Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Things Fall Apart: 1958-2008

I wanted very much to write a tribute to Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, given that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Rightly, people around the world have celebrated the event.

Things Fall Apart is the most famous African novel, whose appeal, after fifty years, shows no sign of diminishing. In fact, its reputation continues to grow, with more translations coming out, symposia, critical works, and a never ending desire on the part of instructors to include it in their course offerings. Actually, only two days ago, on December 29, I received in the mail a parcel from Norton Publishers, which came as a complete surprise. It was a complimentary copy of a critical edition of Things Fall Apart, edited by Francis Abiola Irele. I was delighted and quite amazed that this gift should come just as I was getting ready to write my tribute to Things Fall Apart before the year ended.

Like all readers of this novel, I never get tired of reading it and never cease to discover new insights and meanings in it. I have been priviledged to teach this novel since the early seventies, with students from around the world. I am happy to have had the opportunity to write about it as well. One of the highlights of my work with this novel was participating in a reading series organized by the South Dakota Humanities Council, click here. The Council invited me in 1997 to write a study guide on this novel, which I later expanded and published, click here.

For me, one of the most intriguing and fascinating aspects of this novel is that though dealing with a particular period in the history of Igbo culture, it strikes a chord with African cultures across the continent, telling what can only be described as timeless truths. In terms of artistry, it is unmatched on the landscape of African writing. No wonder its appeal continues unabated, fifty years on.

When it first came out, Africa was mostly under colonial rule and in the throes of the struggle for independence. No wonder that Africans saw Okonkwo, the hero of the novel, as their hero. His struggle against European intervention in his community resonated with their own struggle.

With the passing of years, however, Africans are able to look more critically at Okonkwo and discover his weaknesses and negative traits. Feminist consciousness, for example, has helped sharpen our focus on those weaknesses. Most importantly, we feel secure enough to challenge Okonkwo without feeling we are undermining the nationalist sensibilities of the fifties.

In my own way, I have been fascinated by the marginal characters in Things Fall Apart, such as Unoka, trying to elevate them to a position of respectability I feel they have been unjustly denied. This may sound like an uphill task, but I am excited about it and I enjoy sharing with students this unconventional approach to the novel.

We are all grateful to Achebe for having produced this classic, which has established itself as the quintessential African novel, artistically wrought, foundational, and satisfying in all kinds of ways.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Workshop: "Culture, Globalization and Development"

The world is increasingly becoming a global village, but what is globalization? What are the cultural implications, challenges, and opportunities of globalization? In the emerging global village, with its complex cultural dynamics, what is development and who defines it? These are the key questions to be addressed in a workshop to be held at the Meeting Point Tanga, Tanzania, on July 4, 2009. Read here

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Do You Have an Accent?

If you are like me, with deep roots in Africa, you probably have heard Americans say you have an accent. Read more about this here.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

International Volunteer Day

December 5, 2008, was International Volunteer Day. I went to St. Paul, Minnesota, to attend a function organized by the Global Citizens Network, in commemoration of this important Day. I had known about the GCN for a few years, through visiting their website. I know, for example, about the work they are doing in several parts of Tanzania. Yet I had never met these people. I therefore looked forward to attending this event in St. Paul.

I was happy to meet the people who came to the event, including members of the Board of the GCN and volunteers. We discussed the concept of global citizenship: what does it mean to be a global citizen? Do we, as individuals, consider ourselves global citizens? I thought these were very meaningful questions, and we discussed them at length, exploring the challenges and opportunities of encountering other cultures, learning to understand them on their own terms, discovering the differences and, above all, learning that our own ways, perspectives and values are not the only valid ones. Accepting the differences and being comfortable in the knowledge that, despite those differences, we all share a common humanity, is part of being a global citizen. We exemplify our global citizenship by working with others as respectful and ethical agents of social change in our communities and around the world. Global citizenship entails acknowledging and accepting all human beings as citizens of the world we all live in.

It was wonderful to be with people who are so dedicated to doing positive things in the world, learning, sharing gifts and resources, and knowing that they, in turn, are enriched by their encounters and experiences with other people around the world.

