Saturday, December 26, 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Kenya's Jamhuri Day, Kansas City

For Kenyans, December 12, is a special day. It is the day Kenya got independence, in 1963, and became a Republic (Jamhuri) the following year. Kenyans at home and abroad celebrate this important day. As luck would have it, this year the Organization of Kenyans in Kansas City invited me as a guest at their celebration of Jamhuri Day. I warmly embraced the opportunity and traveled to Kansas City.
The celebration was scheduled for the evening. After a wonderful dinner, with a rich variety of East African foods, the formal program started. Mr. Ali Nassir, the chairman of the OKKC, gave an account of the Organization, reiterating its goals, achievements, challenges and vision for the days ahead. He called for a membership drive and more involvement by the members in OKKC programs and activities.
Then he asked Mary Mwangi, seen at the far right of the photo above, to introduce me. Mary is the person who had contacted me, to arrange my visit to Kansas City, and she had been happily reading my Africans and Americans book.
In my remarks, I paid homage to the ancestors of the Kenyans, who fought against colonialism and brought about Kenya's independence, enabling Kenya to be where it is today. I said that the Kenyans of today have their own historic obligation to fulfill, whether they are in Kenya or abroad, and we, as neighbours, are with them.

I talked about my wonderful visits to Kenya, starting in 1989, for research and conferences. I said I owe much of my reputation as a scholar to Kenyans, who welcomed me and shared with me their knowledge of Swahili classical poetry, folklore, and culture.

I highlighted a memorable encounter I had in Witu, a small town on the Kenya coast. I was sitting with a group of men one morning, in 1990, at a small restaurant. The old men asked me why we had a border between Kenya and Tanzania, while we were related by blood. Several of them said that their ancestors came from Tanzania. They compared that border to the Berlin Wall.
The celebration went briskly. It was delightful to see children actively involved, singing and playing games for the audience. I think it is very important for children to have such opportunities to be seen, heard and appreciated. I said as much in a blog post about a West African cultural celebration I attended.
The OKKC got to know about me through Dr. Mbaari Kinya, seen in the photo above. She is the director of WEET Institute, who had heard me speak a few weeks earlier at Principia College.

It was good to meet and get to know members of OKKC, who represent Kenya's diverse population, and to know about their activities. I heard much about the OKKC soccer team. Meeting Kenyans, whether in their country or elsewhere, always brings back fond memories of my visits to Kenya, and I look forward to the day when the border between our two countries will disappear.
(My thanks to Mary Mwangi, who took the photos seen here, except the first one at the top).

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Conversation With The African American Action Council

In earlier blog posts, I have written about the Pan African Summit, whose main goal is to bring together Africans and African Americans. Early this year, the planning committee agreed to organize small gatherings, over breakfast, addressing specific topics as a way of building the groundwork and momentum for the Summit itself. Today we had our first breakfast meeting, at Vicky's Place, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Eugene Dix gave a presentation on the work of The African American Action Council, of which he is the founder and executive director. Operating mostly in the Brooklyn Park and surrounding areas, the AAAC seeks to ensure that African American and other marginalized communities have a voice on issues that concern them. It believes in working on this agenda "in a thoughtful and professional manner."

The AAAC carries out its mission through mentoring activities to youth; partnering with other local non-profits and agencies to provide quality services to families and youth; sourcing economic opportunities in the area; advocating for education, economic stability and affordable housing, as well as developing new leaders through training and organizing.
Eugene gave an enlightening account of existing disparities in these areas, and he dwelt, in particular, on the school system. He gave a passionate account of the plight of school children from the marginalized communities who have to go through a system that is not working well for them, as evidenced by data on the rate of suspensions of such students.
The AAAC has concrete suggestions for solving the problem. These include parent involvement. Parents should be aware of the situation in the schools and should take advantage of services that facilitate their involvement. Multicultural perspectives and tools should be incorporated in the training of educators. There is need for research into the issues affecting the school system, which should involve educators, community organizations, parents, and students.There should be good communication between parents, school officials and teachers, to bring about parent participation in their children's school work and other activities. With the demographic diversity of the area, the school system needs to involve people of different backgrounds as teachers, administrators, school board members, and counselors.Eugene shared out literature about the AAAC and he invites people to join the efforts of this organization. The contact information is, 763-503-0159 (ph), 763-503-0160 (fax). While writing this blog post, I encountered this article, which sheds more light on today's conversations.
In the group photo above, taken at the end of the meeting, are, from left to right, Eugene Dix, Chioma Onwukwe, Lorraine Rhodes-Dix, Victoria Karpeh, Joseph Mbele, Gerald Montgomery, Edmund Ocansey. When we thought about the idea of small gatherings and the topics for such gatherings, we all agreed that the education of our children should be a top priority. From my perspective, at least, Eugene has met our expectations and offered us much food for thought. We look forward to other meetings. Everyone is welcome to be part of this process, laying the groundwork for the Pan African Summit and a greater understanding between Africans and African Americans. For more information, contact Edmund Ocansey:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Visiting the School of Environmental Studies

