It appears on this blog revised)