Amidst the discussions and reflections, we watched slides showing GCN volunteers on building projects in Nepal and Kilomeni in Tanzania.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Africans and African Americans in Conversation

It is not often that a large group of Africans gets to talk for several hours with a large group of African Americans about their differences, stereotypes they hold about each other, and their respective notions of success. Yet today, November 22, 2008, I attended such a gathering, at the Center for Families in Minneapolis,

After the usual introductions and an African-style libation, the two keynote speakers--Ahmed K. Sirleaf II and Professor Mahmoud El-Kati--took the floor. Ahmed talked about the slave trade, and the various manifestations of it in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas. El Kati dwelt on Pan Africanism.

Then the group split into two: the Africans went into one room and the African Americans into another. Each group was asked to put together their responses to three questions:

1) What are the unwritten rules for your group's success in America?
2) What biases and stereotypes are there about your group?
3) What do you want others to know about your group?

Naturally, I went to join the African group, which consisted of people from many countries, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Nigeria, and Somalia. To the first question, the Africans wrote down such things as, hard work, education, perseverance, positive thinking, and cultural competency.

The Africans reported a number of biases and stereotypes people hold aboutt them: their accents are inferior; they are taking the jobs of the Americans; they are primitive, poor, dumb, arrogant, close minded and snobbish.

Regarding how they want to be perceived by others, the Africans noted a number things, including the following: we are brave; we are civilized by our own standards; we welcome people to our continent; Africa is a continent, not a country; we are not persons of colour; we have an open attitude to race issues; not all Africans are black.

As an African, of course, I found the African American responses often eye opening. On the issue of success, the African Americans noted criteria for success as including marrying a white person, being in sports, being wealthy, raising and educating a family, keeping male children out of prison, keeping daughters without being pregnant, exposure to other cultures.

African Americans listed the stereotypes about them including the following: they all can dance and sing; they are lazy, not smart, stuck in the past, irresponsible, violent, lacking in social skills, always late; they play the blame game, party too much, have low self esteem, and settle for less.

Regarding how they want to be perceived, the African Americans said many things as well, including the following: they are individuals, not a homogeneous mass of blacks; they want to know about the past--the history of Africans and African Americans; they want to work together with Africans; they are not where they want to be yet; they have something to offer to the Africans who are in America; other people should make the effort to know African Americans.

The two groups presented their observations during a joint session. The resulting flurry of comments, questions and arguments was intense and most enlightening. People gave testimonies about negative attitudes they had held about the other group and each group apologized for its transgressions. It was an event that allowed bitter memories and unpleasant sentiments to be expressed freely as an attempt to achieve catharsis and healing. There were moments when tears were shed. In the end, however, this proved to be a most beneficial event for both sides.

It is not often that Africans and African Americans gather in such a manner, to explore their differences, which are deep-seated and which continue to bedevil their relationships. The relationship between Africans and African Americans continues to be impeded by many factors, including ignorance, mutual disparagement, and cultural differences. This gathering stressed the need for education to address some of these impediments. There was a strong feeling that such gatherings should be arranged on a continuing basis: once, twice, or several times a year.

Monday, October 6, 2008

48th Nigerian Independence Anniversary

On October 4, 2008, I attended a celebration of the 48th Anniversary of Nigerian Independence, staged by Nigerians and their friends in Minnesota. The event was held at the Center for Families, in Minneapolis, For virtually the whole day, as the festivities and speeches went on, our minds and hearts were turned towards Nigeria.

I have visited only several African countries, but as a teacher I know something about all of them, especially on the political and cultural side. Participating in African events here in the USA always reminds me how much alike we Africans are, in terms of how we do things and how we think and talk about our countries and continent.

We want our countries to move ahead, on all fronts. With its many resources and great potential, we want our continent to take its rightful place in the world.

It is always gratifying to be with fellow Africans and reaffirm these dreams. On this occasion of the anniversary of Nigerian Independence, I got to meet people I knew and others I hadn't met before. I got to refresh my memory about Nigeria's past and to hear what issues concern Nigerians today. If you listen only to western media reports, you might not hear much good news about Nigeria. So, it was quite remarkable to see American fans of Nigeria, one of whom said he had visited Nigeria fourteen times.