Once a year, for the last ten years or so, I have visited the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota, to speak to Mr. Todd Carlson's Philosophy of Indigenous Peoples class, my topic being folklore and the environment.

This has been an opportunity for me to talk about how humans have dealt with the environment through folklore. Starting from the earliest days of their existence, humans created language, which they used to organize and make sense of the world around them: naming, describing, contemplating, and explaining it.
From naming, which is an early form of storytelling, to fully fledged storytelling as we know it, humans established and maintained a rich and complex connection between themselves and the world around them. They put their stamp on the world, so to speak.
Mr. Carlson, seen at the far right in the photo above, prepares the students for my visit by sharing with them the contents of my Matengo Folktales. During my visits I talk a little about the Matengo culture of story telling, complementing my talk with a performance of a tale or two. Various elements in these tales, such as the songs, offer an opportunity to talk about the power of language in ancient times and in indigenous societies. Such, in general, is the power of prayers, incantations, and spells, by means of which humans sought to influence events and phenomena: bringing the rain in times of drought, casting out illness, and inducing crops to grow. Today, although we use language, we have largely forgotten or abandoned those beliefs in its power.
The students at the School of Environmental Studies learn to be conscious of the mutual dependence of humans and the environment and to be good stewards of the environment. My visits to this school have enhanced my awareness of these issues.
Our survival depends on appropriate use of the environment and its resources. We need to learn about the environmental impact of our activities and about sustainable uses, so that we do the right thing and ensure that the environment will be in a healthy state for future generations.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Conversation with Engineers Without Borders

I have just returned, this evening, from the University of Minnesota, where I gave a talk to the University of Minnesota Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The invitation to speak to EWB stemmed from a short presentation I made to Compatible Technologies International, which I reported on this blog.

The EWB are involved in projects in Uganda, working together with the Uganda Rural Fund. I like EWB's commitment to respecting local initiatives and focusing on sustainability. I dwelt on the cultural aspects of such ventures involving people of different cultures. I stressed that any interaction involving people of different cultures ought to include cultural learning by all, from the very beginning, and throughout.

Cultural factors may appear of little consequence in a project such as building wells, as people of different cultures will easily agree on the value of such a project and on the need to accomplish it. In the implementation, however, cultural issues are bound to crop up which could hamper the project and sour relations between the people involved. Drawing from my "Africans and Americans" book, featured on the right of this page, I gave examples of cultural differences that Americans and Africans need to be aware of. Some of the EWB have already been to Uganda and could relate to what I was saying. Following my presentation, we had a lively question and answer session. We look forward to continuing working together.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My e-book on "Things Fall Apart"

Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart, continues to fascinate and touch people around the world in ways that no other African literary work has managed to do. I have taught this novel from the time I was doing teaching practice as an undergraduate student.

In 1988, I published some study notes on this novel, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I revised these notes and produced an online guide which was popular among students and teachers around the world. I revised it still, expanding and publishing it. I have now published it as an e-book. Click here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another African and African-American Summit

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 19, 2009

J.M. Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Connecting With Compatible Technology International

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 12, 2009

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Awaiting the 2009 Twin Cities Book Festival

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Workshop: "Culture, Globalization and Development"

On August 29, 2009, I was in Tanga, an idyllic historic city in Tanzania, on the shores of the Indian Ocean. I conducted a workshop on "Culture, Globalization and Development" at the Meeting Point Tanga, nestled on the outskirts of the city, fringed by coconut, cashewnut and mango trees as well as sleepy hamlets. Nearby, the Ocean lies peaceful. Ruth Nesje is the director of the Meeting Point. She and I had corresponded by email for many months, without ever having met, but we were able to plan the workshop. In the picture above, she is seen introducing me to the workshop participants.
In this peaceful location, from 10 am to 5 pm, I engaged an audience of over a dozen in contemplating the vexed issue of globalization, with an emphasis on its cultural dimensions. I had highlighted the key problems in the workshop description, Culture, Globalization and Development.

I started by outlining theoretical and general issues such as definitions of "culture," "globalization" and "development" and described challenges facing institutions, companies, communities, and individuals in the present world which is increasingly becoming a global village. I shared examples from different parts of the world.

Then, to illuminate the argument, I dwelt on the challenges that Americans and Africans face when they interact, basing my presentation on my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. The workshop participants found the examples striking and, in a way, a wake-up call. Copies of the book were available.

To provoke discussion of the idea of development, I shared with the participants a little article of mine, What is Development? This led to a spirited discussion.

There was much sharing of ideas and perspectives throughout the day, both in the conference room and during breaks. Everyone was inspired and wanted such workshops to be held in the future. That was also my original intention, to do in my own country what I have been doing in the USA for years.

(Photos by Vesla Eriksen)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Reader Comments on my Book

Writers probably wonder whether anyone is reading what they write. On this score, I have no reason to worry. I get many comments from my readers, especially readers of my Africans and Americans book.

I have just seen a short but poignant review at, which touched me on account of its brevity and deftness, saying much in a few words. I like its gentle caution to readers who might have illusions about this book, while, as I say in the Introduction, it is really just a collection of anecdotes sprinkled with a few snippets of commentary. That is exactly the kind of book I wanted to write, because it is the kind of book I wanted to read.

I greatly appreciate readers' comments, delightful and inspiring as they come.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Teaching Danticat's Krik? Krak!

For several days, my Post-colonial literature class has been studying Edwidge Danticat's Krik? Krak! This is the second time I am teaching this book.

This time, we have been raising and struggling with difficult questions: why are these stories so somber, generally speaking? Is there something in Dandicat's life and world view that shapes these stories? The recurring tale of Massacre River is harrowing, so is the pervasive portrait of a people struggling with poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity. However, such is the stuff of social realist writing, reminiscent of certain works of Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, and Alex la Guma.

Discussing Krik? Krak! has afforded us an opportunity to dwell on the history of Haiti and its present circumstances, how slaves of African descent fought for their freedom, in the last decade of the eighteenth century and became the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere, then went through an unpleasant two centuries to end up where they are today, not even a shadow of their former glory.

Krik? Krak! does a good job of portraying the present reality of Haiti while keeping in mind the glorious history and celebrating great heroes like Boukman, the predecessor of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Krik? Krak! is not all about Haiti, however, but about Haitians in other places as well. There are even references to their African roots. Ultimately, Krik? Krak! is about the human condition.

Dandicat is a versatile writer. Her stories display delightful narrative skills and a lucid style. The first story, "Children of the Sea," with its quasi-epistolary technique sets the tone for the rest of the collection. Krik? Krak! is a most readable and teachable collection.

It is always wonderful to be able to tell students that you have seen a particular writer. It turns out that I did attend an appearance by Danticat in St. Paul, Minnesota, during which she answered questions about her life, philosophy and writing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cultural Tourism Model: Mto wa Mbu

The Mto wa Mbu Cultural Tourism Program is alive and well, as I noted in an earlier blog post. Now comes the news that the Program has been selected as a model for other such programs in Tanzania. I offer my congratulations, as a friend of the Program.

Here is the report, in the Arusha Times:

By Arusha Times Correspondent

A cultural tourism project at Mto wa Mbu in Arusha region has been picked to serve as a model for others initiated in various parts of the country.

The project has been attracting an increased number of visitors and revenues over the past seven year, generating some Sh63.6 million in 2007 when it hosted 4,094 tourists.

Mto wa Mbu, a fast growing township at the foot of the Great Rift Valley escarpment, is a gateway to the most famous tourist sites in northernTanzania.

The site is among 27 projects being implemented under the Cultural Tourism Programme (CTP) which aims to tap the potential of cultural relics in the country for tourism.

The programme was launched in 1997 with the support of a Netherlands organisation (SNV) which managed it until 2002 when it was taken over by the Government through the Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB).

Mary Lwoga, the programme coordinator said the Mto wa Mbu cultural tourism enterprises would be propelled to become a leading site because of its prime location and cultural diversity of the area.

