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.