An official from the Nigerian Embassy was on hand, answering questions and offering guidance on various issues.

A group of drummers and singers added joy to the occasion. It was great to hear the sounds of Africa and experience its rhythms right here in midwestern USA.

Events like this enable people to meet, socialize, and share ideas. Given the work routine and isolation of life in America, these events help heal and rejuvenate the spirit. I marvelled at the zeal and committment of the organizers of this event, the Minnesota Institute for Nigerian Development (MIND), whose president, Dr. Richard Oni, spoke passionately about the need for Nigerians to come together as one nation to pursue their own and their countries progress.

I came with my books, including Notes on Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which, considering that Achebe is Nigerian, was particularly appropriate for this occasion. The book is available here:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lutheran Mission Trips

One of the programs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is the Global Mission. This program fosters partnerships between American congregations and congregations in other parts of the world. African countries such as Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Cameroon, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone are already involved. I am priviledged to be involved in this process, in my own small way, even though I am not Lutheran. Meeting and communicating with various coordinators of these partnerships, we explore the realities and nuances of African and American culture, a key ingredient in building successful partnerships. As the program involves mutual visits between members of the partner congregations, I offer cultural orientation to Americans going to Africa, my main resource being my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences,

I visit various churches to speak. I have been to such Minnesota towns as Eagan, St. Paul, Faribault, Lakeville, and Minneapolis. Here is a typical story: at Hosanna Lutheran Church in Lakeville, I attended a meeting for people preparing to go to Karatu, northern Tanzania, to visit their sister congregation. I spoke about cultural issues. On another day, just before the Tanzania trip, the church held a commissioning and farewell ceremony for the travelers. Several people in the group had been to Tanzania. They even knew a few words of Swahili. I was delighted that these Americans were coming to my country, to my continent, a valuable opportunity for them to meet and know Africans and for the Africans to meet and know them.

I remember particularly well a retreat we held at Luther Point Bible Camp and Retreat Center in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. Some of the participants came from churches with on-going partnerships with African congregations. Others had not yet established such partnerships. Some did not know how to start, and were anxious. It was touching to hear all these stories, and it was a pleasure to offer encouragement. I had been invited to serve as a retreat leader, my role being to lead discussions on the cultural aspects of the companion congregation programs.

The ELCA has produced a booklet spelling out the aims and methods of the companionship program. Based on the premise that Africans and Americans have different resources and gifts, this booklet is admirable in the way it stresses reciprocity and mutual respect. Beyond the religious goals, the companionship program carries many other benefits, including mutual understanding between people. It is good for the world.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

West African Cultural Day, Minneapolis

On September 13, 2008, something special happened in Minneapolis. West Africans in Minnesota staged the first West African Family and Cultural Awareness Day. The participating countries were Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo.

There were speeches--brief and just appropriate for the occasion. There were presentations about the various countries, which gave everyone a panoramic view of those countries, touching on history, economic, social and other conditions. There was a fashion show displaying West African attire, both male and female. There were informational materials for Africans living in the USA, on health, education, financial and other matters. There was food and music. Soeur Marceline gave a lively performance of her songs. I bought her CD, Jesus je te remercie.

The place was alive with activity and conversation, and the styles and colours of various outfits alone were a veritable feast for the eyes. Though billed as a West African event, it attracted people from far and wide.

I got the opportunity
to display my books and other writings and to talk with people about my work and theirs.
I made valuable connections with educators, people involved in cultural programs or working with African families, immigrants, and youths in various ways.

Staff from the Minnesota African Women's Association (MAWA), told me that they use my book, Matengo Folktales,, in their educational programs for girls. I have known MAWA for a number of years and greatly appreciate their work. Here is the MAWA website:

There was much excitement when a troupe of young boys and girls took the floor with a vigorous performance of traditional dances. It was incredible to see these young people do African dances so well, considering that they live in the USA and were probably born here. What a tribute to the adults who raise these children, and what a benefit to the children. In doing such things, the children get an opportunity to showcase their talents and abilities and be appreciated and affirmed. Children need to be appreciated and affirmed, and these youthful dancers got endless applause.