She told reporters that the area has been attracting more tourists whose number has more than tripled from 1,116 in 2002 to 4,094 in 2007.

She said the Government was keen to give a bigger push to cultural tourism because it has a big potential to boost the broader tourism industry, now the leading sector in foreign exchange earnings.

"Cultural tourism is much broader than historical sites and curio shops. In this case, visitors have to be exposed the typical lifestyles of the local communities; their traditional food, dressing, dances and so on and so forth" she said.

She added that Tanzania is endowed with the rich cultural heritage of more than 120 ethnic groups and that since its launching, the programme is already attracting about 30,000 foreign tourists a year to its 27 sites.

"CTP provides visitors with authentic cultural experiences that combine nature, scenery, folklore, ceremonies, dances, rituals, tales, art, handicrafts and hospitality and give a unique insight into their way of life," she pointed out.

Many of the projects which have taken off so far are in the northern tourist circuit extending from Lushoto in Tanga region, through Kilimanjaro and Arusha regions to Babati and Hanang in Manyara.

Outside the northern circuit similar cultural tourism projects are at Mbeya and Rungwe in the southern highlands and Pangani on the coast.

Mto wa Mbu was one of the early cultural heritage projects to be established under the programme, now based at the Natural History Museum premises in Arusha. ends

Revenue from the tourist visits is mainly used to empower women in the villages, promote education and protect the environment.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Teaching and Learning with American Elders

There is a continuing education program called the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium here in Northfield, a little town in south eastern Minnesota. Teaching at St. Olaf College, one of the two colleges in town, I knew something about the Collegium, but not much. Things changed three years ago, when the directors of the Collegium invited me to design and teach a course for them.

I gladly accepted the invitation and designed a course titled "The African Experience." I wanted this to be a study of the historical and contemporary experience of the African people through a close look at Chinua Achebe's novel, Things Fall Apart. Studying this novel, I felt, would enable us to look at the life and values of the Africans before the coming of Europeans and the consequences of the coming of Europeans, which continue to the present day. It would also help us appreciate how the art of storytelling, both oral and written, influences African life.

I taught the course for the first time in the Fall, 2006 and taught it again in the Fall of 2007 and 2008. The course is scheduled for the Fall of this year as well.

The experience of teaching these elders has been most rewarding to me. It has been a wonderful opportunity to highlight the perspectives of Africans and people of African descent across the ages and around the world. It has been a dialectical process of learning from the wisdom of these elders and sharing my own knowledge of the African experience. Having taught Things Fall Apart from my earliest days as a teacher, I have much to say about it. In my teaching, I generally follow my Notes on Achebe's Things Fall Apart. I also use other sources, including my Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences.

The Cannon Valley Elder Collegium is a perfect way to realize the dream of continuing education. I wish my own country had programs like it.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What is Development? Colonialism Deconstructed

The following article appeared in the inaugural issue of Kwanza Jamii, April 2009, under the title "Maendeleo ni Nini?" At the request of some Americans, I translated it into English, and here is the English version.

What is Development? Colonialism Deconstructed

By Dr. Joseph Mbele
The Urban Fly
The concept of development is everywhere, in our personal lives and in the lives of communities and countries in general. We all believe that we need development. If we do not strive to develop, we get pressured in one way or another to do so. Other people try to force development on us. Read more....

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Teaching South African Literature

This Spring semester, 2009, for the first time since I came to St. Olaf College, I taught South African Literature. It was the first offering of a course I designed last year, titled African Literature. Designing the course afforded me the opportunity to showcase the rich traditions of my continent. Africa is where language and storytelling evolved, since that is the original home of humans. The African Literature course is meant to be open ended. It can dwell on a particular region, a set of authors, a topic. For this semester, I chose to focus on South Africa.

Over the years, I have encountered the works of many South African writers. In secondary school, back in Tanzania, I read Peter Abrahams’s Mine Boy, and was moved by it. I also read short stories by such writers as Ezekiel Mphahlele, Richard Rive, James Mathews, and Alex La Guma. The little collection, Quartet, published by Heinemann, created a lasting impression on me.

