Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rereading Alex la Guma's "A Walk in the Night"

This semester, I am teaching a senior class on Post-colonial literature. The focus is on South Africa, through the writings of Alex la Guma and Nadine Gordimer. This week, we have been discussing Alex la Guma's A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, which I first read as an undergraduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam. In 1976, my final year, Alex la Guma came from London where he was in exile and taught us for about a week.

Reading A Walk in the Night and Other Stories this time has been an interesting experience. From the first line, I found myself reading more carefully than in th past, paying attention to the sentences, determined to gain what I might have missed in previous readings of the novella. I came to page three and followed Michael Adonis's entry into the restaurant:

It was warm inside, with the smell of frying oil and fat and tobacco smoke. People sat in the booths or along a wooden table down the center of the place, eating or engaged in conversation. Ancient strips of flypaper hung from the ceiling dotted with their victims and the floor was stained with spilled coffee, grease and crushed cigarette butts; the walls marked with the countless rubbing of soiled shoulders and grimy hands. There was a general atmosphere of shabbiness about the cafe, but not unmixed with a sort of homeliness for the unending flow of derelicts, bums, domestic workers off duty, in-town-from-the-country folk who had no place to eat except there, and working people who stopped by on their way home. There were taxi-drivers too, and the rest of the mould that accumulated on the fringes of the underworld beyond Castle Bridge: loiterers, prostitutes, fah-fee numbers runners, petty gangsters, drab and frayed-looking thugs.

This passage reminded me of Ernest Hemingway's description of a pub on the first page of A Moveable Feast, which I read last year:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. you would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the teminal and the Cafe des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run cafe where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness. The men and women who frequented the Amateurs stayed drunk all  of the time or all of the time they could afford it; mostly on wine which they bought by the half-liter of liter. Many strangely named aperitifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on. The women drunkards were called poivrottes which meant female rummies.

As far as I remember, in my previous readings of A Walk in the Night and Other Stories, I just read the novella. This week, however, I have read the other stories as well. "Tattoo Marks and Nails" is one of the best short stories I have ever read. It concerns life in a prison packed with inmates in deplorable conditions. It is very hot in this prison, and Alex la Guma describes the heat in vivid terms: "The heat was solid. As Ahmed the Turk remarked, you could reach out before your face, grab a handful of heat, fling it at the wall, and it would stick."

The prison is a perverse world of its own, in which the more hardened and brutal prisoners rule over the others, even conducting "trials" and dispensing "justice" and punishments for such "offenses" as "bootlicking a guard, or rightly or wrongly accused of giving evidence against, squealing on, his fellow prisoners, or having annoyed them in some other way."

Having read Shakespeare's Hamlet, I have found myself thinking deeply about old Uncle Doughty, who "was an Irishman and was dying of alcoholism, diabetes, and old age," and had been an actor who toured the world in that role. Talking about his present situation and the situation of people around him, he says, "We're like Hamlet's father's ghosts. I played the ghost of Hamlet's father once. London it was."

There are great and exciting new voices in African literature, no doubt, but there is something to be said about older works like A Walk in the Night and Other Stories which have stood the test of time. Though firmly anchored in the grim realities of apartheid South Africa, Alex la Guma's work is a penetrating meditation on the various dimensions of the human condition, embracing not only hostility, anger, and sadness, but also joy, kindness, and hope.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Sister Spokesman Education Event in St. Paul

Today, I attended a Sister Spokesman event at the Midpointe Event Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Sister Spokesman is an affiliate of the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, an African American newspaper. The theme for today's event was "Education Should not be a Debt Sentence."

As an educator and cultural consultant, I knew I would have a busy day sharing my ideas and learning from other people. I displayed my publications and had interesting conversations with people who came to my table.

Tracey Williams-Dillard, MSR Publisher/CEO, led the proceedings. In the picture on the right, she is seen introducing the three panelists who discussed the event theme. Sitting from left to right are Ea Porter (Community Liason--College of Education, Leadership & Counseling, University of St. Thomas), Dr. Cheryl Chatman (Executive Vice President & Dean of Diversity, Concordia College), and Janet Tauer (Director, TRIO/Educational Opportunity Center).

The three panelists shared information and advice about many aspects of college education, such as grants and other financial support.

Conversations among participants and networking opportunities are a great addition to the value of the gatherings.

I had lively conversations with people who came to my table. I remember, for example, a question I was asked about whether I highlighted cultural differences among Americans based on race. I responded that in my book, I was highlighting traits and tendencies that define Americans. Similarly, in talking about Africans, I seek to identify traits that define them, irrespective of ethnic and other differences.

I was equally delighted to have the opportunity to talk about the rich heritage of African folklore as a treasure of profound reflections on values, relationships and the human condition.

I am pleased to share, on this page, some pictures which demonstrate a sense of the spirit that pervaded and guided today's event.