This inaugural event was organized by the West African Collaborative (WAC) under the auspices of the Greater Minneapolis Council of Churches/Center for Families, Events like this affirm and foster the sense of community and enhance mutual understanding. The organizers and the sponsors deserve all support and gratitude.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Studying Hemingway in Tanzania

Ernest Hemingway is one
of the most well known writers in the world. Not many people, however, know about his lifelong fascination with Africa. For years I knew about Hemingway, having read some of his works, but in the summer of 2002, I fell under Hemingway's spell. That summer, I helped lead a large group of American students, their parents, and teachers on safari in some of the game parks of northern Tanzania: Ngorongoro, Serengeti, and Tarangire. The safari was organized by Thomson Safaris,, and my role was to incorporate folklore into the experience.

As I prepared for this trip, I decided to take Hemingway's African stories with me. I could not have made a better choice, as I wrote in a Tanzanian newspaper afterwards:

I had with me the African writings of Ernest Hemingway, the famous American writer who had visited these areas many years ago. I had read some of Hemingway's writings and I knew what a skillful and insightful writer he was. But being in the Serengeti, and reading his stories about hunting there, and about the animals, made this trip even more exciting. Hemingway's descriptions of the landscape, the fauna and the flora ring so true that I could almost see the warthogs running across his pages ("The African," September 14, 2002, p. 8).

With such an experience, it was natural that I began thinking about creating a course on Hemingway in East Africa. Eventually, I created such a course, for Colorado College. In the summer of 2007, twelve students, with Professor Bill Davis, came to Tanzania for the three-week course. Other trips have followed. Hemingway traveled extensively in East Africa, in 1933-34 and in 1953-54. Hemingway was an avid traveler and we cannot, in only three weeks, go everywhere he went. Still, teaching this course has been most satisfying to me. It offers an opportunity to challenge popular misconceptions and stereotypes about Hemingway, on such topics as hunting, writing and the macho image. I have learned to respect Hemingway more and more, as a writer whose mastery of the craft of writing is both intriguing and enchanting, whose insights into human nature are sharp and original, and who genuinely respected and liked the peoples and cultures he encountered.

Students on a trek up to Longido Mountain, with a Maasai guide.

A student meeting local women at Namanga, on the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Hemingway passed here.

A student meeting local women at Namanga. Hemingway wrote some fascinating observations about the local customs, including the piercing of ears.

A class outside a hilltop hotel, above Lake Manyara, near Mto wa Mbu. Hemingway hunted in this area.

A view of the Ngorongoro Crater. Hemingway hunted here.

Students in the Ngorongoro crater.

In front of a baobab tree in the Tarangire National Park. Hemingway hunted in this area.

There are many lodges and hotels in and around the national parks. Above is Ndutu Safari Lodge, in the Serengeti. Hemingway hunted in the Serengeti.

Discussing Hemingway's writings, at the Bougainvillea Lodge in Karatu.

On the edge of Lake Manyara, three giraffes walk in single file, while countless pink flamingoes are busy in the Lake. In his Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway talks about this Lake and various features of the area, including its famous hot springs.

The Arusha airport. Hemingway flew from this airport to a hospital in Nairobi after he became ill with dysentry in the Serengeti.

Students meet local Maasai school children in Longido. Hemingway passed through Longido, on his way to Arusha.

A class on Hemingway's writings, at the Trinidad Lodge in Babati. Hemingway passed through Babati, on his way to Kondoa, Handeni, and Tanga.

Students celebrating the end of the course, in Arusha.

On the way to Kilimanjaro International Airport, after the end of the course, it seems perfect to take one more photo, against the background of Mount Kilimanjaro. What a way to end a course in which one of the readings is Hemingway's unforgettable classic "The Snows of Kilimanjaro."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mbamba Bay, Tanzania

Mbamba Bay is a sleepy little town on the shores of Lake Nyasa, in southwestern Tanzania. Lying at the foot of the Matengo Highlands, Mbamba Bay has a bus station, a police station, a number of shops and stores, residential houses, a few offices, a little post office, several guest houses, bars and restaurants.

