Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Book of Dede Korkut

I don't remember how I first heard about the Book of Dede Korkut. It could have been in my numerous readings, over the years, about the world's epics. I knew, however, that the Book of Dede Korkut was the national epic of the Turkish people, part of the Islamic epic tradition.

I had a copy of the book for several years but had only managed to glance at its first few pages. This year, I decided to read and teach it in my "Hero and Trickster" course. At the back of my mind, I wondered whether there might be connections between Dede Korkut and the Epic of Gilgamesh, and more interestingly, between it and the Homeric epics. For many years, I have pursued the relationship between the Greek epic tradition and folklore traditions around the Mediterranean and beyond, in view of entrenched, but mistaken, notions about the Homeric epics and Greek culture in general, especially around the question of origins.

There are elements in Dede Korkut that remind us of similar elements in other epics, including the Odyssey. In the story of Goggle-eye, for example, we see echoes of the Cylops story in the Odyssey. More striking, perhaps, are similarities between Dede Korkut and other Islamic epics I know, such as the Utenzi wa Rasi 'l Ghuli of the Swahili. To inspire Swahili readers, I mentioned Dede Korkut on my Swahili blog.

The Book of Dede Korkut is a window on the Oghuz Turks, how they saw and defined themselves and their place in the world. Seeing themselves as Muslims, they are always conscious of their duty to fight the infidels. Their young boys grow up waiting for the day they will go fight the infidels. In any confrontation with infidels, for whatever reason, the Muslims see themselves as fighting for Allah and the Prophet.

We can use the epic of Dede Korkut to examine our own ideologies, such as nationalism. Just as the Muslims in this epic define themselves in opposition to the infidels, just as their Muslim identity depends on the existence of the infidel, we ourselves seem to need enemies, real or imagined, to define and sustain our national identity and nationalism.

After teaching texts based on more familiar world-views, I thought Dede Korkut was a valuable source of understanding the complexity of the world and how different societies define themselves and one another. All the students in my class were non-Muslims. I kept reminding them that according to the Oghuz Turk viewpoint reflected in Dede Korkut, they and I are infidels. We are the enemy. It is valuable for all of us to know and acknowledge how others see us, especially when, as in Dede Korkut, they are so sincere. We invoked Carl Jung's concept of the shadow in efforts to understand this phenomenon.

Teaching Dede Korkut, has broadened my understanding of the epic genre. The poetry is very moving, even in translation. I wonder how much more powerful it is in the original. Aspects of the narrative technique of this epic reminded me of the drama of Bertolt Brecht. I have also learned about the global reach of Dede Korkut, extending, for example, as far as Brazil.

Monday, January 17, 2011

LCCT Visit to the University of Dar es Salaam

On July 26 and 27, 2010, I was part of a four member delegation from the Lutheran Colleges Consortium for Tanzania that visited the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). We discussed with UDSM officials the current state and the future of the cooperation between LCCT and UDSM, a program that has lasted over twenty years. Under this program, many American students have studied at UDSM, and dozens of Tanzanians have visited LCCT institutions, advancing their graduate studies or enhancing their administrative skills and experience. Some of these Tanzanians are now prominent figures in government, education, and other sectors.

During our two days at UDSM, we met various officials. We had detailed discussions about key aspects of the LCCT program, such Swahili courses, the academic calender, student orientation, dormitory life, travel opportunities, safety, interaction between American and Tanzanian students, and the visiting scholar program.

We affirmed the value of the program and expressed the desire and determination to continue it, even in the face of challenges posed by the current world economic environment.

For me, this was another opportunity to reconnect with former colleagues, since I taught at the UDSM before going to St. Olaf College. Indeed, as we moved around the UDSM campus, we met a number of people who had been to the USA on the LCCT program.

People who have visited or studied at the UDSM will recognize the buildings on the left. The Arts and Social Sciences Tower is on the far left, and the Administration building is in the forefront, next to the parking lot. This is a main stop for "dala dala" minibuses going to Mwenge and Ubungo.

Here is the library, whose East Africana section contains the world's largest collection of Swahili manuscripts. This library also hold the Hans Cory collection, well known to anthropologists studying East Africa.

