Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Memorable Meeting in Minnesota

Today was a special day. I had a memorable meeting with Dr. Barbara Poole Galyen, a friend of many years, who is based in California, but has been visiting relatives in Minnesota, a short drive from Northfield, where I live.

Barbara and I met for the first time in 1995, when she came to Tanzania as a volunteer on my research project on epic folklore of Northern Tanzania, sponsored by Earthwatch. We worked on Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria.

Barbara told me that time, and has kept telling me, that that experience sparked her interest in Africa and launched her on her subsequent professional life. She went to Kenya to work for the United States International University, and later started a consulting company dealing with cultural issues in the global context. She has traveled the world and made many connections.

We were delighted to meet today, having met for the last time in 1997 in Kenya. We shared stories about our time in Ukerewe, current politics, and a new course I will be teaching in the spring--"Muslim Women Writers." I signed for her a copy of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, which relates to our mutual interests as cultural consultants.

Here is what Barbara herself wrote today on her facebook page about our meeting:

I enjoyed a wonderful visit with Dr. Joseph Mbele who was the one who originally introduced me to Africa in 1995 on an "Earthwatch" adventure. I give him credit for changing my life completely after I moved to Kenya as a result of our fascinating studies on a remote island in Lake Victoria, TZ. Born in Tanzania, Dr. Mbele is currently a professor at St. Olaf College in MN where he continues to work on special projects around the world! He's inspiring me again to get more involved in heart-felt projects globally.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Honouring Bukola Oriola

I have heard, with much delight, that President Barack Obama has appointed Bukola Oriola to the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Bukola is a Nigerian-born woman living in Minnesota. I have known her from 2009 when I first met her. Before then, I knew only her name from an African community newspaper published in Minnesota.

One day, I read a statement she made that she had written a book manuscript but didn't know how to get it published. Having self published two books, I felt the urge to help her. I called her, even though we did not know each other, and I told her I had read her statement and wanted to help her publish her book.

Bukola came to St. Olaf College, and I showed her how to publish online. Soon thereafter, she published  Imprisoned: The Travails of a Trafficked Victim. We kept in touch, and I invited her to the Twin Cities Book Festival which was held on October 10, 2009, so she could see the kind of work writers do after publishing a book. The photo on the left shows the two of us at my table.

The book facilitated Bukola's work of conveying to the public her message about human trafficking. In addition to giving talks to various audiences, she started a television program as well as a non profit organization, The Enitan Story.

Bukola is a passionate advocate for the victims of human trafficking, while fostering people's awareness of this global problem. I am impressed and inspired by her work. I recall how I first contacted her, how we met, and what she wrote in the acknowledgement section of her book:

     I would also like to thank those who worked with me to get this book published. My profound gratitude goes to Prof. Joseph Mbele of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, who showed me how to get my book published, otherwise it would have been another Word Document on my computer. It would have not been able to give the message of hope to the hopeless. God bless you sir.

President Obama's selection of Bukola is a great honour to her. I have witnessed the excitement it has generated in Minnesota, around the USA, and, in a special way, in Nigeria. Bukola sees in all this the workings of destiny. She believes that the suffering she underwent as a victim of human trafficking was part of God's plan to prepare her for her mission. You can hear her in this interview:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Swahili Translation of Pope Francis's Prayer

In his encyclical, "Laudato Si," Pope Francis includes a prayer for our earth. I was deeply moved by the encyclical, and I wanted to translate the prayer into Swahili, for fellow Tanzanians and Swahili speakers elsewhere, since it captures succinctly the spirit of the encyclical itself.

With my experience of translating Matengo folktales and Swahili poems into English, as well as English poems into Swahili, I know the challenges, frustrations, and delights of translation. I know what a humbling experience it is to translate such a thoughful, nuanced, and soulful message as Pope Francis's prayer. Still, I wanted to convey some sense of it to Swahili speakers.

A prayer for our earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe
and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
that we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth,
so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.p
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.

Sala Kuiombea Dunia Yetu

Mungu mweza yote, upo kila mahali

na hata katika viumbe vyako vidogo kabisa.
Unakumbatia kwa upole wako kila kilichopo.
Tufurikie nguvu ya upendo wako
ili tuuhifadhi uhai na uzuri.
Tujaze amani, ili tuishi
kama kaka na dada, bila kumdhuru yeyote.
Ee Mungu wa maskini,
tusaidie kuwanusuru waliotelekezwa na kusahauliwa katika dunia hii,

ambao wana thamani isiyo kifani machoni mwako.
Tuletee uponyaji maishani mwetu,
ili tuihifadhi dunia badala ya kuwania kuipora,
ili tustawishe uzuri, si uchafuzi na uharibifu.
Gusa mioyo
ya wale wanaowania maslahi yao tu
yanayowagharimu maskini na dunia.
Tufundishe kuibaini thamani ya kila kitu,
kujawa na uchaji na tafakari,
 kuwa tumefungamana
na kila kiumbe
tunavyoelekea kwenye nuru yako isiyo na mwisho.
Tunakushukuru kwa kuwa nasi kila siku.

Tuhimize, tunakuomba, katika juhudi zetu
za kutafuta haki, upendo na amani.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Approaching Ondaatje's "The English Patient"

As my South Asian Literature course enters its final phase, we have begun reading Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. I had never read this work before, but have taught Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost and read his collection of poems, The Cinnamon Peeler. I have always been aware, however, of the great reputation of The English Patient, winner of the Booker Prize, and I feel I should have read it long ago. However, as the saying goes, better late than never.