Having attended a previous Sister Spokesman event, I salute Tracey Williams-Dillard and her Sister Spokesman collaborators for their infectious enthusiasm for connecting people and engaging them in explorations of issues vital to the life and well-being of African Americans and humanity at large.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Roma's "Zimbabwe" Song

Roma, a Tanzanian composer and singer, has become a household name in Tanzania, albeit controversial, on account of his compositions. His latest song, "Zimbabwe," has just been released to much acclaim, but also reservations. It is a charged piece that is bound to raise sentiments and maybe ruffle a few feathers.

"Zimbabwe," is a music video that brings up seemingly disconnected and random images and references incorporating ideas, sentiments, and pleas. Clad in flowing robes, like a prophet, Roma traverses an expansive landscape proclaiming his message, which sounds like an apocalypse. I think of Yeats's vision--in "The Second Coming"--of a rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born, but Roma's vision is not entirely dark and ominous.

The plight of prophets is often uncertain and Roma's is no exception. He has experienced rejection, censure and even kidnapping, which is a key theme, if not the impetus, of his "Zimbabwe" song. A prophet can be rejected, becoming a voice crying in the wilderness. In this video, Roma appears in the wilderness much of the time, but he has a sizable following, heading with him towards the distant horizon beyond which, presumably, Zimbabwe lies.

I have stated that this song pulls together seemingly disparate and random ideas, sentiments, and references, but there is method in the madness. Running through the song is a mood, not of celebration or joy, but sadness, which is sustained by the repetitive beat of soulful sounds. The sadness and somber feeling is conveyed by references to kidnappers and their evil deeds, and is reflected in the faces of the people and accentuated by the image of a crying child. The randomness of images and references can also be read as a mirror or an oblique but caustic commentary on, or indictment of, the political system of today's Tanzania, which critics berate for what they consider its erratic and impulsive modus operandi.

Roma's song exemplifies Cleanth Brook's idea that the language of poetry is the language of paradox. The very image of Zimbabwe is paradoxical. Given the global, media-driven image of Zimbabwe as dismal and dysfunctional, Roma's song appears to present Zimbabwe as the Promised Land. We see Roma leading a multitude across the wilderness, in an exodus towards this Promised Land, in the manner of Moses and Joshua in the Old Testament.

On the other hand, the image of Zimbabwe in this song can also be interpreted as bitterly ironic, with its suggestion that one is much better off being in Zimbabwe than in Tanzania. Although this might spark contention among Tanzanians, my interpretation shows how Roma turns the negative image of Zimbabwe on its head, essentially signifying upon the media-driven stereotype I have mentioned. Roma is a kind of trickster figure, driven to upsetting conventional perceptions and exposing the ambiguity of things.

The juxtaposition of Zimbabwe and Tanzania in the song can be further deconstructed. We can say that the song implies that Tanzania is deteriorating so fast that we had better escape to Zimbabwe before it is too late. This interpretation, needless to say, is not likely to please many Tanzanians. But I am not claiming that this is what the poem says. My reading of it might, in fact, be contested by other readings, which is the norm in the field of literary interpretation.

If we view the notion of paradox in the broad terms outlined by Brooks, Roma's song is packed with paradoxes. These manifest themselves not only in the image of Zimbabwe but in other ways as well, such as the image of the old African lady playing the piano. I doubt if there is any Tanzanian who associates old African ladies with piano playing. Yet, if we take a historical and broad view, we find that African women, especially old women, have been prime carriers of our artistic heritage--storytelling, music, and song. Achebe's Things Fall Apart, for example, portrays a mother who tells stories to her children. In East Africa, there is a long tradition of female poets and singers, such as Mwana Kupona, Siti binti Saad, Bi Kidude and Shakila Said. The image of Roma's old woman playing the piano is not as far-fetched as it appears.

The discourse of Rama's song is propelled as well by both significant hints and direct statements. Among the hints are those relating to kidnapping and the experience of captivity. Among the direct statements is the challenge to the unnamed authority figures to lay down their guns and engage in debate propelled by reasons. In the context of the growing belief that Tanzania's political system is becoming dictatorial, the song's statement is a direct indictment of that reality.

In generic terms, "Zimbabwe" can be read as the continuation of the tradition of African prison poetry which includes poems such as Liongo Fumo's "Wimbo wa Saada," and Abdilatif Abdalla's Sauti ya Dhiki, from the Swahili tradition, as well as Dennis Brutus's Letters to Martha and A Simple Lust.

Following Brooks's warning against what he called "the heresy of paraphrase," I will say that Roma's song, like any work of literature, speaks for itself. No interpretation will adequately capture its complexity, nuances and its capacity to generate meanings, which is limitless. For me, however, this song, unsettling as it is, remains timely, relevant, and indispensable. It is a mix of disturbing sentiments and images made palatable, nevertheless, by melodious and irresistible music that will endure in people's memory for a long time. I feel it has the makings of a classic.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Thank You Message From Global Minnesota

On July 10, I mentioned on this blog that I had been invited to speak at Global Minnesota. I did make the presentation and described it on my Swahili blog. Subsequently, I have received a letter of appreciation from Global Minnesota, which says:

Dear Dr. Mbele,

On behalf of Global Minnesota, I would like to thank you for speaking at the Global Conversations program on "African Folktales to Contemporary Authors" at the Minneapolis Central Library on July 12.