When I think about Mbamba Bay, interesting memories come to mind. In the days of my childhood, we used to hear much about Mbamba Bay. It was the place people went to board the MV Ilala, on their way to Nyasaland, now Malawi. Mbamba Bay was also where TeeTeeCo buses went, and from where they toiled up the Matengo Highlands, through Mbinga, to Songea and beyond. TeeTeeCo was the acronym for Tanganyika Transport Company. There was also another bus company, Mwananchi, which served the Mbamba Bay route.

I first visited Mbamba Bay about 1970. My class from Likonde Seminary passed through the town on our way to Mango, another lake-side town a little north of Mbamba Bay. I revisited Mbamba Bay in July 2008.

I boarded the bus at Mbinga, and soon we were going up the Matengo Highlands. Having reached the top of these cool, wind-swept Highlands, we started the descent to the land of the Nyasa. The vegetation changed from ubiquitous coffee trees, pines and eucalyptus trees to miombo, bamboo, and mango trees. As we hit the lowlands, I began to look for the Lake. The road meandered slowly, crossing valleys and even a river or two, and little villages. Then we entered Mbamba Bay. It was unbelievable, visiting a town I had last seen almost forty years earlier.

As the bus cruised into town, I noticed that Mbamba Bay is still a small town. I checked into the Nyasa View Lodge, an establishment perched on rocks on the outskirts of town, overlooking the Lake. Lake Nyasa is a marvel to behold. Its pristine beach offers endless stretches of pure, ankle- deep sand, beside the clear water through which you can see the colourful fish swimming. During the day, with the sun shining bright, Lake Nyasa sparkles on the shore, and in the distance, all you see is a vast expanse of water, all blue. At night, all you hear is the roar of the waves--sometimes muted, sometimes loud--as they rush and crash on the rich sandy beach or on nearby rocks.

A stroll on this beach is a magical experience. The morning air is fresh and cool. You can walk on this beach watching the waves as they come rushing to your feet, or you can admire the fish darting about in the clear water, with their shadows racing on the bottom of the lake. Canoes parked on the beach, nets spread out on the sand, fish drying on stalls, women washing clothes and utensils, and children swimming and splashing in the water--all these add to the charm of Mbamba Bay.

There are a number of places in Mbamba Bay for a snack or a drink. On this blog you can see-- in addition to the Nyasa View Lodge--the Bush House, with me standing beside it, and the Four Ways Pub, which you can see painted all over in pink and blue.

You can leave behind the hustle and bustle of cities and be in Mbamba Bay, where the day is slow and the streets are there for you to roam at will, and just a stone's throw away lies the beckoning Lake Nyasa. Mbamba Bay may be a little sleepy town, but being there, you feel it has a heart that is big and warm.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cultural Tourism at Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania

That tourism is the fastest growing industry is well known. It is natural, therefore, that people around the world are taking advantage of the opportunities afforded by tourism.

In recent years, I have come to know a group of young people based at Mto wa Mbu, northern Tanzania, who are working hard to develop cultural tourism. I have visited them, alone and with American students. I make a point of visiting them whenever I happen to be in northern Tanzania.

These young people receive tourists and show them around the town of Mto wa Mbu, explaining its history and its social and cultural realities. Tourists get to know about the various ethnic groups living in that town, about food and other customs, as well as artistic activities, such as painting and Makonde carving. Some of the foreigners stay in the town for a shorter or longer period. Even students come for study or internships.

As a folkorist, I was happy to connect with the Mto wa Mbu Cultural Tourism program and share with them my passion for our cultural heritage. We have been exchanging views and discovering common perspectives. We see, for example, the need to include books in the cultural tourism program.

As a fan of Ernest Hemingway, I was able to share with the Mto wa Mbu group the fact that in his Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway had written about Mto wa Mbu. I gave them a copy of this book, as well as copies of my own books, which relate directly to the promotion of cultural tourism.