Having begun reading The English Patient, I find myself recalling several literary works, including Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Hemingway's "The Snows of Kilimanjaro," and Mia Couto's The Tuner of Silences. Abandonment as an existential reality seems to unite all these works.

The main character in The English Patient fell from the sky after his plane was shot down over the Sahara desert during the Second World War and was rescued by Bedouins. Soon, we see this badly wounded person, the English patient, being taken care of by a nurse in Italy. His memories constitute a major part of the novel as it evolves. I am not able at this point to say much, but I am eagerly following the story, with the figure of the wartime nurse reminding me of Florence Nightingale.

Although I have only started reading The English Patient, I have begun to notice the pain that permeates it, much as it does in Anil's Ghost and "Letters and Other Worlds,"one of the poems in The Cinnamon Peeler. It is tempting to surmise that Ondaatje's vision of the human condition is rather somber. That is my initial impression, to be corrected or vindicated through further reading of Ondaatje's work.

Monday, December 7, 2015

My Book Donation to "Papa's Shadow"

During the recent Ramble Pictures fundraising campaign for the documentary film, Papa's Shadow, I contributed a little money and copies of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. to be given to donors who gave 200 dollars and above.

Today, Jimmy Gildea, founder of Ramble Pictures and maker of Papa's Shadow, who was one of the students in my Hemingway in East Africa course, visited me at St. Olaf College as we had agreed, to get the books. I signed five copies, and we had some time to talk about Ernest Hemingway, our visit to Montana, the fundraising campaign, and so forth.

Jimmy also took the opportunity to film some footage of me reading Green Hills of Africa and taking a short walk in St. Olaf College's quadrangle. Jimmy wondered if I had any photos from my childhood or younger days. I could tell he was keen to add these elements to Papa's Shadow, although it is a wonderful documentary as it is. I know because I have seen it.

Papa's Shadow will be released soon, Jimmy believes, probably in February. It is not a work of fiction but a documentary on the life, travels, writing, and philosophy of Ernest Hemingway, especially as pertaining to his East African safaris in 1933-34 and 1953-54. Much of it is a conversation on these topics between me and Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Ernest Hemingway. I can hardly wait for the release of this documentary to the world.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tracing Hemingway On the Edge of the Ngorongoro Crater

On May 22, 2015, during one of our phone conversations, Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Ernest Hemingway, told me that a new edition of Ernest Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa, prepared by Sean Hemingway, was about to be published. He said it contains his mother Pauline Pfeiffer's diary, which she wrote while on safari with Hemingway in Tanganyika in 1933-34.

I knew for years about this diary which is kept at Stanford University, and I had wanted to go there to read it. Imagine my excitement upon hearing that it was being published.

In due course, I discovered the new edition of Green Hills of Africa on Amazon and ordered it. It is a rich resource, including a foreword by Patrick, an introduction by Sean Hemingway, photos, sample drafts of Hemingway's writing, and of course, Pauline's diary.

Just like Green Hills of Africa, Pauline's diary presents memorable descriptions of places I have visited while traveling with students on my Hemingway in East Africa course about which I first wrote on this blog. The photo above, taken in 2007, shows me with a student on the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, which Pauline described as follows:

Here I am sitting all alone on top of Ngorongoro Crater in the rain. Mr. Percival is worried about the trucks getting up the grades and perhaps everyone has gone to see about them. The crater is very beautiful, about twelve miles across and blue, gray and green, all flat from this height, but you can see grass and trees and thousands of wildebeest. Ernest could see zebra but I couldn't. It is a game reserve, and in the hands of the Maasai. We are spending Christmas Eve here, and it will be very cold at night--maybe before with this rain and wind. We climbed all morning, a native driving at great speed up the one-car road. About two-thirds up the jungle started, the first we had seen, and very beautiful and tangled with roots and overhanging branches--pretty awful to get lost in. (p. 207)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Matengo Folktales on Special Display

I visited the St. Olaf College Bookstore yesterday, as I regularly do, to see what is new. Hovering among the aisles, I saw my Matengo Folktales on special display.

Naturally, I was touched. Although there is a section in this bookstore devoted to books by faculty--and one can see my books there--I was pleasantly surprised to see my Matengo Folktales displayed as shown in the picture. I thought I should capture this moment because after a certain time, different books will be displayed on this particular spot.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Another St. Olaf Storytelling Event

I received an invitation from Karibu, a student organization at St. Olaf College, to tell African folktales as part of the Africa Week celebration. I have done so in the past and will do it again, any time. How can I decline an opportunity to showcase African creativity and the African contribution to the universal culture of storytelling and all it stands for?

As the cradle of the human race, Africa is the birthplace of language, storytelling and civilization. Together with other folklore forms such as proverbs and songs, stories reflect upon life and the human condition and the world in general. They project man's joys, sorrows, successes, failures, and above all the human desire and capacity to thrive against any odds.

Stories are a rich blend of aspects ranging from philosophical reflections, moral lessons and entertainment. They constitute a dynamic system that adapts itself all the time to changing circumstances, thereby remaining always relevant. Having originated and evolved as an oral tradition, storytelling thrives in written and other modes, including film.

This evening as I was speaking to my Karibu audience, I mentioned some of these things and then told two tales: "The Chief's Daughter" and "How the Ashanti Became Debtors," both from West African Folktales by Steven H. Gale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

African Storytelling at a Birthday Party

This evening I did something I have never done before--performing African folktales at a birthday party. The event took place at the Community Center in Maple Grove, Minnesota. A West African woman and children who had witnessed my storytelling during Afrifest wanted me to do something similar at the birthday party.