As an undergraduate at the University of Dar es Salaam, 1973-76, I read more works, such as the plays of Athol Fugard and Lewis Nkosi, as well as poetry by Dennis Brutus, Keorapetse Kgositsile and other poets. Both Alex la Guma and Kgositsile taught us at the University of Dar es Salaam, as did Mofolo Bulane of Lesotho, who introduced us to the study of folklore. Then, as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Madison, 1980-86, I studied more south African literature, including the oral tradition, under professors Daniel Kunene and Harold Scheub. Kunene’s expertise on SeSotho poetry and Mofolo’s works, and Scheub’s expertise on oral narratives greatly enhanced our understanding. We studied the Xhosa intsomi, Shona praise poetry, and the Zulu izibongo, A.C Jordan, Mazisi Kunene, Athol Fugard, and many other writers. It was during that time that I read the works of critics such as Lewis Nkosi, whose book, Tasks and Masks, left a lasting impression on me.

In the course of my own career as a teacher, I have taught the works of many South African writers, including Thomas Mofolo, Peter Abrahams, Alex la Guma, Nadine Gordimer, Dennis Brutus, J.M Coetzee, Bessie Head, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema.

No wonder that when the English Department at St. Olaf College asked me to design a course on African literature, I thought right away of South African Literature. I felt well prepared. I could have, as easily, designed a course on Nigerian Literature, Kenyan Literature, East African Literature, Contemporary African Women Writers or on some theme. The possibilities are numerous and equally interesting. In a way, the choice of South Africa was arbitrary, but, again, not quite so.

I taught Mofolo's Chaka, Peter Abrahams's Mine Boy, Nadine Gordimer's July's People, J.M. Coetzee's Foe, Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys, Mbongeni Ngema's Woza Albert, and Zakes Mda's Madonna of Excelsior. I like to include, in my reading list, works I have not read before. This time, I tried Madonna of Excelsior. I discovered, as we read it, that it is moving story that explores the realities of contemporary South Africa, ranging from illicit racial relations between white men and black women under apartheid to the corruption of power in the wake of apartheid.

Re-reading works one had first encountered in earlier years always turns up something new and fresh. I experienced this most clearly with Mine Boy, which brought back memories of my first encounters with Zuma, one of the main characters. Zuma's coming from a village into the city and experiencing the strange ways of the city reminded me of “Chicago,” Carl Sandburg’s famous poem, in which Sandburg describes the move from the rural to the urban space as entailing the loss of innocence. When I first read Mine Boy, I was but a teenager. In subsequent years I read widely, including Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto, which neatly illuminates Leah’s comments on the role of money in Zuma's new world.

We ended the course with a selection of poems, including Dennis Brutus’s “Nightsong: City” which, for some reason, I have always liked very much. In the final examination, I asked students to discuss this poem alongside “Night of Terror,” another searching, soulful poem, by Willie Adams.

Overall, I found the course most satisfying, and I look forward to teaching it again and again.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Tourists and Folklore in Tanzania

Tanzania is one of the places where humans evolved. They did so through making and using tools, as well as creating and using language. From the earliest days, these were the defining characteristics of human beings.

Making and using tools enabled these humans to wrest a living from their environment, providing food, shelter and other necessities, including the skins, bark cloths and other materials they used to cover their bodies against the elements. Language enabled these early humans to name everything around them, thus codifying and storing vital knowledge for themselves and for posterity. Naming is a fundamental form of storytelling.

As they traversed the landscape, dealing with the environment and with one another, humans enhanced their awareness and curiosity about nature and society, which they expressed through myths, legends and folktales.

There are stories about why the two peaks of Kilimanjaro are the way they are, how the hyena got his spots, and why the bat flies at night. There are stories about human behaviour, relationships and the human condition. Through incantations, prayers and ceremonies, humans sought to influence phenomena in this world and beyond.

All these creations, tangible and intangible, passed on informally from person to person, generation to generation, together make up folklore. Folklore embodies and promotes entertainment, education, imagination and critical thinking, even in stories using what appear to be animal characters.

Such is the heritage that today we call Tanzanian folklore. Flowing to us like a current from the past, it gathers new material and acquires new dimensions, expressing the experiences, consciousness, anxieties, joys, and aspirations of contemporary Tanzanians.

As we travel around the world, meeting people and seeing places, we seek stories. Visiting Tanzania, tourists crisscross the vast Serengeti Plain, the Ngorongoro Crater, villages and towns, armed with cameras, notebooks and laptops--to construct stories about landscapes, animals, experiences and people, through photographs, journals, blogs and videos. The locals, in turn, tell their own stories about the tourists. Through the ages, humans remain what they have always been: storytellers.