I admire the Mto wa Mbu group for their self-confidence and social commitment. They know that, using their knowledge and abilities, they can move ahead and make a positive difference in their own lives and in the lives of their community. It is an honour and a pleasure to be associated with such a group.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Culture and Globalization Workshop, Arusha

On June 21, 2008, I held a workshop in Arusha, Tanzania, on "Culture and Globalization," to share with people in Tanzania my thoughts about the cultural implications of globalization.

It was a small workshop, as I had planned, but we had intense discussions for about three hours. I started with theoretical aspects of the topic, highlighting the challenges that companies, organizations and individuals face as they operate in a world that is increasingly becoming a global village. In the process, I gave examples of cultural blunders committed by companies trying to operate in foreign countries. Then I dwelt on the issues I raise in my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, This was an opportunity to focus on the specific situation of cultural differences involving Africans and Americans. Finally, we had a general discussion and sharing of experiences.

This workshop was an attempt, on my part, to share with people in Tanzania what I share with audiences in the USA. I wanted to bring together Africans and non-Africans to talk about the reality of cultural differences and the implications of those differences in our world.

The workshop attracted a diverse group of people based in Arusha but representing various countries. The discussions were enlightening and stimulating, and feedback from participants was enthusiastic. I plan to conduct such workshops again, not only in Arusha but also elsewhere, in Tanzania and beyond.

Here is what I had written, announcing the workshop:

Workshop: "Culture and Globalization"

Presenter: Joseph L. Mbele

Venue: Arusha Community Church

Date and Time: June 21, 2008: 9am- 4pm.


We all know the world is quickly becoming a global village. The question is whether we are prepared for it. What is our strategy for coping in the global village? I think, for example, about the cultural implications of globalization.

In the global village, people of different cultures will have to interact, through living or working together, or in other ways. Whether we like it or not, we will have to deal with people whose values, expectations, ways of thinking, acting, and communicating are different from ours. If we don't learn about these differences, and how to deal with them, the global village will be a cauldron of misunderstandings, conflicts and misery.

As people go to foreign countries, to do business, to live, or just travel, they will encounter cultural differences. Even if we just stay in our own countries, we have to deal with foreigners, whose cultures are different from ours. Studies show that a significant percentage of businesses face trouble abroad because of cultural differences. Cultural differences cause many foreign workers to perform poorly in their new locations. With culture shock taking its toll on them and their families, many expatriates terminate their contracts.

If not properly handled, cultural differences in the work place can be costly, in terms of human relations, time and money. To address these issues, we rely on conflict resolution strategies and mechanisms, but conflict prevention might be a better option. In the global village, cultural orientation will save us much trouble, at home and abroad. Companies, businesses, organizations, as well as institutions such as hospitals and schools need to seek ways to manage cultural and other kinds of diversity.

In the USA, companies doing business abroad are gradually recognizing the need to learn about foreign cultures. Educational institutions that run study abroad programs, organizations that send volunteers abroad, and individuals traveling abroad, increasingly want to know about the culture of the foreign destinations. There is a growing awareness of the need to understand and deal with cultural and other kinds of diversity, including developing strategies for serving an increasingly multicultural population. Over the years, I have enjoyed working with these people, sharing with them perspectives on the differences between African and American culture. In the process, I have learned a great deal.

To succeed in this increasingly interconnected world, Africans must get involved in learning about other cultures. We need to understand our foreign counterparts, coworkers, business partners, customers, or friends. The more we understand people of other cultures and the more they understand us, the more we will enrich our relationships and ensure a livable global village.

If all this interests you, I invite you to a workshop at the Arusha Community Church on June 21, 2008. It will be based on my book, "Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences." This workshop is for everyone, but especially for people in such sectors as tourism, education, health, and NGOs.

For registration, send an email to, or call 787 753 522. The registration deadline is June 18. Feel free to share this message with anyone else.
Joseph L. Mbele, a Tanzanian, is a professor of English at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, USA. He also runs Africonexion, a cultural consultancy: