Sunday, October 31, 2010

Africans and Americans: A Book Talk in Faribault

I have visited Faribault again and again, over the last few years, to participate in various educational and cultural events. On October 21, I went there again, at the invitation of the Buckham Memorial Library, to talk about my Africans and Americans book. I had mentioned this invitation in a previous blog post.

People came from Faribault and neighbouring towns, as well as Minneapolis. Delane James, director of the Library, introduced me.

I started with a brief account of my work at St. Olaf College: teaching global literatures in English, Folklore, and advising study abroad programs.
I noted that my interest in cultural differences developed in the course of my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980-86. There I experienced life in a foreign culture for the first time and began acquiring the knowledge I share in my Africans and Americans book and other writings.

I highlighted the main lessons I learned while writing the Africans and Americans book, and the lessons I learn while offering cultural orientation to Africans and Americans or while helping resolve conflicts between them.

One of these lessons is that we all grow up in our cultures with the idea that our culture is normal. We do not even think about it, just as we do not think about the fact that we are breathing.

The problem is that we tend to see our culture as the norm. We get a reality check, often a rude awakening, upon encountering a different culture. That encounter can result in problems between us and other people. Drawing upon my book, I gave examples of problems that occur between Africans and Americans.

I stressed, as I always do, the importance of learning, to know ourselves and others. We have no alternative, with the world increasingly becoming a global village and people of different cultures criss-crossing the globe and settling everywhere. Every place will feel the impact of these trends: from American cities, towns, and communities to the remotest parts of the world. I mentioned Tanzania, my own country, and the influx of foreigners there, from places as far as China.
After my talk and a period of questions and answers, there followed a book-signing, a ritual much beloved by Americans.

This was a worthwhile event. I had an attentive, engaging, and delightful audience and we were all very pleased. Delane urged everyone to organize similar events in their respective communities or places of work.

There are more photos of the event here. Milo Larson, chair of the Faribault Diversity Coalition was there, and he wrote a note on Facebook:

Great Forum by Joseph Mbele last night at the Library, always learn something new about the different cultures whenever I hear him. Everybody should see him just once, would be a more harmonious place.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

At the Rural America Writers' Center

My visit to the Rural America Writers' Center last evening went well. I was delighted to see the place and meet some of the people who carry on its mission. Born and brought up in a rural place, I was inspired and would like to establish such a center in my home area.

After being introduced, I described my work in the classroom and in the world, emphasizing the teaching of global literature in English and Folklore as well as consultancy work in cultural matters, especially those affecting Africans and Americans.
I talked about Matengo storytelling and told the tale of "The Monster in the Rice field," included in Matengo Folktales.

Then I talked about the importance of understanding cultural differences, citing my experience with Africans and Americans. Most people present read their works, prose and poetry, and shared stories. They bought copies of Africans and Americans and Matengo Folktales. We had wonderful conversation, which we continued later at a nearby restaurant.

The Rural America Writer's Center is a congenial meeting place for writers, with a nice small library. Writers read their work here. The Center also publishes The Green Blade, a magazine featuring established and emerging writers.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Reading at the Jon Hassler Theater, October 20

This evening, from 7:00pm, I will be at the Jon Hassler Theater, as the featured writer for this month's Rural America Writers' Center Third Wednesday event. Here are excerpts from the announcement from the Center:

Joseph Mbele will be the featured writer at this month's Rural America Writers' Center Wednesday event. In his first book, Matengo Folktales, Mbele has translated ten folktales of Southern Tanzania (from his mother tongue of Matengo), having recorded them in the mid-70's. In his most recent book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences--Lulu Press 2009, Mbele, having lived a significant part of his life on both continents, provides sociological insights on both cultures in the hopes of preventing cultural misunderstandings which might "poison or ruin relationships between Africans and Americans."...In conjunction with his most recent book, Mr. Mbele's more recent interests and engagements are associated with providing cultural orientation to Americans traveling to Africa and for Africans living in America...Mr. Mbele will be reading excerpts from his recent book on Wednesday, October 20th at 7:00pm at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, Minnesota.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Book Talk: Faribault (Minnesota), October 21

On October 21, I will go to Faribault, Minnesota, to talk about my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences and sign copies.

Sponsored by the Buckham Memorial Library and the City of Faribault, the talk and book signing will be held in the Buckham Memorial Library, from 6:30 to 7:30pm. I have spoken in Faribault a number of times, as reported, for example, here and here, and I look forward to the October 21 event.

Delane James, director of the Buckham Memorial Library, posted the following invitation on Facebook:

Dear Friends:

I hope you will be able to join us in the Great Hall at 6:30 p.m. as St. Olaf Professor Mbele speaks about his book, Africans and American: Embracing Cultural Differences.

Professor Mbele visited with our library staff last spring and we all agree... he is incredible! We are thrilled to be hosting this event and hope you can make it!


Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Twin Cities Book Festival, October 16

Yesterday I attended the Twin Cities Book Festival in Minneapolis, an annual event organized by Rain Taxi. It was another memorable day of meeting people, talking about books, writing, publishing and many other things, as I wrote on my Swahili blog. Here are photos from the event, the two at the top showing my book display.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Twin Cities Book Festival Approaches

The Twin Cities Book Festival is just around the corner, October 16. I look forward to being there, as usual, meeting writers, publishers, editors, and book lovers. It has always been a treat.

As an exhibitor, using the Africonexion label, I have all my books ready. I look forward to talking with people about my experiences as an educator, writer, and cultural consultant. I will write about it all on this blog, as I have always done. For more information about the Festival, read here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The 2nd Pan African Summit, Minneapolis

Today, after many months of planning, we had the Pan African Summit, at the Center for Families. Dozens of Africans and African Americans attended. We listened to presentations that offered much food for thought. These were followed by honest and enlightening discussions. This summit was in certain ways better than the first one, and I cannot even pretend that I will be able to present an adequate report of it here. I will only touch on some of its highlights. I plan to return to it again and again in future blog posts.

The proceedings started with opening remarks by Edmund Ocansey, chair of the Pan African Summit planning committee. He stated the purpose of our gathering, recalling the journey we had traveled since the first summit, and described the schedule we were going to follow during our proceedings for today.

Then he introduced the keynote speaker, Gerald Montgomery, and called him to the podium. A former U.S. marine and a holder of a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering Technology, Gerald is a member of the planning committee, as you can see in various previous posts on this blog. He is also a writer and a keen analyst of the African and African American condition.

Gerald spoke about Geo-Africanism, a concept he has been developing to help people of African ancestry come to terms with their origins and identity. He noted that when people say they are of Irish descent, for example, we accept it without any problem, but when an African American says he or she is of African descent the issue becomes problematical. Geo-Africanism is a concept that gives African Americans the chance to claim their ethnicity. Gerald wants African Americans to learn how to be African. They should seek to know African countries. After eating some African food, they should go online and learn about the people and the country it came from. Echoing a theme from the first summit, Gerald said African Americans owe Africans a welcome to the USA. He wants Africans to be a bit more forthcoming and open minded towards African Americans.

Dr. Kofi Mensah a distinguished scientist in the process and product development division of the General Mills company, gave a slide presentation on Pan Africanism, its history, ramifications and challenges in a time perspective, as well as its potential as a force in the world today and in the future.

He noted, for example, that other groups with common heritage are forming alliances and networks. The people of African descent need to do the same, to achieve unity and work towards their collective advancement.

He stressed the importance of education: Africans should learn about African Americans and vice versa, through seminars, courses and one-on-one interactions.

Pam White, CNP, the Founder and President of the Health Empowerment Resource (HER), recounted her own life story of growing up as a disadvantage girl who became a teenage mother, resentful when people told her to go back to Africa. Later someone taught her about her African heritage, about kings and queens, and restored her pride in her African heritage.

She went on to study and became a women's health-care nurse practitioner, finally starting her own clinic for "women of color, and underserved populations." HER seeks to empower and assist women in learning how to live healthier and longer by reclaiming their self-respect and a sense of balance.

Pam offered a compelling account of the specific health issues and challenges of "women of color" arguing that it is important that patients have the opportunity to be served by people who share their cultural and other background. (Photo on the left by Edmund Ocansey)

After the presentations, we split the gathering into two: an African group and an African American group. We had done the same during the first summit. This time, however, we had an African facilitator for the African American group, and an African American facilitator for the African group. Each group was requested to discuss the issues they had concerning the other group.

Before we split, however, we had a delicious lunch, with African and African American food. (Photo on the left by Edmund Ocansey)

There were tables for vendors, and organizations and individual businesses had an opportunity to showcase their products and services. In addition to everything else, books, brochures and other literature are a valuable resource for the kind of dream the Pan African summit is pursuing. (Photo on the left by Edmund Ocansey)

Some of the issues mentioned in the first summit came up again. For example, an African American said that Africans come to the USA, take "our jobs," take the wealth and return to Africa. They do not seem concerned about the problems and struggles of African Americans. They do not, for example, concern themselves with the blacks in prisons: they don't visit them or do anything to help out. I think this is a topic for a whole meeting.

An African American lady complained about Africans talking in their languages even when she is around. For example, she visits an African store or hair salon, and the Africans just keep talking in their language, not caring that she doesn't understand. She wonders whether they are talking about her, and why they don't respect her as a client. I think this is a legitimate complaint.

It is always good, when we gather to explore such complex and difficult issues as the relations between Africans and African Americans, to have some moments of relaxation. Accordingly, halfway through the proceedings, Ghanaian drummers came and put up a spirited performance. We danced an relieved some of the solemnity and tension of the dialogue.

I learned a great deal during this summit, as I had during the first one. Africans and African Americans need to recognize that they have a very long way to go to understand one another and to fully acknowledge their different histories and experiences. Whether they like it or not, these different histories and experiences have shaped and continue to inform their different mindsets and outlooks, which can cause misunderstandings and most unpleasant confrontations.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Teaching "A Wreath for Udomo"

When I started teaching Peter Abrahams's A Wreath for Udomo in my African Literature and Politics course, over a week ago, I did not know what would happen. I might have read this novel as a young man, back in Tanzania, but I am not sure. Whatever the case, I had never taught it.

We are now about halfway through the novel, and what an experience it has been. Having started with Cesaire's Discourse on Colonialism my students and I now read A Wreath for Udomo in the light of that classic. It is interesting to see how a writer of fiction approaches the very problems and issues Cesaire raises in his political discourse, to discover and explore the overlaps and intersections between the two texts. What Cesaire discusses in a general theoretical way acquires concrete expression in the individual and collective experience of Abrahams's characters.

When I designed this course, I wanted the readings to project the spirit of the fifties as the Africans, suffering under colonialism, mobilized themselves and fought for independence. A Wreath for Udomo meets that goal very well.

Peter Abrahams is a skillful writer. His prose is engaging, and there are many passages in his novel that I have found impossible not to read and re-read, because of their descriptive power. Here is one:

The door near which Udomo stood opened quietly. A little black man, not much more than five feet tall, stood framed in it. The others didn't notice him for a while. His face was long and lean, tapering to a point at the chin. His long thin black fingers were strong and restless. His huge mop of kinky hair was a crown about his face. He had big pop-eyes. The lids drooped over them like an owl's, giving him a sleepy appearance
(p. 31).

This book provides a sense of what living under colonialism and struggling for independence was like for Africans in the fifties and earlier. But this book is not only about the past; it is very much about today's Africa, which dwells in both the past and the present, so to speak. Abrahams captures this duality very well in his description of the African market:

The market was old, timeless Africa; loud, crowded and free. Here, a man sat making sandals from old discarded motor-car tyres; there, another worked at an old sewing machine, making a nightgown-like affair while the buyer waited; a little further on an old goldsmith worked at his dying art, but using, now, copper filings instead of gold to fashion the lovely trinkets women wear the world over; elsewhere a woman sold country cloth fashioned with such fine art that only Africans think of it as a garment of utility. Trade was slow and loud everywhere. This was as much a social as a shopping centre
(p. 148)

The description does not end there. By observing the dynamics of the market, Abrahams reveals key aspects of African culture. I was delighted to read this passage, recalling what I wrote about the African market in my Africans and Americans book.

We are halfway through A Wreath for Udomo, even though we have spent more than a week on it. I decided that spending a lot of time on a book like this would help the class build a good framework for understanding not only key aspects of the African experience but also other texts we are going to read.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Discount on My Books

A facility has been installed at, where I publish my books, to enable me to reduce the price of those books. As a tribute to my readers and fans, I am glad to offer a discount for this month.

The books are listed on the right of this page as well as here. You can see the discount by clicking the "Add to Cart" or "Buy" button.

This offer ends on October 31.