I drove from Northfield to Maple Grove and got there around 7pm, the time I was expected, The party was over half way through, and the room was alive with children of different ages as well as adults. The only people I knew were the woman who invited me and her daughter who had attended my Afrifest folktale performance.

I was promptly invited to take the floor and after briefly introducing myself and acknowledging the one girl I had met before, proceeded to tell two West African tales: one about Frog and Spider and one about a character called Money. After the first tale, I asked the children some questions about what they learned from it. As I have always noted when telling tales to children, they have good ideas and speak freely.

I deliberately chose tales that did not involve monsters, violence, or death. This is not because I worry about the children. I have noted over the years, and in different parts of the USA, that children take such tales in stride. It is the adults who have worries and misgivings. I have always been intrigued by this. In fact, today, I asked the girl who attended my Afrifest storytelling whether she thought the tales I told that day were scary. She said no, emphatically.

I concluded my presentation with a few remarks about my work of recording African tales and I held up a copy of Matengo Folktales. Someone asked if the book was for sale, and I said it was, adding that I had brought a few copies. Several people stepped forward to buy them, and I hope they will appreciate the tales as well as my commentaries on them.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Feedback on my Talk at the Cannon River Conference

On April 11, 2015, I spoke at a conference of the Southeastern Minnesota Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote about this event on this blog and on my Swahili blog. I have seen in The Spire, the newsletter of the First Lutheran Church of Red Wing, Minnesota, the following report on my speech.



In April some representatives from First Lutheran, United Lutheran, and St. Paul’s Lutheran attended the women’s Cannon River Conference in Zumbrota. There was a very thorough explanation of the history of the beginnings of the Lutheran church in this area of the country, so there was less time for the main speaker, Joseph Mbele, a St. Olaf professor.

Besides teaching, Professor Mbele works with groups in the area to mediate cultural conflicts. He asked us to look at the positive and the potential in all people; do not rush to judgment. What is natural in one culture may not be correct in another, and what is an issue in one culture might not be an issue in another. 

For example, in Faribault the storekeepers were upset because the Somali men stood in front of the stores or nearby and talked. The storekeepers felt this was loitering and bad for business. In Africa this was the custom to talk together outside stores and it was considered impolite to make a quick purchase and leave. Americans are very concerned about being on time. In Africa it is considered rude to rush by people and not talk to them, and in small villages many are related. On the way to a meeting an African might stop and talk to a number of people, and probably will arrive late to a meeting.

Other examples: In Brooklyn Park other residents were complaining about loud music. In Africa everyone in the small town is invited to a wedding and no invitations are sent out. Child raising views are quite different too; Africans take the phrase, “It takes a village” quite literally. Everyone is supposed to help watch the kids while Americans believe they should only watch their own children and don’t want any help from other people. 

Professor Mbele wrote a book about some of these differences, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, which we purchased for the church library.

The next meeting of the Cannon River Conference will be held in April 2016 at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Red Wing with United and First assisting.

Respectfully submitted,
Nancy Thorson, FLCW President

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Discussion on Adichie's "Purple Hibiscus"

This evening, we had a discussion at St. Olaf College on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus, organized by Professor Joan Hepburn f the English Department. She had lined me up as discussion leader together with herself.

I started the discussion by giving the context of Adichie's life and work. I stated how she fit in the tradition of African Anglophone literature which goes back to the days before independence as is exemplified  in Nigeria by writers like Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, and Cyprian Ekwensi.

I then discussed Adichie, her upbringing on a university campus in Nigeria and her travels abroad, including her time as a student in the USA. I emphasized the cosmopolitanism in both her life and writings. I talked about her writings, highlighting her novels and short stories and giving an overview of her key themes. I mentioned her TED lectures as well.

After my presentation, Professor Hepburn led a discussion of Purple Hibiscus, which moved through key themes such as family, religion, and politics. We dwelt at length on the theme of religion and its peculiar effects on characters like Papa. We probed these themes in depth and discovered the complexity with which they are realized.

Monday, November 9, 2015

"Nyang'au:" A Swahili Poem by Haji Gora Haji

For a number of days, I have been reading Kimbunga, an anthology of Swahili poems by Haji Gora Haji of Zanzibar. I have also been drawn to translating some of them. Having translated "Kimbunga," I decided to translate "Nyang'au," a poem that draws from the oral tradition of story telling as do a number of other poems by Haji Gora Haji.

"Nyang'au" is built around two characters: a human being and a hyena. Interestingly, if not paradoxically, throughout the drama involving the two, we learn about the hyena's feelings and motivations, but not those of the man. This, I can say, is because the man is oblivious to the presence of the hyena. The fact that we, as witnesses, know everything that is going on affords the action a certain dramatic irony.

As an animal, the hyena carries sinister associations in the cultures of many parts of Africa and elsewhere. From ancient times, the hyena has been featured in paintings, sculpture and other art forms. In his Green Hills of Africa, in which he describes various East African animals, Ernest Hemingway expresses his dislike of the hyena.

Hyena features predominantly as the dupe in the folktales of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. Driven by greed, he always lands in deep trouble, on account of either his own stupid decisions or the trickster's intrigues. Haji Gora Haji's "Nyang'au," which we can read as a fable, belongs in a vast, age-old tradition of representation.