Here are two of the student halls of residence. On the left is Hall Two and on the right is Hall Five. As an undergraduate at UDSM, 1973-76, I stayed in Hall Five, on the seventh floor. I don't remember the room number, though. Visiting UDSM brings back fond memories of those days.

The UDSM has changed much since the days I studied there. A number of academic units and departments have grown and become faculties. The Faculty of Engineering has become the College of Engineering and Technology. The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences has become the College of Arts and Social Sciences. The Faculty of Science is now the College of Natural and Applied Sciences. The Faculty of Education has become the Dar es Salaam University College of Education, a constituent college of UDSM, located miles away, in the city of Dar es Salaam. The UDSM has also established another constituent college, the Mkwawa University College of Education, several hundred miles up-country. The faculty of Medicine in down town Dar es Salaam has become the Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences. The list goes on.

On the left is the University of Dar es Salaam Business School (UDBS). During my undergraduate days, it used to be the Department of Commerce and Management, housed in the Arts and Social Sciences Tower, not in its present location, which was a vast parking lot for University vehicles.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Looking Back on "A Grain of Wheat"

My African Literature and Politics course concluded with a study of Ngugi wa Thiong'o's A Grain of Wheat as I had noted in a previous blog post. After ranging across the African literary landscape, discussing A Grain of Wheat was, for me, a veritable return home to East Africa, to the lives of peasants similar to what I experienced in my childhood and the sounds of Swahili.

At the same time, A Grain of Wheat brought up themes we had encountered in previous texts. In A Wreath for Udomo we read about Africans in Europe, where they interacted with Europeans in the years before African independence. In A Grain of Wheat, we read the story of Mr. Thompson, an Englishman who got to know Africans in England, an encounter that inspired him to take up a career in the colonial service, ending up in Kenya.

Both A Wreath for Udomo and A Grain of Wheat recount the sadness and frustration of colonial officials about to depart the colonies on the eve of Independence. A source of joy for the Africans, Independence is a painful experience for these functionaries of the colonial system.

There are parallels, as well, between God's Bits of Wood and A Grain of Wheat. The theme of a strike, central in God's Bits of Wood, appears also in A Grain of Wheat. The strike by detainees at Lira is one of the most painful episodes in the novel as a graphic testimony of the inhumanity of the colonial system. The railway, a central feature and symbol of economic exploitation in God's Bit's of Wood, features in A Grain of Wheat as well.

One of the key themes in God's Bits of Wood is, of course, the heroic role women play in the strike. As I noted in a previous blog post, this harks back to the ancient epic traditions. A Grain of Wheat presents women of great courage as they participate in the Mau Mau uprising. In both texts, these women challenge the men to show their mettle, even putting them to shame.

In both God's Bits of Wood and A Grain of Wheat, the people struggling against oppression find themselves contending with others they consider traitors. In both novels, there are dramatic, suspenseful trials, which end in unexpected, anti-climactic ways. In God's Bits of Wood, an old man diffuses the fury of those who would put the traitors to humiliating punishment, while in A Grain of Wheat, Mugo, the person the community believed to be one of their greatest heroes, steps forward and confesses, to everyone's disbelief and shock, that he is the person who betrayed Kihika, the hero the colonizers hanged.

This outcome is as surprising to the people in the novel as it is to us readers. Ngugi succeeds in weaving a suspenseful tale with a truly unexpected ending. In the process, he deftly describes the intricacies of interpersonal relationships as they get tested by the hardships and agonizing dilemmas brought about by the state of Emergency and long periods in detention camps. While he infuses a realism in his description of events which is sometimes graphic, Ngugi's warm affection for the people and the land is unmistakable. He evokes very well the spirit of the people on the eve of independence, their hopes as well as anxieties.

Reading my students' answers to my final examination questions, I felt that they had gained a credible understanding and deep appreciation of the challenges Kenyans faced in the struggle for independence. In conjunction with the other texts, the students seem to have gained a good understanding of the social and political realities Africa faced in the twentieth century, especially in the fifties and sixties.