Your extensive knowledge and skillful storytelling captured and kept our audience's attention throughout the program. The program was both informative and entertaining, and the feedback we received from the attendees and our partners was extremely positive.

We were also so pleased that you brought your daughters to the program and rekindled an old MIC/Global Minnesota connection.

Thank you for partnering with us on this program and helping us in our mission to bring greater awareness and appreciation of African culture to the general public in Minnesota. We look forward to engaging with you again on future Global Minnesota programs!

I can only say that I am always ready and happy to share whatever knowledge I have that people want me to share with them. I have a high regard for Global Minnesota. I got to know about it when my daughter Assumpta worked there as alluded to in the letter above. I look forward to future collaboration.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Forthcoming Presentation to Global Minnesota

I have been invited by Global Minnesota to give a presentation on African verbal art on July 12.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Global Conversations: African Folktales to Contemporary Authors

JULY 12 @ 6:00 PM CDT / Free

From ancient oral traditions to contemporary literature, African stories reflect wisdom, cultural identities, and social values developed over countless generations. Join us, St. Olaf College Associate Professor Joseph Mbele, and Augsburg College Associate Professor Mzenga Wanyama for an exploration of how these stories find expression today, both in Africa and in the African diaspora.

Joseph Mbele, Associate Professor of English at St. Olaf College, is a folklorist and author. His writings, including Matengo Folktales, illuminate the underlying values that shape cultures. Dr. Mbele has done fieldwork in Kenya, Tanzania, and the U.S., and has given lectures and presented conference papers in Canada, Finland, India, Israel, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the U.S. After earning a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and before coming to St. Olaf in 1990 to teach post-colonial and third-world literature, he taught in the Literature Department at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Over the years, he has taught courses such as Swahili Literature, Theory of Literature, African Literature, Sociology of Literature, Postcolonial and Third World Literature, The Epic, and African-American Literature.

Mzenga Aggrey Wanyama, Associate Professor of English at Augsburg College, was born and raised in Kenya where he received his bachelor’s of education and master’s degrees from the University of Nairobi and then taught English language and literature in Kenyan High schools and at Kenyatta University. In the United States, he had a two-year stint in the graduate program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. before attending the University of Minnesota where he earned a Ph.D. in English. Mzenga also worked as an Assistant Professor of English at St. Cloud State University where he taught courses in literature and writing. His areas of focus are Postcolonial theory and literature and African American literary history.

Presented in partnership with the Friends of the Minneapolis Central Library.

Global Conversations: African Folktales to Contemporary Authors
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
6:00 PM

Friday, July 7, 2017

My Talk at Winona State University

On 27 June, I visited Winona State University, to give a talk I had mentioned on this blog. I spoke about Africans and African Americans, highlighting issues and challenges that have faced them historically, and which continue to influence their relationships.

I started with a discussion of the centrality of Africa as the cradle of the human race, the place where language, technology, and literature originated and evolved. The current division between Africans and African Americans did not exist then. It was brought about, primarily, by the Atlantic slave trade, which resulted in the two populations undergoing separate histories. That is the origin of the vexed relationship we witness today between Africans and African Americans.

Fortunately, I have learned about these problems over the years through my involvement with Pan African organizations in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. During my talk, I referred to what I wrote in a blog post regarding misconceptions and stereotypes that Africans and African Americans hold about one another.

I emphasized that Africans and African Americans need to learn about each other's history. Africans need to learn about the African American experience, from the time of slavery, through the civil rights era, to the present time. Likewise, African Americans need to learn about the experience of Africans especially regarding the slave trade, colonialism and the struggle against it, and neo-colonialism.

Africans and African Americans need to learn about the struggles that have defined the black experience in Africa and in the Diaspora, manifested in movements such as Pan-Africanism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement. Without this serious and enduring effort, the relations between Africans and African Americans will continue to be unnecessarily problematical.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Conversation With Patrick Hemingway

Today, I called Patrick Hemingway, largely to wish him a happy birthday, which was June 28. I called him on that day, in the evening, but failed to reach him. Today I was lucky. As usual Carol received the call and called Patrick to the phone.

First I greeted him in the proper Tanzanian way, "Shikamoo." He responded in his usual jovial manners, and when I told him "Happy Birthday," he was pleasantly surprised that I remembered the day. I told him that the date is imprinted in my mind and makes me recall my visit to the Kansas City home where he was born.

As usual, we started talking about books. Patrick mentioned a book by an Israeli writer, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and wondered whether I knew about it. I told him I didn't, and he talked about it in glowing terms. He then asked if I had read the Ghanaian novel, Homegoing, winner of the 2017 Pen/Hemingway Prize. I told him I had not read it, but had recently received a copy, since I am going to teach it in a summer course on African Literature. He said he liked it very much.

