Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another African and African-American Summit

Last year, Africans and African-Americans held a summit at the Center for Families, in Minneapolis. I wrote about this event here. Inspired by the success and the promise of that summit, a number of people are planning for a similar event to be held in the near future. I am happy to be part of this process, for I enjoy meeting and working with people who share the goal of bringing people together.

The photos you see here were taken on October 27, 2009, at one of the planning meetings. From left to right you see Edmund Ocansey,Joseph Mbele, Chioma Onwukwe, and Gerald Montgomery. Sara Nelson-Pallmeyer, another committee member, took the photos.

Like other people, I am intrigued by the vexed issue of the relationship between Africans and African-Americans. Exploring this issue is always useful, always interesting. This year, we are interested in organizing small gatherings for people to address specific issues pertaining to our community, while aiming for the big summit. We think the small gatherings are valuable in themselves, for they will dwell on specific issues such as child rearing, food and culture, relationships, and so on.

The meetings of the planning committee are open, and people are encouraged to attend. Contact Edmund Ocansey, planning committee Chair:

Monday, October 19, 2009

J.M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians

J.M. Coetzee is one of the writers whose works I have been teaching, in the context of Post-colonial literature and also as part of my new course on South African Literature. I have taught Coetzee's In the Heart of the Country, Disgrace, and Foe, and, lately, Waiting for the Barbarians.

Whenever I teach my literature courses, I like to include some works I have not read before, so that I can explore these works with the students. I enjoy the risks this entails, such as lagging behind the students in reading the text. A convert to Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I feel that this somehow empowers the students.

As part of my South African Literature course this semester, I have been teaching Waiting for the Barbarians, a haunting narrative whose very first sentence catches your attention: "I have never seen anything like it: two little discs of glass suspended in front of his eyes in loops of wire."

Waiting for the Barbarians
can be read on many levels. On the surface, this is a novel about a frontier town--at the farthest end of an Empire--anxious about an invasion by barbarians who live just beyond. The fear of the barbarians and the actions the rulers take to confront that threat invests this novel with allegorical significance, even for our time. The fear of evil forces, of enemies, is quintessentially human, and Coetzee explores the impact of this fear on the people who run the Empire as well as on their subjects.

Trying to decode Coetzee's novel, I have invoked works as disparate as Kafka's The Trial and the powerful play, Fire on the Snow, by Douglas Stewart of Australia. I have invoked theories of alienation and the absurd as articulated by existentialists and other philosophers. I even made my students read Ward Churchill's controversial essay, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Waiting for the Barbarians is its lack of geographical specificity. We don't know where on earth the story takes place. It could be anywhere. History is replete with examples of the workings of Empire as described in this novel, examples of what happens when rulers use the idea of enemies--real of imagined, domestic or foreign--to whip up xenophobia and clamp down on the population. The siege conditions and mentality Coetzee describes so insightfully has something in common with the story Albert Camus tells in The Plague.

With its spare storyline, flowing like a silken thread, Waiting for the Barbarians is a masterful depiction of the dark side of the human condition. We might be unwilling to take a pessimistic view of ourselves, but history, unfortunately, yields unforgettable examples of the kind of truths Coetzee tells. We so readily believe dire warnings about enemies being out there, waiting to harm us, that we succumb to manipulation by those who claim to be safeguarding our security. We are, perhaps, our own worst enemies.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Connecting With Compatible Technology International

Yesterday, following an invitation, I attended a meeting of the Compatible Technology International (CTI),in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This is an organization of engineers whose vision is a world where everyone has adequate nutritious food and clean water, and whose mission revolves around "designing food and water technologies that are sustainable and appropriate to local cultures." CTI works in many parts of the world, such as India, Bangladesh, Mali, Uganda, Guatemala, and the Caribbean.

I was invited to share my ideas on the cultural aspect of such ventures. Now, we might ask, is there a relationship between culture and the work of engineers? If there is, what is it?

As a student at the University of Dar es Salaam, I studied the dynamics of transfer of technology and the issue of appropriate technology. As a graduate student in Development Studies, I even gave lectures on these topics to Engineering and Science students. In those days, we dwelt mainly on the technical aspects of the topic. Although we explored the social dimensions of science and technology, using texts such as J. D. Bernal's Science in History, we did not zero in on the human aspects of science and technology the way I am able to do these days, after developing a deep interest in studies of culture and, in particular, folklore. I am better able, now, to discuss how local traditions, values, and beliefs might help or hinder the adoption of technology.

Before I went to the meeting yesterday, I studied the CTI website, gaining a basic understanding of how my work on cultural issues fits into the work of the CTI. Relying mostly on my Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, I figured out what to say on the cultural matrix of concepts that appear on the CTI website, such as food, nutritious food, food supplements, and clean water. I figured out how to talk about the ways in which food processing technologies might impact and be impacted by cultural realities. Brief as it was, my talk generated much interest.

Committed to such ideals as sustainability and cultural sensitivity, CTI believes in collaborating with people of various backgrounds, perspectives, and skills. Already, I have learned a great deal from my as yet very brief contact with CTI, and I know I will learn more in the future. The sky is the limit.

It seems that my association with engineers will extend beyond the CTI. One of the engineers present at my talk would like to have me speak to a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders. I will write about this in due course.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Books, books, books: The Twin Cities Book Festival, 2009

Saturday October 10, I participated in the Twin Cities Book Festival, at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College in downtown Minneapolis. It was a busy day, from 10am to 5pm, with the exhibition hall crowded with publishers, editors, booksellers, illustrators, readers and a plethora of other people connected with the world of books. What an incredible gathering of minds, where everyone could learn and learn and learn. What a great opportunity for networking.

Above, in the foreground, is my table. I had four of my titles on display. This year I worked with the Minnesota Black Pages, on the 2009 edition, contributing several pieces. The publication came out just in time, and I displayed copies at the Book Festival. I recommend it very highly. For copies and subscription information, write to or call (612) 205 0031.

I was assigned table number 19. Africonexion is my company, under which I publish, conduct workshops, and offer consultancy services.
Above, I am with Bukola Oriola, from Nigeria, to whom I introduced the idea of self-publishing with Lulu. She just published Imprisoned, her first book.
Above, I am with Professor Mahmoud El Kati, a well-known African-American educator, writer and activist based in the Twin Cities. We have known each other for several years.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Awaiting the 2009 Twin Cities Book Festival

I cannot say my life lacks action and excitement. I seem to be occupied all my waking hours--reading, teaching, writing and preparing for appearances at various events and venues. If I don't have some such event around the corner, it surely is some days or weeks ahead, or on the horizon. There is no such thing as boredom in my life.

For the coming seven days, I will be busy teaching, of course, but something else will be on my mind--the 2009 Twin Cities Book Festival. I have participated in this annual Festival several times in the past, but each time is a new experience. I got an email from the organizers today, and was pleased to see Africonexion, the label under which I do my consulting work, listed among the exhibitors.

At the Twin Cities Book Festival, as at other such book events, I get to meet many new people--authors, publishers, and readers--but I also meet some familiar faces, devotees of the Festival. Initially, I had only two titles published: Matengo Folktales and Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, but now I have added Notes on Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I also have a chapbook on the global experience of Africans and the Black Diaspora. These, together with a few newspaper articles, make my table quite a feast for the eyes and, hopefully, the mind.

In the past, I have written blog entries after the events. Today I wanted to write about an impending event. It is a long day of talking with people, but time seems to fly, and far from being an ordeal, the experience is both reinvigorating and memorable. I am looking forward to it.