(Note: At the request of Thomson Safaris, I wrote this article for the Thomson Safaris Safari Journal, 2007. It appears on this blog revised)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Chasing the Somali piracy money trail

I always wonder how much we know about people from other cultures. My work on this issue has shown me that cultural differences can cause or fuel conflicts and misunderstandings between individuals, communities, organizations or countries; hence the need to study and deal with those differences in an appropriate manner.

I have just found a wonderful article about the Somali piracy issue which is so much in the news these days. The writer brings out relevant cultural issues in a down-to-earth and memorable way. Her description of a culture where contracts are done verbally, without a paper trail, is right on target. Her description of how ransom money is distributed reminds me of a common practice in African cultures where, after a successful hunt, the animal killed is divided according to an elaborate system of who gets what part.

Here is the article, Chasing the Somali piracy money trail.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

My Connection With Longitude Books

It is always a delight to meet people with interests similar to one's own. With my interest in books and tourism, I do have such pleasant encounters, the most recent being with Longitude Books, an online bookstore for travelers and tourists.

I heard about Longitude Books for the first time in July 2001, from Judi Wineland, the owner of Thomson Safaris. She wished to see my Matengo Folktales on the Longitude Books list for Thomson Safaris travelers. I had published that book two years earlier. Several years later, I published Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, whose popularity has both touched and humbled me.

On March 20, 2009, after some initial contacts, Darrel Schoeling, founder of Longitude Books, wrote me saying that the company was developing its family travel and exchange programs and thought my two books would enhance those programs. He added that Stanford Alumni Travel had requested that my Africans and Americans book be included in the resources for their Tanzania Safari and Service Learning programs. Surely, I was pleased. I know that people are reading my books, but such news is always gratifying and comes as a challenge to keep writing.

I like the Longitude Books philosophy, stated on their website:

Reading is a great activity—and one of the best ways to get more out of travel.

Longitude Books saves the traveler the trouble of finding out what to read:

For each destination, we feature “Essential Reading” four or five books and a map that are a comprehensive introduction to the region for the traveler. We favor well-written, concise books that capture the spirit of a place, including guidebooks, memoirs, histories, field guides, natural histories, novels or other great books. Humor helps too.

In her message to me, Judy had mentioned that Longitude Books was the provider for Thomson Safaris. Having collaborated with Thomson Safaris on various projects, I value the connection with Longitude Books in a special way, and I am happy that now anyone searching the Longitude Books website can find my books there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Why New York is no Place to Try Somali Pirates

I read the news this morning that a Somali pirate has been brought to New York for trial. I began to notice cultural issues that are sure to complicate this trial, starting from the conflicting stories about the pirate's age. As the day wore on, I have been seeing other people's writings on the matter, such as this one titled "Why New York is no Place to Try Somali Pirates".

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Somali Pirates

These days, stories of Somali pirates are everywhere in the media, told by others, but not the pirates themselves. It is only fair to ask what the pirates would say, if they had the opportunity.

Anyway, here is a relevant story on Somalia

Friday, March 27, 2009

Culture and Companionship Retreat, 2009

I woke up early yesterday and drove to the Luther Point Bible Camp near Grantsburg, Wisconsin, to participate in the Culture and Companionship Retreat which I mentioned in an earlier post.

The meeting, a gathering of lay Lutherans and clergy, started slightly after 10 in the morning. It is somewhat interesting that I, a Catholic, have grown so used to interacting with American Lutherans that I feel entirely at home in their company. This is as it should be.

The focus of the Retreat was how we might study the Gospel with people of other cultures. We thought hard and shared ideas freely. We found ourselves wading deeper and deeper into a tangled thicket of surprises and dilemmas, as we explored the question of how our cultural backgrounds shape our understanding of Biblical texts, making it impossible to know what any story in the Bible might mean to people of different cultures. As part of this conversation, I shared the story "Did Jesus Christ Ever Kill a Lion?"

The idea of multiple interpretations, so central in contemporary literary theory, applies as well to the Bible. As is the case with all reading and interpretation, the issues that matter to us as we read the Bible, the aspects that attract our attention and those that don't all have something to do with our cultural background and values. Often that background is the defining principle. No one culture can claim ultimate or sole authority to interpret the Biblical texts and impose that interpretation on other cultures. We must have a dialogue, respectful of our cultural differences, and mindful of the need to hear all interpretations and value them. That is an integral part of the concept and ideal of companionship and accompaniment.