I told Patrick that I was recently in Baltimore, and had bought, in a nearby town, a new book on Hemingway, which dwelt on his career in espionage. I said that whenever I go into a bookstore, I first look at the Hemingway section. He said he does the same. He asked for the title of the book, but I did not have it with me. He asked me to tell him about it after I finish reading it, so he could determine its worth.

I have the sense, from my numerous conversations with Patrick, that he is keenly aware of the shortcomings of writers on Hemingway, even reputable researchers. On the theme of Hemingway and espionage, he shared with me some interesting facts. He said, for example, that Hemingway took him and his young brother on board his boat, which he used to hunt for German submarines in the Caribbean Sea.

I told Patrick that I knew about this boat, called Pilar, but didn't know that his father had taken him and Gregory on board. Patrick also gave me a broader picture of what was going on at that time. The German submarines were active on the eastern side of the USA, seeking to sink oil tankers destined for Europe. Patrick told me this was called Operation Drumbeat. He also talked about what was going on in the Pacific at the time, and in Spain, when Hemingway was there. His remarks inspired me to read the book I had told him about, Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway's Secret Adventures, 1935-1961, by Nicholas Reynolds.

We talked about Hemingway's relationship to folklore. I don't recall how we got into this, but Patrick noted that Hemingway owned The Golden Bough, and I mentioned Hemingway's short story, "The Good Lion," which imitates the narrative technique of a folktale. I said that in teaching my course on Hemingway in East Africa, I had discussed this tale as an example of Hemingway's appropriation of folklore.

I told Patrick that I want to write a book on Hemingway and Africa, which would project my perspective which he knows very well, from our phone conversations and the documentary film, Papa's Shadow. Patrick said he will be waiting to read the book, adding that he was flattered that I chose to study Hemingway, when I could have chosen another writer. That is the Patrick I know, always unassuming and big-hearted.

Monday, June 26, 2017

An Invitation to Winona State University

In early March, this year, I received a message from Mr. Alexander Hines, director of Inclusion and Diversity at Winona State University, asking whether I would be willing to go and give a presentation on Africans and African Americans, with a focus on the cultural dimension.

Mr. Hines and I have known each other for about fifteen years, and I am both humbled and gratified by how much he appreciates my work. I accepted the invitation and will be speaking tomorrow, June 27. My talk will be part of the annual HOPE Academy program held in the summer.

This is the third time Mr. Hines has invited me. The first time, I discussed my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. The second time, I dwelt on the educational function of African folktales, focusing on Matengo Folktales, as I reported on my Swahili blog.

The topic for tomorrow's talk--the relationship between Africans and African Americans--is vexed, intriguing, and frustrating, not only to me but to others across the ages. It is problematical and lends itself to responses ranging from romantic illusions to blatant stereotypes.

In my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, I make some remarks highlighting the differences between Africans and African Americans. I hope to do the same during my talk tomorrow. If I can inspire critical reflection on both the illusions and the stereotypes, I will be pleased.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Memories of the 2017 World Festival, Rochester

On April 29, as planned, the World Festival took place in Rochester, Minnesota. This was the culmination of weeks of planning by the Rochester International Association (RIA). I had featured the festival announcement on this blog.

My daughter Zawadi and I attended it, representing Tanzania and Africonexion: Cultural Consultants. We arrived at the festival venue at 9:45am, with enough time to set up our table and hang the Tanzanian flag on the wall. On the table we displayed my publications, including books such as Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences and Matengo Folktales.

Around 10:00am, festival visitors started arriving. We talked with those who came to our table about my work as a writer and cultural consultant. Several people recognized me from last year's festival, and I was humbled that they did.

After about thirty minutes, the flag ceremony started. This is part of the festival. It involves a procession of people from various countries carrying their national flags which they RIA owns. The RIA board had for the first time, acquired the Tanzanian flag, which I proudly carried in the procession.

For the rest of the day, we continued talking with people who visited our table and we handed out free xerox copies of my little article, "Chickens in the Bus," as well as information about Africonexion: Cultural Consultants.  We also took turns to walk around the exhibition areas, looking at various  displays and taking photos.

I passed by the table seen in the photo on the left. It was the Nigerian table and they cheerfully posed for this photo. Among the our most memorable experiences were conversations my daughter and I had with a professor of Winona State University. As soon as she saw us, she remarked that she had bought my book last year. She said that she would like to bring her students to the festival in the future with an assignment: to interview people from four different countries in order to learn about global cultural diversity. I thought that was an brilliant idea.

Another memorable experince for us was talking with a lady who, after looking at my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. began telling of about her experiences in Japan. As an American, she said, she had made cultural blunders in communicating with the Japanese. We enjoyed the conversation, since her experiences resembled mine in the USA. It was rewarding to encounter someone who shared her personal stories so freely and with an arresting sense of humour.

