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.

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