We were a gathering of Christians, but we realized that although we all believe in God, every culture deserves the right to interpret the stories, the language, and the concepts of the Bible in ways that are meaningful to them. Fortunately, that recognition is gaining ground around the world, contesting the earlier missionary idea that sought to convert everyone around a single, mostly Eurocentric intepretation. My own spin on this idea is to refer to folklore, which amply demonstrates how the essential message of Creation, of man's subsequent alienation from the Creator, concepts of good and evil, and so on, appear in the indigenous mythology of people all over the world.

We learned a great deal, challenging the very ideas and beliefs that many of us, perhaps most, had hitherto taken for granted. We thereby laid the groundwork for future retreats, by raising so many questions requiring further reflection.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Did Jesus Christ Ever Kill a Lion?

A story is told about a missionary who went to a remote area in Tanzania to proclaim the Gospel among the Maasai, an ethnic group well known as a fierce warrior people. One day the missionary was telling a group of adults the saving activity of Jesus Christ. He explained that Jesus is the Son of God, the Saviour and Redeemer of all humankind.

When he finished, a Maasai elder slowly stood up and said to the missionary, "You have spoken well, but I want to learn more about this great person, Jesus Christ. I have three questions about him. First, did he ever kill a lion? Second, how many cows did he have? Third, how many wives and children did he have?"

True story, Tanzania, from African Stories for Preachers and Teachers, compiled by Joseph G. Healey (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2005), 33.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cultural Issues and Law Enforcement

I enjoy teaching. I have always believed that teaching is my calling. In the last few years, I have discovered the joy of teaching outside the classroom, through participating in community events and giving talks, particularly on cultural issues relating to Africans and Americans.

I speak to various gatherings and individuals, and the circle of my connections is growing all the time. Each invitation to speak gives me a chance to harness my knowledge and direct it to the needs of that particular occasion. Each invitation is a new challenge, which, nevertheless, I always welcome as an opportunity.

A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the Faribault Correctional Facility. I am a member of the board of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, and I regularly talk about the differences between African and American culture. Faribault, like many other cities across the USA, is dealing with an influx of immigrants and refugees from such places as Somalia, Sudan, and Central America. Inevitably, numerous cultural issues crop up.

So, on February 26, I went to the Faribault Correctional Facility. The conference room was full of officers, staff, and other people. I started by outlining my view of the importance of understanding cultural differences, not only in order to broaden our knowledge of other cultures but also for our own survival and success in a world which is becoming increasingly interconnected--the proverbial global village.

I then dwelt on specific cultural issues that relate to law enforcement in a town such as Faribault. As a member of the Faribault Diversity Coalition, I am aware of the cultural issues facing that city. I find it easy to talk about the differences between African and American culture. I simply draw from my book and other writings.

The most interesting challenge, in my view, is how a law enforcement officer should deal with people who, acting in ways that are appropriate from their cultural standpoint, unwittingly end up violating American laws. I stressed the need for education. Newcomers should learn and follow the laws of the customs of the host country. Law enforcement personnel should also study the values of the newcomers, in order to have an accurate view of why they communicate, think, feel, act and behave the way they do. That, I argued, will save everyone from a lot of frustration, bad feelings, stress and other problems.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Tanzania Educational Tour, June 17-July 1, 2009

St. Olaf English Professor Joseph Mbele and Social Studies Teacher Larry Fowler will be leading an educational tour to Tanzania this summer. The purpose is to familiarize participants with African culture and introduce them to Tanzanian culture and families.

Spend two weeks in one of the most stable countries in Africa. Visit some of its fabled national parks: Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Lake Manyara.

Get a glimpse of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Meet the laid-back Tanzanians, famous for their friendliness. Visit schools and markets, shops and restaurants, churches and mosques in a country where people of different races and religions live together in harmony.

You will visit Oldupai Gorge, the home of the earliest ancestors of the human race, and Bagamoyo, an ancient sleepy city on the Indian Ocean coast, formerly a center of the slave trade. Walk its gorgeous sandy beaches and explore its historical and cultural sites. Then head to Tanga, further up the coast, a great center of the old Swahili civilization. The trip will emphasize interactions with the local people, including home visits.

Trip guides are Joseph Mbele and Larry Fowler, experienced educators, who enjoy leading Americans on study tours abroad. As a Tanzanian, Joseph will even teach you some Swahili words and phrases, which you can practise on the locals. They love it!

The cost of the tour should be around $4,000. We are currently working with airlines to reduce the cost. We will have fundraisers to help with individual costs.

For more information, including the itinerary, contact Joseph Mbele, or Larry Fowler,

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cultural Tourism in Longido, Tanzania

Here is Namanga, a town straddling the border between Kenya and Tanzania. As you pass the gate and enter Tanzania, you see a mountain in the distance. That is Longido mountain. At the foot of it, on the other side, lies the little town of Longido. I have crossed this border many times, over the years, on my way to and from Kenya. I have visited it with groups of American students, such as the one seen jogging above.

Mount Longido is one of the many volcanic features in Tanzania. Its name comes from the Maasai word "oloonkito," which means the place of the stone for sharpening knives. Indeed, Longido mountain abounds with rocks, including the kind the Maasai use for sharpening knives. Longido has also some memorable history. For example, on November 4, 1914, during World War I, a British force coming in from Namanga attacked the Germans at Longido. The Germans defeated the British.

Small as it is, Longido is now the seat of the district of Longido, with schools and other facilities. It is also the center of a vibrant cultural tourism program, known around the world.

I have taken students to Longido as part of a course on Hemingway in East Africa. I have found the Longido Cultural Tourism program a wonderful way to introduce my students to Maasai culture. Under Ally Ahmadou, its director, this program is run by the local Maasai, for the benefit of their community. As you go around the town and its vicinity, you get the distinct feeling that the local people support the program and they talk about its significant benefits in their community, including schools and water projects.

Above is the guest house owned by the Longido Cultural Tourism program.

Above, Professor Bill Davis from Colorado College, who co-taught the Hemingway course with me, learns to throw a spear, from a Maasai guide, to the amusement of all present. In his Under Kilimanjaro, Hemingway writes about the challenge of throwing a Maasai spear. I have also seen photos of Hemingway learning from a Maasai man how to throw a spear. I have tried it; it is not as easy as it seems.

This is the Maasai women's market on the edge of Longido town. Here the women sell different products they make, from bracelets to utensils.

Students from Colorado College admire a lamb during a visit to a Maasai boma, May 2008.

Here are Maasai women and children in their home. The Maasai of Longido welcome visitors into their homes, eager to teach them about their lives and culture. I have enjoyed all my visits to this community.

A Maasai guide explains to my Colorado College group the uses of a particular tree, on our way to the Longido mountain, May 2008.

The Longido Maasai school children are used to visitors. Their parents want them to go to school and are happy that their cultural tourism program is making this possible.

Mr. Ahmadou gives a briefing to our Colorado College group, before our trek up the Longido mountain, May 2007.

Our guides explaining the uses of various medicinal plants, on our way to the Longido mountain, May 2008.

Here I am with our guides, May 2008. I am lucky to have these friends and to be learning much about their culture. Interacting with the Maasai not only frees me from misconceptions about the Maasai, which are rampant among non-Maasai people, whether in Tanzania or elsewhere, but also gives me a sense of what Hemingway is describing in his works, especially Green Hills of Africa and Under Kilimanjaro.

Above is the dining hall, close to the guest house.

It is very nice to be here in the center of Longido, beside the highway linking Tanzania and Kenya. It is wonderful, knowing that on December 20, 1933, Hemingway and his party passed here, on their way to Arusha and beyond. I have learned something else this year, while reading a book I bought last year, Barua za Shaaban Robert 1931-1958, published by the Institute of Kiswahili Research, University of Dar es Salaam. This is a collection of letters Shaaban Robert, Tanzania's most famous writer, wrote to Yusuf Ulenge, his younger brother, over a period of a quarter century. I knew for many years that Shaaban Robert had lived and worked in different parts of Tanzania. However, now I have noted with much excitement that Shaaban Robert stayed here in Longido, in September 1931, working in the Customs Office. He came again the first week of June, 1936, to work in the same office. This time, he intended to stay 56 days. As it turned out, however, he stayed over a year, up to about mid-July 1937. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of this vital connection between Longido and Shaaban Robert, the founding father of modern Swahili literature.