Moving around, I visited a table where I saw a woman wearing hijab. When I approached the table, I realized I had seen this woman last year. On her table I saw Islamic books such as Muhammad Asad's The Message of the Qur'an, John L. Esposito's Who Speaks for Islam, and Wisdom for Life & The Afterlife: A Selection of Prophet Mohammad's Sayings, all of which I have in my collection.

I introduced myself, saying that I teach at St. Olaf College and one of my courses is "Muslim Women Writers," which I created to help counter prevailing ignorance about and misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims, especially Muslim women.

She, on her part, told me that she hosts the Faith Talk Show, and we agreed that it would be a good idea for me to appear on the show at some point in the future. Returning from the festival, I checked online and saw much information about this lady and her show, such this article. I am thinking it might be a good idea to invite her to speak in my Muslim Women Writer's class.

Throughout the festival there were performances by dance and musical groups from various countries. It was humbling to watch these performers as they generously shared their talents and traditions with all of us.

In addition to cultural items for sale, ranging from clothes and artifacts, to jewelry, and works of art, there were also foods from several countries.

The more I attend these festivals, the more I appreciate their value. As I watch the people attending the festival, volunteers, and vendors, and observe their countless conversations, I know that these festivals are a great way of connecting people. I am mindful of the fact that the people who attend the festival communicate with others around the world through email, social media, and so on, spreading the story of the festival around the world. I am doing that right now, with this blog post.

This was another very successful World Festival, a testament to enduring commitment of the RIA to bring people together.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Awaiting the 2017 World Festival, Rochester

I am awaiting the 2017 World Festival to be held on April 29 in Rochester, Minnesota. This is an annual event, organized by the Rochester International Association (RIA). I have attended this event before, including last year, as I reported on this blog.

As a result of such engagements, my connections to Rochester have continued to grow, particularly after I joined the board of the RIA a few months ago. It was through the RIA board that I recently gave a UMR Connects lecture on "Folklore as Expression of Ethics."

As in the past, a number of countries from various parts of the world will be represented in this year's World Festival. The World Festival is a great opportunity for people to meet, learn about various countries, and enjoy cultural displays and performances. As usual, I will be participating as an educator, author, and cultural consultant. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

My UMR Presentation on Ethics in Folklore

I have just returned from Rochester, Minnesota, where I gave a lecture on "Folklore as Expression of Ethics: European and African Examples." The lecture, which I mentioned on this blog,  was part of the University of Minnesota Rochester (UMR) Connects program.

I learned about the UMR Connects during a meeting of the board of Rochester International Association (RIA) of which I am a member. I offered to propose a topic to the UMR Connects for a presentation, in line with the request by the UMR Connect that the focus for April be ethics. As a folklorist, I chose to focus on "Folklore as Expression of Ethics: European and African Examples."

I was pleased to share with the audience how African and European folklore mediates ethical issues and concerns. I presented several African proverbs and two folktales, and discussed European folktales such as "Snow White" and "The Emperor's New Clothes." I also cited the Poetic Edda and The Kalevala. In regard to their concern with ethics, the similarities between the African and European folklore traditions were obvious.

After my talk, audience members asked questions. One of these was whether there were contradictory messages in proverbs. I said that was, indeed, the case, and I offered examples from the Swahili tradition. I explained that proverbs embody a deep understanding of social and other phenomena and are therefore used by the elders, because these are sophisticated enough to know which proverb applies to which situation.

I had a great time with the people of Rochester. I look forward to being there again on April 29, when I will be participating in the World Festival organized by the RIA. I will be participating as an author, talking about my books, and as a cultural consultant. I welcome everyone.

Friday, March 31, 2017

A Discussion on Kitereza at the University of Minnesota

Today, at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Charlotte (Shoonie) Hartwig and I discussed Aniceti Kitereza, a distinguished writer who is, however, not well known. Shoonie has been writing a book, and the presentation today centered on this project.

Kitereza was born in 1896 on Ukerewe Island in the Tanzanian part of Lake Victoria. As he grew up he became passionate about recording the traditions and culture of his people. As part of this process, he wrote a great novel in Kerebe, his mother tongue, completing it in early 1945. It is a detailed account of the traditional Kerebe way of life which Kitereza chose to present in fictional form in order to make it interesting to read.

After a protracted and fruitless search for a publisher, and following the advice of his American friends, Kitereza translated his novel into Swahili. Still, he waited many years before the novel was published in 1980 as Bwana Myombekere na Bibi Bugonoka na Ntulanalwo na Buliwhali.

Shoonie is uniquely qualified to talk about Kitereza since she and her husband, the late Dr. Gerald Hartwig, knew him well, having first met him in 1968 in Ukerewe. They had extensive correspondence with him to the end of his life. Kitereza was a prolific letter writer. In today's presentation, Shoonie shared an overview of Kitereza's life and work, illustrated with slides. She stated that Kitereza worked tirelessly to preserve the traditions of his people, guided by a question that he himself posed: "What must we teach our children?"

