Thursday, March 31, 2011

Peace Corps and Africa Conference

I am a great fan of the Peace Corps, and have been for many years. So, when I learned that there was going to be a Peace Corps and Africa Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, I decided to go.

The conference, held March 24-27, brought together returned Peace Corps volunteers who had served in various countries as well as prospective volunteers, and, of course, fans of the Peace Corps like me.

This is the 50th year of the Peace Corps, and the Madison conference was one of the commemorative events taking place in different parts of the USA.

I learned a great deal from the speeches and other presentations, about the beginnings of the Peace Corps and the work of Peace Corps volunteers all over Africa. We heard tales about President John Kennedy who inspired Americans with the idea of service, and we heard about Sargent Shriver, the visionary and charismatic founder of the Peace Corps.

We heard about Kwame Nkrumah, and how he got Sargent Shriver to send the first batch of Peace Corps volunteers to Ghana in 1961. The name of Julius Nyerere came up as well and the story of how he welcomed Peace Corps volunteers to Tanganyika in those early days.

There were many people in this meeting, including ambassadors, educators, business people, writers, and students.

I got to meet some of the people who had been Peace Corps volunteers in my own country, such as Ernie Zaremba, who served in 1964-66 and appears with me in the photo on the left. Now he enjoys recording stories of former Peace Corps volunteers and visiting Tanzania to meet people who knew or benefited from Peace Corps volunteers.

I met Mark Green, who had been the U.S. Ambassador in Tanzania, 2007-2009. I met several University of Wisconsin-Madison professors I had known from my days as a graduate student, including Professor Harold Scheub, who had been my main dissertation advisor.

On the left I am standing with Wade DallaGrana, whom I got to know when I arrived in Madison in 1980. He had returned from serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho, and we used to meet often and chat. The Peace Corps meeting in Madison was a big event for us, since we got to see each other after about thirty years.

I have much to say about the Peace Corps conference, and I plan to write more about it, if only as a tribute to these amazing volunteers, whose dreams, thoughts, and feelings are squarely focused on service to others and building a better world. Being around such people is truly inspiring.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pan African Organization Meeting

We had another Pan African Organization meeting today, at the Center for Families. As in the past, today's meeting brought together Africans and African Americans, sharing ideas and experiences. Edmund Ocansey had sent our announcements stating that the focus of this meeting would be African politics and culture. That theme appears to have touched people, as it became clear during the meeting.

We did not get to this topic right away. First we had lunch, in the course of which we started talking about ourselves, introducing ourselves to the rest of the group and talking about why we are in this group.

That was Edmund's way of starting the meeting. It got people talking about their experiences, concerns and dreams in relation to Pan Africanism.

People shared inspiring experiences and ideas, and I can only mention a few. We talked about the need to educate ourselves, learn about people, understand them, truly understand them.

The gentleman on the left said he feels he has a lot in his spirit to give to others. He wants to make a positive difference in people's lives, in someone's life, without judging that person.

This sister, originally from Togo, said she was keen to learn about the African heritage and Pan Africanism. She talked about her association with the Pan-African Women's Philanthropy Network and announced that this organization will host a conference in August.

The brother on the left, in the black shirt, talked about his visits to Ghana, a country which is very special to him. He shared a delightful personal story: how he found out, through DNA testing, that he has Igbo ancestry.

He encourages African Americans to venture out as he is doing, and explore Africa, because of the opportunities there.

At that point I shared some thoughts I have gained from my friend Professor Baruti Katembo about the need for African Americans and Africans to come together in order to explore and utilize the resources each group possesses and represents, for mutual benefit.

The gentleman seen writing on the left spoke about the need for African Americans to learn about their history in order to correct the narrow perspective that focuses solely or predominantly on the experience of slavery.

Telling African Americans only that they were slaves limits their perspective and conditions them to behave in certain ways. A broader view of their history will help them to acquire more positive self-concepts and assume new roles which will earn them respect.

The two ladies seen here are members of the board of the Pan African Organization. They came on board recently, bringing fresh energy and perspectives. On the right is Shatona Kilgore-Groves, founder of the Black Parent Group, and author of A Black Parent's Memoir, Vol 1.

As I have noted, this is only a sampling of what people shared. After all this, we got to the main item of the agenda. Edmund Ocansey gave a talk highlighting aspects of Ghana from independence to the present day. He focused on the political and cultural landscape.

I talked about cultural issues affecting Africans in the diaspora. I gave the example of Faribault, where long term residents and Somali immigrants are struggling with cultural challenges. I mentioned my presentations on cultural diversity to companies, churches, schools, colleges, and community groups.

Mindful of what everyone has said about the need to learn about ourselves, I mentioned that I record folklore and interpret it, to reveal the thoughts and values of our people. I showed my two books, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences and Matengo Folktales.

Whenever I attend the meetings of the Pan African Organization, I feel I am in a classroom where I broaden my horizons. I appreciate the opportunity to extend my social network.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ngugi: African Literature and Politics

Today, I submitted to the English Department the description of a seminar I will be teaching in the Fall, 2011, titled "Ngugi: African Literature and Politics." Here is the description, now available to prospective students:

Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of Africa’s leading writers. He is also a political and cultural activist. He has written short stories, novels and plays, as well as essays on literature, politics and language. He is the most well known champion of African language literatures. His work draws on sources as diverse as Gikuyu folklore, The Bible, Chinua Achebe, Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon. In this seminar, we will read and discuss a selection of Ngugi’s works in a chronological order, including his earliest short stories, The Black Hermit, The River Between, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, A Grain of Wheat, and Wizard of the Crow. We will explore the evolution of Ngugi’s writings, and how he has been influenced by, and in turn influenced, African writing and debates about politics, culture and language. Studying Ngugi offers a unique opportunity to understand the relationship between literature and politics in contemporary Africa.