1.        Fisi alikichakani, mtu kapita haraka
          Kwa vile yuko mbiyoni, mkono unakwepuka
          Ndipo akatumaini, karibu ya kuanguka
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

2.       Kayanowa yake meno, tayari na kujiweka
          Ukidondoka mkono, afike na kuudaka
          Ajipatie vinono, ale na kufaidika
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

3.       Kafata huku na kule, hakuwa mwenye kuchoka
          Fisi nyuma mtu mbele, endako ajipeleka
          Kungoja mkono ule, apate kunufaika
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

4.       Hakujuwa kama vile, mkono kupeperuka
          Ndiyo yake maumbile, si kwa kuwa wakwanyuka
          Kafatia vile vile, kwa tamaa kumshika
          Mate yakimdondoka, kwa tamaa ya mkono

5.        Yule anayemfata, anakokwenda kafika
          Ndoto aliyoiota, ikakosa uhakika
          Mkono hakuupata, bure alihangaika
          Majuto yakamfika, hakuupata mkono

                                The Hyena

1.       The hyena was in the bush, when a man hurried past
          Speeding as he was, his arm flagged about
          Raising the hyena's hopes that soon it would fall off
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

2.       He sharpened his teeth, positioning himself properly
          So that when the arm fell off, he should promptly catch it
          And enjoy a tasty treat, eating to satisfaction
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

3.       He followed hither and thither, not one to tire of striving
          Coming behind with the man ahead, the hyena trailed the man
          Waiting for that arm, hoping to feast on it
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

4.       Little did he know, that for the arm to flap about
          Was its natural wont, no harbinger of dismemberment
          He nevertheless kept following, choking with desire
          He kept salivating, hungering for the arm

5.       The one he was following, reached his destination
          The dream he had been dreaming, ended in uncertainty
          The arm he failed to get, in vain had he striven
          Deep regrets assailed him, for failing to get the arm.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Course on Muslim Women Writers

I am delighted that in the spring, 2016, I will be teaching a new course, "Muslim Women Writers." Having taught works by Muslim women writers like Mariama Ba, Nawal el Saadawi, Alifa Rifaat, and Leila Aboulela, mostly under the rubric of Post-colonial Literature, I have decided to create a course devoted solely to such writers.

The Muslim world is perhaps the least understood or most misunderstood part of the world among Americans, who tend to see it as homogeneous, and to whom the very name Muslim conjures up images of religious fanaticism and terrorism. They tend to imagine Muslim women as perpetually veiled or burka-clad, suffering in silence under archaic religious and cultural traditions. That there is a longstanding tradition of writing by Muslim women in languages such as Urdu, Arabic, Turkish, Hausa, Swahili, French and English is not well known among Americans.

This course will explore the prevailing misconceptions. With a focus on writings in English and some translations, we will discuss writers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Senegal, and the USA, in the context of Islam, Orientalism, Islamophobia, and Islamic feminism. It will illuminate the ways Muslim women writers imagine and interpret their condition within the framework of culture, religion, and gender.


Friday, October 30, 2015

"Kimbunga:" A Swahili Poem With My English Translation

Swahili, a major African language spoken mostly in Eastern Africa, boasts a written poetic tradition going back several centuries. Evolving on the northern Kenya coast, Swahili spread down the coast and adjacent islands as far as Mozambique, the Comoros, and Madagascar.

Among the greatest Swahili poets are Ali Koti, Bwana Mwengo, Muyaka bin Haji, Mwana Kupona, Shaaban Robert, Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany, Amiri Sudi Andanenga, Abdilatif Abdalla, and Haji Gora Haji, one of whose poems, "Kimbunga," I am presenting here, with my English translation.

A prolific writer, Haji Gora Haji has published poetry, fiction, a dictionary of the Tumbatu dialect of Swahili, and other works. I was privileged to interview him in Zanzibar. This poem, one of Haji Gora Haji's best known, appears in Kimbunga, his first poetry anthology.

Translating works of literature is a challenging and humbling experience. However, it is also rewarding, sharpening one's understanding and appreciation of language, poetics, and aesthetics.

"Kimbunga" is a moving but intriguing poem. It strikes me as an apocalyptic vision reminiscent of W.B. Yeats's "The Second Coming," while exemplifying perfectly Cleanth Brooks's characterization of the language of poetry as "the language of paradox." I hope someday to write about it and my experience of translating it.



1.     Kimbunga mji wa Siyu, kilichowahi kufika
       Si kwa yule wala huyu, ilikuwa patashika
       Kimeing'owa mibuyu, minazi kunusurika
       Nyoyo zilifadhaika.

2.     Yalizuka majabali, yakabirukabiruka
       Zikadidimia meli, ngarawa zikaokoka
       Kimbunga hicho kikali, mavumbi hayakuruka
       Nyoyo zilifadhaika.

3.     Nyumba kubwa za ghorofa, siku hiyo zimeruka
       Zikenenda kwa masafa, kufikia kwa kufika
       Vibanda vyao malofa, vyote vikasalimika
       Nyoyo zikafadhaika.

4.     Chura kakausha mto, maji yakamalizika
       Pwani kulikuwa moto, mawimbi yaliyowaka
       Usufi nusu kipeto, rikwama limevunjika
       Nyoyo zikafadhaika.

5.     Kuna kikongwe ajuza, viumbe kimewateka
       Hicho kinamiujiza, kila rangi hugeuka
       Wataokiendekeza, hilaki zitawafika
       Nyoyo zikafadhaika.

                                 A Hurricane

1.     A hurricane once arrived in Siyu town
       Sparing neither that one nor this one, it was sheer mayhem
       It uprooted baobab trees, the coconut trees surviving
       Hearts went panicking.

2.    Big rocks turned up, tumbling over and over
       Ships were sinking, while mere boats survived
       Fearsome as the hurricane was, it raised no dust
       Hearts went panicking

3.     Great storied houses were blown away that day
       They flew quite a distance, landing wherever they landed
       The huts of the lowly, all survived intact
       And hearts went panicking

4.     The frog drained the river, the water all dried up
       On the shore was conflagration, of the waves flaming
       Half a container of kapok, broke the coolie's cart
       And hearts went panicking

5.     A wizened hag there was, who held beings captive
       She is given to magical powers, changing hues at will
       Those who let her be, perdition will be their lot
       And hearts will go panicking.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Connecting With "Minnesota Prairie Roots"

One of the joys and benefits of participating in fairs and festivals is getting to know people. I learn about the interesting things they do, their experiences, thoughts and dreams.

At the August 22, Faribault International Festival, for example, I met Audrey Kletscher Helbling, a writer and photographer whose blog Minnesota Prairie Roots chronicles Minnesota life in photos and text.

I like Audrey's photographs of Faribault, a city I know well. She deftly captures highlights of the Faribault International Festival. My interest in Literature and Folklore has taught me to see photography as a form of storytelling, and I appreciate it as such.

At the Faribault International Festival this year, Audrey spent some minutes at my table, where I had displayed my books. She took a photo of me, seen above, which she featured on her blog.

Audrey's life story is a rich mix of experiences and accomplishments. I look forward to seeing more of her photographs and reading her works, and perhaps seeing her again next year at the Faribault International Festival.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Interview With Shatona Kilgore-Groves

As an African teaching in a predominantly white liberal arts college located in a predominantly white town in Minnesota, U.S.A., I saw the need, quite early, to enrich my understanding of American society through connecting with other kinds of Americans, starting with African Americans. I joined Pan African organizations in the Minneapolis area. Among the African Americans I got to know was Shatona Kilgore-Groves, seen in the photo, and her family.

Shatona struck me as a person who was genuinely interested in connecting people for the common good. I remember, for example, how she facilitated a gathering of African American authors, which I participated in. I reviewed her first book, in the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder. Naturally, I asked her to share her experiences and ideas with readers of my blog. She graciously agreed, and here is the interview:


JOSEPH:  I wanted to interview you because I have known for years how involved you are in social causes and issues. Can you tell us about your background and how you started in this direction?

SHATONA: I started advocating for parents because of my personal experience with my son who has ADHD. I believe it is important to define ADHD. Especially for people of color who tend to not believe in the diagnosis which doesn’t discriminate based on race or socioeconomic status. Some African Americans feel that black boys are being labeled with ADHD or misdiagnosed because of cultural differences. However, my husband and I were psychology majors in college and knew by the time our son was 3 years old that his behavior was consistent with the symptoms.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, a diagnosis can only be made when there is a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. Our son’s behavior could not be controlled with typical discipline methods that worked with our daughter. He just couldn’t be still, no matter how hard we tried, and we could tell he was really trying.  It was like his inside motor told him to move and he couldn’t shut it off.

At times, we felt like failures, especially around family, a black family that believes in spanking or giving “ the look” and the child should sit still. This didn’t work for us or our son. With children with ADHD the frontal lobe that controls inappropriate actions and thoughts, focus, attention, remembering things from moment to moment, and controlling movement are often disturbed in people with ADHD. So medically our son is different, but ADHD also has positives, most ADHD children are proven to be highly intelligent which our son is. He is highly motivated and normally receives high grades and takes accelerated classes. It took advocating for our child to have a conducive classroom environment to express his gifts.

Advocating for our son led us to requesting an Individualized Education Program (IEP). His program allowed for movement breaks, fidgets, testing accommodations, curb to curb busing, etc. I didn't care as much about the label as much as I cared about his success. However, the IEP meetings were intimidating with an all-white staff and me and my husband the African-Americans. It was about 7-8 school staff and us.

I didn't feel the emotional support from the school which really wasn't their job, but it would of been nice, instead I felt blamed, labeled and that I fit a stereotype that I didn't want to fit into. I knew I wanted to help other parents through the process. I knew I wanted to educate parents on the resources available to them. I knew I wanted black boys to be successful. This doesn't mean I didn't want all kids to be successful. It is ridiculous when people say that, by the way, but some people have a purpose, and it may be exercise and health for diabetes patients, or food for people in Haiti.

My purpose at the time was to help black boys. I then started gathering knowledge on how to successfully do that from parents that had successfully raised a black son because I was afraid for my son. This turned into a book A Black Parent's Memoir: 30 Parents that have Raised an African American Son Tell their Story. However, knowing I couldn't reach every one through the book, I turned it into a weekly support group called The Black Parent Group.

The Black Parent Group is no longer weekly, but we have branched out to workshops, marches, author fairs, women expos, job fairs, and a socializing group. I now offer 1:1 coaching for parents of troubled children. I started on this journey with a bachelor's in Psychology, but because I want to be the most qualified, I obtained my master's degree, school social worker license, and substitute teacher license. I work in schools all over the metro including the Juvenile detention center's to have the most impact on kids.

JOSEPH: Can you tell us more about your current programs?
SHATONA: I view individuals holistically, so I offer programs that can meet not just one need but several.
A Parent Group - a support group for parents of all races raising an African American child.
Women's Expo and Job Fair – An event to promote entrepreneurship and connect qualified woman to careers to increase financial stability.
Networking Group - A monthly networking group that meets to support other entrepreneurs and hold one another accountable to achieve our business goals, this networking group has a free advice FB page and a page to promote our businesses.
Socializing Group - The socializing group is designed for women to take a break from all the stressors of the world and relax. We also focus on building friendships which is harder to do once you become an adult.

JOSEPH: I know you are also a writer. What inspired you to write and are there challenges you face as a writer?

SHATONA: I started writing books to help parents, then my second book was to help people heal emotionally and spiritually, my last book demonstrates to all children suffering from ADHD that they could be successful. 

I enjoy writing and I don't do it for the money, I do it because it is what I was called to do by the God I serve. It connects me to several awesome people like you Mr. Mbele. I enjoy the author fairs I attend and hearing how my books are so well received in every community. I am blessed to be able to write. I now have a blog so I can write about my many interests. I enjoy being a part of the blogging community. They are my virtual family. You can find my blog at - there is so much negativity in the world I decided to celebrate positive news. 

JOSEPH: I have known for years about your  involvement in efforts to bring together Africans and African Americans. What lessons or advice would you like to share from your experience?

SHATONA: I have to say that I am selfish in my attempts to bring Africans and African Americans together. African Americans were robbed of their heritage and were separated from our true families which were from Africa. So bringing these 2 groups together is necessary. My advice is for both groups to stop the nonsense and love one another. Build off each other’s strengths, support one another where the other is weak. Let's come together to create harmony and financial stability. There are differences because of the cultures and the cultural differences should be celebrated, not ignored but this doesn't mean one group is superior to the other. 

JOSEPH: What are your plans for the days ahead, in terms of social programs, writing, and whatever else?

SHATONA: This is a great time for me because my daughter just went off to a great college and this was a personal accomplishment met. My son that has ADHD is 13 and he is managing his life better than ever. We still have our challenges with his organization skills and other health challenges but he is growing up so I am finding more time for myself and  my goals. My husband  is supportive and helps me with my dreams. Thus, in the near future, I am planning for a Black Parent Group meeting with the topic of "What does black mean to you?" to  discuss unconscious biases. I am also planning the 2016 Expo and Job Fair. As always, I am writing and plan to start on another book on a topic I've never written about before. Life is exciting, everyday a new endeavor, and I don't plan on stopping any of my personal pursuits at this time. I will lead programs, teach, counsel, organize events,  coach parents, write, and be everything I was created to be.

To purchase Shatona’s books:

My South Asian Literature Course is Underway

My South Asian Literature course has completed its third week, and I am pleased with it. We have read Bapsi Sidhwa's Water and watched Deepa Mehta's movie of the same name, on which the novel is based. Having taught two other novels by Sidhwa--Cracking India and The Crow Eaters--I found it easy to introduce Sidhwa to my class, situating her within the South Asian Literary tradition.

Reading Water has been eye-opening. Never had I encountered a novel that explored so deeply and passionately the situation of widows in Hindu society. I had some understand of Hindu traditions regarding widows, such as the concept and practice of sati. Water, however afforded a more detailed, more nuanced understanding of the existential condition of widows sanctioned by the religious doctrines going back thousands of years.

The central character is a young girl, Chuyia, married when she was barely ten to a man in his fifties and widowed soon thereafter. In accordance with Hindu Brahmanic tradition, she is taken away from her parents' home and put into an ashram, a home for widows. Chuyia's experiences in the ashram elicit the deepest sadness and sympathy especially since she entertains the hope of returning home sooner rather than later, little knowing that that is not possible.

Before Chuyia is widowed, we hear about the illness of her husband, Hira Lal, through the thoughts of Bhagya, her mother:

She and Somnah [her husband] both knew that if Hira Lal managed to recover, Chuyia would be allowed to return home; but if he didn't recover she would be a widow and she would never return to them....Bhagya's thoughts tormented her all night. She knew that in Brahmin culture, once widowed, a woman was deprived of her useful function in society--that of reproducing and fulfilling her duties to her husband. She ceased to exist as a person; she was no longer either daughter or daughter-in-law. There was no place for her in the community, and she was viewed as a threat to the society. A woman's sexuality and fertility, which was so valuable to her husband in his lifetime, was converted upon his death into a potential danger to the morality of the community. Bhagya's heart was filled with dread (p. 31-32).

When I think about the relationship between films and novels, I assume that the novels came first, inspiring the film makers. Sidhwa's novel, however, reverses this pattern. Watching the film after we had read the novel, I had a hard time keeping this in mind. I appreciated both, nevertheless, touched by the film's vivid portrayals of scenes, characters, and scenery that I had encountered in the novel. The colours and sounds in the film brought back memories of the month I spent in India in 1991.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

If You Like My Writing, Please Support "Papa's Shadow"

I know there are thousands of readers of  my writings out there, thousands who have read my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. A number of these have told me how much they like this book.

One of them is Patrick Hemingway, the only remaining child of Ernest Hemingway. Having lived for much of his adult life--over twenty years--in my country, Tanganyika (later Tanzania), he knows exactly what I am saying in this book, which he calls "a tool of survival."

I wish to let my dear readers know that I have joined hands with Patrick Hemingway to share our reflections on his famous father. We appear in a documentary film by Jimmy Gildea titled Papa's Shadow, discussing Ernest Hemingway's life, travels, writings, and thoughts, especially those connected with his African experiences in 1933-34 and 1953-54.

If you have read my Africans and Americans book, you will enjoy hearing Patrick Hemingway mentioning it and reading from it as he and I talk about Hemingway's appreciation of different cultures.

Papa's Shadow is a unique documentary. It will change the way people view Ernest Hemingway. I saw this a few weeks ago at its premiere screening in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis.

The documentary is completed, but it will only be released after certain costs are  met. There is a fund drive going on, scheduled to end just over a week from now. As a contributor to this effort, I am joining hands with Ramble Pictures, the company that Jimmy founded, to solicit the remaining contributions. There are special incentives attached to the contributions, including a signed copy of my Africans and Americans book, for contributions over 200 dollars.

Read more about Papa's Shadow, and, if you can, make your contribution at this Kickstarter site.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Sequel to My "Africans and Americans" Book

I am working on a sequel to my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. This is partly in response to inquiries and request from my readers and partly because I have known for a long time that I needed to keep writing, given the breadth and complexity of the topic of the first book, not to mention its dynamism.

On the tenth year anniversary of the book, I publicly declared that I was working on a sequel. I have to fulfill the promise, mindful of the Swahili proverb, "Ahadi ni deni," A promise is a debt. This second book will contain a number of short essays I have published as well as revisions of talks I have given to various audiences. I hope to finish and publish it before the end of the year. I already have the title for it, but I want to keep it as a surprise.

I thank my readers very much for their responses to my Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences as I did in the following video commemorating the book's tenth year anniversry.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Papa's Shadow: A Documentary on Hemingway in East Africa

Though not yet released, the documenatry film, Papa's Shadow, by Jimmy Gildea and the Ramble Pictures crew, continues to generate excitement and anticipation. The latest evidence of this is a preview in Indiewire.

The documentary stems from my course, Hemingway in East Africa, and features a conversation between Patrick Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway's only remaining child, and me, centered on Hemingway's lifelong fascination with Africa, manifested through his life, travels, writings, and ideas.

Though completed, Papa's Shadow will only be released after the completion of a fundraising drive which is underway, with only about three weeks left.  My daughter Zawadi, who volunteers with Ramble Pictures, sent out the following appeal:


My name is Zawadi Mbele, and I am contacting you today to let you know about an amazing project. Ramble Pictures, a Minneapolis-based, independent film company, recently launched a 30-day "Kickstarter" campaign in order to raise funds for the distribution of our completed documentary, Papa's Shadow.

Papa's Shadow is a personal film about Ernest Hemingway in East Africa. It explores his hunting expeditions and holds key dialogues on subjects such as race, language, and the cultures that distinguish us as citizens of the world. Featuring exclusive testimony by Ernest's only living son, Patrick Hemingway, as well as Tanzanian author and Hemingway scholar, Dr. Joseph Mbele, this documentary explores the integral role of two safaris in their shaping of an author and demise of a legend. 

Kickstarter webpage
 to learn more about how you can play an important role in bringing this documentary to distribution. Also, with Kickstarter, we are offering exclusive rewards with every donation, such as the new Hemingway Library Edition of "Greens Hills of Africa," signed by Patrick Hemingway. 

If there is someone else from your organization you would recommend contacting, we would be grateful to have our information passed along. If you can, please take the time to explore our webpage and let me know if you have any questions at all. You can email me directly or email Elizabeth Turner at

Thank you for your time, and we look forward to hearing back from you!


Zawadi Mbele

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Teaching South Asian Literature Again

We have just begun the fall semester, here at St. Olaf College. I am teaching two courses: First Year Writing and South Asian Literature. I just want to say a word about the Literature course.

Having included various South Asian writers regularly in my Post-colonial Literature course, I moved into teaching South Asian Literature rather easily. Year after year, I have developed a broader and deeper understanding of the literature and cultures of this region. Therefore, I have been eager to teach new texts, confident that I can situate them in the context of the tradition they spring from and participate in.

This semester, I have chosen to use texts I have neither read nor taught before. These are The Artist of Disappearance, by Anita Desai; Noontide Toll, by Romesh Gunesekera; The Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri; Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee; The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje; and Water, by Bapsi Sidhwa.

Unlike in the past, I have decided to focus on contemporary writers. I will, of course, be making references to the long tradition going back to the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and other Sanscritic texts, incorporating well known literary giants like Rabindranath Tagore, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, and more recent ones like Anita Desai and Salman Rushdie.

As always, since the field of South Asian Literature is so vast and ever-changing--like any other regional literary tradition--I am going to be asking myself why I have chosen particular authors and not others, why particular texts and not others. Nevertheless, I look forward to a memorable learning experience, for my students and me.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Seenaa Oromia's "The In-Between"

A few days ago, I wrote about a book event in Minneapolis featuring Seena Godana-Dulla Jimjimo and her book The In-Between: The Story of African-Oromo Women and the American Experience. Today I finished reading the book and wish to comment on it.

The In-Between is a thoughtful meditation on the predicament of the oppressed and marginalized, starting with the Oromos of East Africa and incorporating women in Oromo and African society at home in Africa as well as abroad, specifically America, which the author knows first hand. In the process, The In-Between deals with other social evils, such as discrimination, prejudice, and violence.

The In-Between is also a manifesto, which outlines the author's vision of what needs to be done to solve the problems she details. She calls for educating women about their rights, solidarity between men and women in pursuit of equal rights, the abandonment of negative cultural and religious beliefs and practices which perpetuate the oppression of women.

Among the most memorable aspects of the book are accounts of the suffering the author and her family experienced in their homeland, Oromia, whose existence is overshadowed in the mind of the world by the name Ethiopia. The In-Between presents an illuminating account of the complex dynamics of Oromo organizations which have been attempting to unify and mobilize Oromos in Oromia and abroad. It shows that the Oromos are not homogeneous; they have differences which some individuals, as well as their oppressors, exploit for their own interests.

This book helps outsiders to understand aspects of the country we know as Ethiopia which are not generally known, especially the conflicts among Ethiopia's ethnic groups and the domination of the Oromos by the Abbyssinian regime.

The author was born and raised in Oromia and experienced, together with her family, relatives, and people she knew, the suffering she is writing about . She came to the USA as a teenager and soon involved herself in student organizations and Oromo diaspora politics. The idea of "the in-between" refers to people like her, who find themselves caught between two worlds.

The In-Between holds much promise. It charts the  trajectory the author has set her sights on as a passionate and thoughtful activist in the cause of the oppressed and marginalized--women, children and others--from Oromia to the U.S.A. and around the world. I learned much from this book, especially its insightful and sensitive depiction of the condition of women.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Comments on my "Africans and Americans" Book

I always like to acknowledge readers of my books who take the trouble to share their comments publicly. I appreciate their generosity of spirit very much. Here are such comments on my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differenes, from, which indicate the book format the reader bought.

By Professional Strong Man on August 6, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Mbele takes on the arduous task of comparing American and African cultural differences, focusing mostly on Tanzanian culture and customs - and he does this in less than 100 pages. Anyone interested in this topic will find mostly anecdotal comments and observations from someone who has spent time on both continents. In the end Mbele notes that people are different and that we should embrace and accommodate our differences as much as possible. This is a good book with good information to consider if you are traveling to Africa anytime soon or hosting an exchange student from Africa.

I am traveling to Tanzania later this year as part of a faculty exchange program and found Mbele's comments and observations useful. I was very glad to discover that many Tanzanians appreciate good beer and that the overall pace of life is a bit slower than that found in the US. I'm was already looking forward to the trip and after reading this book I am even more excited. Asante sana Prof. Mbele!
By Ruth Ann Baker on June 9, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Learned some things I don't think I could find elsewhere. There is Lots of info on relationships and social etiquette.

By NatalieD on August 30, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Excellent information for Tanzanian and American travelers alike.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

African Folktales Without Happy Endings

On August 2, 2015, during Afrifest 2015 in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, I performed African folktales as part of the festival program.  I chose two tales--"Hawk and Crow" and "The Monster in the Rice Field"--from my book Matengo Folktales. The photo on the left shows me as I was impersonating the monster in the second tale, who was snatching away members of a family, one after the other, as they were out in the field, away from home, watching over their rice.

Neither of the tales has a happy ending. The first ends in a bloody fight between Hawk and Crow in which Crow is killed. In the second tale, the monster takes away the entire family. With the disappearance of each member of the family, the tale builds suspense, the audience wondering with increasing anticipation what is going to happen next. The last member of the family is taken away by the monster, and that is the end of the tale.

When I declared to my Afrifest 2015 audience that the tale was over, I knew what to expect. There was spontaneous laughter mixed with disbelief and puzzlement, and at least one person exclaimed, "We want a happy ending!" I had told tales from Matengo Folktales to audiences across the United States and, again and again, the endings left the audiences puzzled or incredulous.

There is a general expectation in American society that tales should have a happy ending, as is underlined by the famous sentence, "And they lived happily thereafter." This expectation is related to the idea of the pursuit of happiness which is deeply ingrained in  the minds of Americans.

African folktales tend to emphasize that life consists of ups and downs, that it is a mixture of joy and sadness, good luck and misfortune, success and failure. In life, good is not always rewarded and evil is not always punished. This is not an anomaly in African cultures. Traditionally, African youths were brought up to face challenges and be brave, through practices such as initiation rites, which were difficult, to say the least, meant to prepare boys and girls for the responsibilities of adulthood, marriage and parenthood.

I was not surprised at Afrifest 2015 that people expected happy endings. I felt they have succumbed to the American fantasy of the pursuit of happiness. But I have to honour the African storytelling tradition. There are certain changes a storyteller can make in the telling of tales, and some changes are inevitable, because performers don't usually memorize a text or read from a book. In a way, they create in performance. Nevertheless, there are core aspects of the tale that must be kept intact.

As we explore different folktale traditions and the cultures they spring from or operate in, we will encounter surprising and even shocking aspects. Researchers have noted this from the earliest days of the tradition of recording folktales, exemplified by the German brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm since the early years of the nineteenth century. With the passing of time and the rise of such influences as Disney films, there have evolved expectations about folktales such as I have described, including happy endings.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Afrifest Foundation Board Meeting, August 27

The board of the Afrifest Foundation held its meeting--via teleconference--this evening. We started with a review of this year's Afrifest, which was held on August 2.

We noted that the event went well, with an array of vendors and activities, including children's games, drumming, storytelling, and soccer games. The attendance was greater than last year.

We are glad to have been joined by the Multicultural Kids Network, which kept the children engaged with drumming and other activities. We look forward to the participation of Multicultural Kids Network in Afrifest next year and beyond.

We talked about what we have learned from this year and what we need to do for next year. Foremost among these is the need to start our planning early, reaching out to potential sponsors, vendors, and volunteers.

We reminded ourselves about the special nature of the mission of Afrifest, which is to showcase and celebrate the cultural achievements of Africans and the African Diaspora, promote education about the historical and global African experience. Afrifest distinguishes itself from many other organizations in that it fosters education and the spirit of Pan Africanism.

We also discussed our existing relationships with organizations such as the Council on Black Minnesotans, and affirmed our desire to cultivate relationships with various African organizations in the Twin Cities and beyond.

We are grateful to our volunteers, vendors, media partners, and the City of Brooklyn Park, whose support was crucial for the success of this year's Afrifest. We look forward to Afrifest 2016.

For photos and videos of this year's festival, please visit Afrifest 2015