I gave a brief overview of Kitereza's work from my perspective as a literary scholar and folklorist. I highlighted several key issues that feature in discussions of African literature, especially writing in African languages and translation. I noted how Bwana Myombekere might affect the way we conceptualize the evolution of the African novel and how Bwana Myombekere might be seen in relation to the work of writers like Daniel O. Fagunwa and Amos Tutuola of Nigeria, Gakaara wa Wanjau of Kenya, and Shaaban Robert of Tanzania. This would be a study in comparative literature.

I have read Kitereza's Swahili translation of his novel. His Swahili, though different from standard Swahili, has the flavour of oral storytelling in a Bantu language such as my own Matengo. I liked it for this reason. Kitereza's novel has been translated into French and German, but according to Professor Gabriel Ruhumbika, a native Kerebe speaker and well-known translator, those translations have unnecessary deficiencies.

Professor Ruhumbika has translated Kitereza's original Kerebe novel into English and published it as Mr. Myombekere and His Wife Bugonoka, Their Son Ntulanalwo and Daughter Buliwhali. Having read it, I find it as engaging as Kitereza's Swahili translation. It deserves to be widely read. I will say the same thing about Shoonie's forthcoming book, a personal account laden with information hitherto not available to the world.

Friday, March 24, 2017

NdCAD Open House

This evening, I attended an open house event at the premises of the Network for the Development of Children of African Descent in St. Paul. Founded in 1997, this network seeks to promote positive education for children and youths of African descent. Its mission embraces and engages parents and other community members in literacy programs, tutoring, and cultural enrichment. It runs a library service for children and adults.

Gevonee Ford welcomed us to the open house with a brief overview of the history and mission of the NdCAD. He eloquently explained, for example, that black children grow up in a world saturated with narratives of negativity and brokenness in the black world: from relationships to values and dreams. Without discounting the existence of problems, the NdCAD promotes the narrative that not everything is broken, and that there are positive things that need to be developed in order to build a better future.

Gevonee announced that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the NdCAD, and he unveiled the commemorative banner. The first photo above features the banner before it was unveiled.

I had visited the NdCAD for the first time on February 18. Seeing all those students, parents, volunteers, meeting rooms, books and other educational resources, not to mention photos of famous black personalities lining the walls, was an eye-opening experience. I was inspired to witness the communal spirit and the collective desire to bring about real education to the children and the community at large, rooted in an Afrocentric perspective, not in any wishy-washy or romantic sense, but a real understanding and appreciation of the central role that Africa and people of African descent have historically played in the world.

That the NdCAD has been operating for twenty years and looks confidently to the future is a remarkable story of unwavering determination and hope. It is a story that deserves to be widely known, for there is no doubt that it will inspire others as it has inspired me.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

An Evening of African Food and Folklore

In the evening of February 28, a number of people gathered in Brooklyn Center to share African folklore. The event was a joint initiative of the Kofa Foundation and me, as founder and owner of Africonexion: Cultural Consultants. We wanted to mark the last day of Black History Month and to recognize the work of the Kofa Foundation.

The Kofa Foundation was started to support victims of the ebola crisis in West Africa. Africonexion promotes cultural awareness, helping individuals, institutions, and organizations understand and deal with issues stemming from cultural differences.

We started the evening with delicious food prepared by the Kofa Foundation. Then, I stood up to make my presentation.

As I have been doing in my recent presentations, I gave a preview of Africa as the cradle of the human race and civilization. I emphasized the significance of oral culture and its implications, to foster an appreciation of the ingenuity of non-literate people.

I illustrated African traditional wisdom through proverbs and two tales: the Haitian tale of Frog and the well featured in  Harold Courlander's A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore and "The Monster in the Rice Field," featured in my Matengo Folktales.

Decontee Kofa, founder and director of the Kofa Foundation, seen in the photo on the left, hosted the event and announced that she would soon host a similar event. Lori, the lady in the middle, told me about the Transformative Circle, an organization that involves "diverse people coming together to foster greater understanding and appreciation for our community, cultural differences, and customs." She said she would like me to make a presentation to them.

I had brought copies of my books--Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences and Matengo Folktales--and people were able to see and buy them, with proceeds going to the Kofa Foundation.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Interview: Beca Lewis and Joseph Mbele

Several months ago, a neighbour of mine, Merrilyn, who is an avid reader of my writings mentioned me to Beca Lewis, a friend of hers who lives in Ohio. She then sent Beca a copy of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. At the same time, she enabled us to connect on Facebook.

I soon learned that Beca is a writer, educator and broadcaster, who owns and runs a social media and broadcasting outfit called The Shift. From what Merry told her about me and from reading my book, Beca asked me if she might interview me on my cultural outreach activities. I readily agreed, and we did the interview on February 14.

Today, Beca made the interview available online, and I am pleased to present it here:

Saturday, February 25, 2017

My translation of "A Time to Talk" (Robert Frost)

Today, out of the blue, I decided to translate Robert Frost's short poem, "A Time to Talk," into Swahili. From time to time, I translate folklore and poetry, undeterred by the perils and uncertainties of the process. I work with three languages: Matengo, Swahili, and English. My most ambitious work of translation so far is Matengo Folktales.

I encountered Frost for the first time when I was a high school student in Tanzania, 1971-72. We read Frost's famous poem, "The Road Not Taken." It was only three years ago, however, that I first read "A Time to Talk," when my daughter Zawadi bought me an anthology of Frost's poems, Robert Frost: Selected Poems. I was then in hospital in Minneapolis, and my daughter, knowing that I am a bookworm, thought a book of poems would lighten my days.

As soon as I got the book, I started reading it. Among the poems that struck me the most was "A Time to Talk." I marveled at how Frost evokes rural life and realities and expresses his sentiments about alienation and the erosion of human values.

A TIME TO TALK (Robert Frost, 1874-1963)

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.


Rafiki anaponiita kutoka barabarani
Huku akipunguza kwa makusudi mwendo wa farasi wake,
Sisimami tu na kuangalia huko na huko
Kubaini idadi ya vilima ambavyo bado sijalima,
Na kisha kupaaza sauti pale nilipo, Vipi?
Hapana, hapana kwani kuna muda wa kuongea.
Nasimika jembe langu katika ardhi tepetepe,
Ubapa wa jembe ukiwa juu futi tano toka ardhini,
Na ninatembea: ninaelekea kwenye ukuta wa mawe
Kukutana na rafiki.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

KMOJ Radio Interview: Charles Dennis and Joseph L Mbele

On February 4, 2017, I was a guest on the African Roots Connection program of KMOJ Radio, Minnesota. Program host Charles Dennis and I had a wide-ranging conversation. You can listen to it here:

(photo by Zawadi Mbele)

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

An Evening of Storytelling at St. Olaf College

I have started this year with a spate of presentations in the community. This evening, following a request by Karibu, a St. Olaf College student organization, I made a presentation on story telling. The event was part of Africa Week, an annual program organized by Karibu to showcase and share knowledge about Africa.

As requested by Karibu, I emphasized the role and meaning of storytelling in African culture. I shared my admiration for oral cultures, constituted by individuals who are walking, dynamic encyclopaedias, so to speak. I invited the audience to contemplate the fact that these cultures, for the major part of human history, had to preserve and transmit all their knowledge without writing.

I engaged the audience in reflecting on proverbs and a Haitian folktale, "The Frog and the Well" published in Harold Courlander's A Treasury of Afro-American Folklore.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

A Storytelling Event

This evening, as I had reported on this blog, I went to Brooklyn Center to make a presentation on African and African Diaspora storytelling. I had a the opportunity to express my desire to help illuminate the African and African Diaspora contribution to world culture.

In addition to mentioning and commenting on several African and Jamaican proverbs, I told several folktales; a Gurensi one, which I had told before, a Haitian one, and one from Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men. I did this to demonstrate how our ancestors thought about the world and the human condition.

The tales in Mules and Men that account for why Black people and Black women in particular work so hard harking back to the days of slavery, are particularly significant. They project with a touch of humour the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity.

I told my audience that I want to make such presentations in the future, not only on storytelling, but also on cultural differences, along the lines of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. I said that my experience as a cultural consultant has taught me that there is a great need for on-going conversations about cultural differences in the world.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

African and African Diaspora Storytelling: February 9

Countee Cullen, a major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a famous poem titled "Heritage," which began thus:

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?

Countee Cullen directed our attention to Africa, the birthplace of not only Black people, but the entire human race. As a folklorist and literary scholar, I highlight the fact that Africa is the birthplace of language and storytelling.

In the last few days, I have had great opportunities to share my views in different settings, such as the Nu Skool of African American Thought, and the African Roots Connection show of KMOJ Radio.
I have been talking about the role of Africa and people of African descent in world culture.

Along the same lines, on February 9, I will make a presentation on the evolution of story telling in Africa and its continuation in the African Diaspora, particularly the Americas. Come and experience the wisdom of our ancestors, how they reflected on the world, on life, human nature, and the lessons they bequeathed to us, which can help heal our broken world and reorient us along the right path.

Copies of my books, such as the popular Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, will be available for purchase, with proceeds going towards the Afrifest Foundation. Donations for the same purpose will also be welcome. The event will be held at 5701 Shingle Creek Parkway, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, 4th floor conference room, from 6:00 to 8:00pm

For more information about me, visit Africonexion: Cultural Consultants or call 507 403-9756

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Another Evening with the Nu Skool of African American Thought

Yesterday evening, I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, attending a meeting of the Nu Skool of African American Thought. I had been invited to give a talk, as I reported on this blog. After consultations with me, Nu Skool facilitator Adrian Mack had formulated the topic of my talk as "Cultural Continuity From Africa to the Americas: Black Creativity and Resistance."

The evening started with announcements and a reading of a poem by Adrian Mack which dwelt on the historical experience of Africans and people of African descent. We split into small groups and discussed several issues, such as what resistance meant for us and how we conceptualized the continuity of African and African Diaspora cultural expression.

Then I was introduced to the audience, so I could initiate the main discussion. I started by observing that the previous remarks had highlighted the key issues I might have wanted to dwell on. However, I underlined what I consider most vital considerations.

First I said that in my role as a teacher of Literature and Folklore, I pay great attention to Africa as the cradle of the human race, which means that Africa is where language, literature and other forms of cultural production originated and evolved. I pointed to the present day Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia as the places most closely associated with human origins.

I said that humans migrated from there to other parts of Africa and the world after having acquired the knowledge and skills required for survival and further development. Not wanting to dwell too much on this, I fast forwarded my account to Ancient Egypt, where writing evolved, enabling the production of written records, including religious teachings and folktales, such as the "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" and "The Tale of the Two Brothers."

I talked about the "Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor" as a precursor, so to speak, of tales such as The Odyssey of Homer, "Sindbad the Sailor," Daniel Defoe's  Robinson Crusoe, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Beyond the Ancient Egyptian tradition, for which we have written evidence, I dwelt on oral traditions that flourished in Africa, such as the ones which enslaved Africans brought to the Americas.

I highlighted the fact that these traditions expressed the African philosophy, value systems, imagination, aesthetic consciousness, and creativity. I cited proverbs as an example of how Africans thought about values and the human condition. In the absence of books, archives and libraries, each one of those ancestors of ours was a walking encyclopaedia, and a dynamic one at that, since there was unending interaction and communication between people, whereby each individual's knowledge  was being constantly refreshed and enriched.

Such is the heritage that enslaved Africans brought to the Americas. Tales, songs, proverbs, skills, customs, and beliefs were brought here, which have been extensively documented over the last two centuries or so. I mentioned, for example, the work of Zora Neale Hurston in the southern United States and the Caribbean. But, I noted, Africans were taken to other parts of the world also, where some distinguished themselves in various fields.

I gave the example of Antar bin Shaddad, the pre-eminent poet of pre-Islamic Arabia, who is still celebrated by the Arabs. I mentioned another black poet of Baghdad who was famous there at the beginning of the 9th century AD and then moved to Spain where he made significant contributions to Andalusian poetry. I also mentioned Alexander Pushkin, the father of Russian literature, who had African ancestry. The list of such notables is long.

In response to questions from the audience, seeking clarification on the connections between African traditions and African American traditions, I talked about "playing the dozens," as an example of the continuation of the African tradition of joking relations in general and banter in particular. I also mentioned trickster tales. Trickster tales, such as those of Brer Rabbit, exemplify this connection.

If time had allowed, I would have told a tale or two with both an African and an African American version. In line with the theme of my talk, notably the idea of resistance, I would have wanted to focus on the trickster tale. Trickster tales in the time of slavery in the Americas, as well as songs of protest, even in the guise of spirituals, are most obvious expressions of black resentment towards and resistance to oppression. Tales such as those of High John the Conqueror, Shine, and Stackolee, not only served as a strategy of psychological survival through laughter at the expense of the slave master as he was outwitted by the tricksters, but also expressed the aspirations of slaves to triumph over the slave master. In all, there is much to say about folklore as both an expression and a vehicle of resistance.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Ericka Huggins at St. Olaf College

Ericka Huggins, a veteran of the Black Panther Party and an educator, spoke at St. Olaf College this evening as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration. Having witnessed and participated in difficult and dangerous struggles for justice, she stands tall as a testimony to the strength of the human spirit, warm and generous.

She shared a message of love and endurance in the face of adversity and suffering. She shared her faith in people, transcending racial, religious, gender, and other categories. She touched us deeply with her tenacious optimism about our common future as human beings. Visit her website.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Gift From Ramble Pictures Honouring Hemingway

A few days ago, I received a special gift from Ramble Pictures, a film production company based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It is a framed picture announcing a documentary titled Papa's Shadow, which deals with Hemingway in East Africa. Much of the documentary is a conversation between Patrick Hemingway and me about Hemingway's African experiences as reflected in his writings, as well as his ideas about writing, culture, and life in general.

The picture features Ernest Hemingway, Patrick Hemingway and me, as well as Mount Kilimanjaro, the vast plain below it, and a plane in the air. This scenery magnificently evokes Hemingway's famous short story, "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

I am humbled to be featured alongside Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest writers in the English language, as well as Patrick Hemingway, his son and only remaining child, who knows my country and East Africa very well, having lived there for twenty five years, and who has been my mentor in my efforts to study Ernest Hemingway.

I am equally humbled that Patrick is also a great admirer of my work, such as my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. In Papa's Shadow, Patrick refers to it and he is seen reading a passage from it, in Swahili and my English translation.

Papa's Shadow focuses on a dimension of Ernest Hemingway that is not well known: his life long fascination with Africa. In the course of studying Hemingway, I realized this deficiency and decided to create a course, Hemingway in East Africa, which inspired Jimmy Gildea, one of the students, to create Papa's Shadow. I highly recommend this documentary. To order it, contact Ramble Pictures. email:, telephone: (952) 426-5809.