(The photo above, featuring Ngugi and me, was taken during Ngugi's visit to Macalester College, where he gave a reading of Wizard of the Crow)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Minnesota Black Pages 2010-11

The Minnesota Black Pages 2010-11, a rich source of information on businesses, products, and services pertaining especially to people of African descent, is now available. The current edition focuses on the housing crisis. In line with my abiding interest in cultural issues, I contributed an article titled "Housing as a Cultural Phenomenon", pp. 29-30.

Readers of my Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, will remember that housing is one of the issues I talk about in that book. For the Minnesota Black Pages 2010-11, I went somewhat beyond what I wrote in the book.

The Minnesota Black Pages 2010-11 also carries advertisements, and you can read about Africonexion, my consulting company, on page 28. On page 41 you can read what the Minnesota Black Pages team wrote about my Africans Americans book. Enjoy the Minnesota Black Pages 2010-11.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Teaching "Train to Pakistan"

For many years, I knew about Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan. I knew that on the question of the Partition of the Indian sub-continent, this was the book to read. While teaching Indian Literature, I mentioned it again and again. It is only this month, however, that I have been able to read Train to Pakistan, as part of the readings for my South Asian Literature course.

Having just finished reading it, I am happy I placed it immediately after Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi. There are significant overlaps between the two. I am also happy that after Train to Pakistan, we will be reading Bapsi Sidhwa's Cracking India. I have taught Cracking India, a novel that brings up some of the very issues we encounter in Train to Pakistan.

Train to Pakistan centers around the village of Mano Majra, populated by Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. They have their places of worshop there and live in harmony. As the killings in Pakistan and India grow more feverish and Muslims escape to Pakistan and Hindus to India, the village of Mano Mijra struggles with very difficult questions: whether to ask the Muslims to go or to let them continue to live in the village in accordance with age-old customs of hospitality.

Train to Pakistan is a gripping story, in many ways. I had read about the Partition and Indian Independence, but this novel gives a human face to the historical accounts, in the sense that it explores the impact of the Partition on human beings. Its exploration of bigotry and tensions between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs ought to make us take a close look at ourselves.

In discussing this novel, I mentioned various other works that contain the same theme: In the Book of Dede Korkut Muslims long for and celebrate the killing of infidels. In the Song of Roland the Christians long for and destroy Muslims. I mentioned Gassire's Lute, the West African epic in which we hear disparaging comments about the dog like Borama. I also mentioned the American bishop who said: kill a commie for Christ.

Even though, in this novel, we are encountering fictional characters, we can hear and feel what they are going through and what they are thinking about. We experience the life they live where they live; we see the sights, hear the sounds, and smell the smells. As Hemingway would say, Train to Pakistan is a true book.

Train to Pakistan is a gripping novel, whose events are foreshadowed on the very first page:

The summer of 1947 was not like other Indian summers. Even the weather had a different feel in India that year. It was hotter than usual, and drier and dustier. And the summer was longer. No one could remember when the monsoon had been so late. For weeks, the sparse clouds cast only shadows. There was no rain. People began to say that God was punishing them for their sins.

Interestingly, the trains we read about are all coming from Pakistan, laden with dead bodies of Hindus and the lucky few who are not dead. Only in the end is there a story of a train going to Pakistan. There is suspense surrounding the approach of this train, with a stunning surprise ending as Juggat Singh, whose image has all along not been particularly good, commits an unexpected, breathtaking act of heroism and bravery, foiling a well planned ambush and massacre of the Muslims traveling on this train. Juggat Singh dies as the train proceeds to Pakistan.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Teaching "Twilight in Delhi"

My South Asian Literature class in now comfortably underway, in its fourth week. We started with Mulk Anand's Untouchable, which I have taught many times. We then studied Ahmed Ali's Twilight in Delhi, which I had not read before.

Reading Twilight in Delhi in the wake of Untouchable has been a valuable experience, a broadening of horizons. While Untouchable relates the experience of Indian Hindus, Twilight in Delhi deals with Indian Muslims.

Never having read a novel about the world of Indian Muslims, I found Twilight in Delhi refreshing. Fortunately, I know something about Islam, especially coming from Tanzania, a country where about half of the population is Muslim and about half Christian.

I spent considerable time explaining Islamic principles to my students, as a way of establishing the groundwork for discussing Twilight in Delhi. I described the five pillars of Islam and showed three videos: this one, which presents the Islamic call to prayer; this recitation of the Quran; and a small boy's recitation of Surah Yasin.

Twilight in Delhi deals with such themes as patriotism, love, and marriage. It portrays family life, wedding customs, healing and burial practices. From its very beginning, Twilight in Delhi exudes nostalgia for the Delhi of the past, whose grandeur and magnificence fell apart as a result of British rule.

This novel presents the fate of Delhi as a metaphor for the human condition. In ways reminiscent of existentialist writings, characters in Twilight in Delhi contemplate and talk about the meaning of life and the transience of human achievements. This reminds me of Al-Inkishafi, the classic Swahili poem, which reflects on the demise of the old famous Swahili cities, making us wonder about the meaning of life itself.