Friday, February 27, 2015

Skyping With a Mythologies Class

Yesterday morning, I held a Skype session with a Montana State University Mythologies class. Their instructor, Kristofer Olsen, had told me that the class would be reading my book, Matengo Folktales, and had wondered if I might be willing to talk with the class via Skype. I gladly accepted the request and asked my daughter Zawadi to show me, again, how to Skype.

The class started, as planned, at 10:30, and we covered much ground. As soon as the class got underway, I was asked to tell a tale, a short one. Noting that I always tell the tales instead of reading them, I told the tale of "Hawk and Crow."

I wanted the class to experience a live performance, even though I was telling the tale in English, as opposed to the original Matengo, my mother tongue. Above all, I wanted them to hear the song which features in the tale and is repeated a number of times.

The class knew that the songs in Matengo Folktales are available in Let Your Voice Be Heard, a CD by a group called Cantus, which was based at St. Olaf College. I briefly talked about how I had sung the songs for fellow St. Olaf College Professor Peter Hamlin, which he then arranged for Cantus.

I enjoyed the experience of Skyping, interacting with a class located more than 900 miles away, in Bozeman, Montana. Particularly memorable were the questions they asked me, about the process of recording and translating the tales, the nature of language and cultural groups, the prevalence of killings in the tales. Regarding what my favourite tale was, I stated that I saw each tale as special in its own way.

The subject of trickster came up, with a focus on Ananse. I broadened the scope by noting the variety of trickster figures, including those who appear in the form of animals, such as Ananse (Spider), Gizo (Spider), Ijapa (Tortoise), and Hare, as well as those who appear unambiguously as humans, such as  Nasreddin Hodja, and Abu Nuwas. I also mentioned Carl Jung as a valuable source of insights into the origins, meaning and function of the trickster figure.

As an advocate of cross-cultural learning and interactions, I salute any initiatives that advance that goal, such as the Cantus project I have mentioned and the Mythologies course I participated in.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

A Visit to South Central College

Two days ago, on February 24, I visited South Central College in Mankato, to talk with students who were preparing to travel to South Africa on a study abroad program. Then I gave a well attended public talk, "Writing About Americans." Becky Fjelland Davis did a wonderful job of organizing my visit. She knew about me, and had even invited me to speak in her class in 2013, a visit she reported on her blog.

My conversation with the South Africa-bound class was part of the orientation for the trip. Since the class had been reading my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, I chose to dwell on answering questions stemming from the book and any other questions that might arise.

As it turned out, there were many engaging questions about cultural differences. One question that stood out arose from my observation regarding African work habits, which, I claimed, are rather relaxed, compared to those of Americans. I said that I feel Africans could learn something from the Americans and work harder.

An African American woman in the audience asked me pointedly whether I was implying that Africans are lazy. She observed that white people had historically described black people as lazy, and she wondered whether that was what I was implying.

I could sense that she was somewhat upset, perhaps very upset, even though she framed her question in a restrained and respectful manner. I thanked her for raising that question and assured her that I never meant to say, even suggest, that the Africans were lazy.

On the contrary, I said, I think the Africans apparent laziness reflects a culture of privileging social relations over anything else. With its stress on community and human relations, the African culture is an antidote to the kind of alienation that afflicts American society. Still, I said, l think it would be beneficial for Africans to adopt something from the Americans' work habits, if only in order to improve their material circumstances.

That gives a sense of what transpired during the class discussion. When the class ended, my hostess, Becky Felland Davis, escorted me into an auditorium full of people, where I gave a talk titled "Writing About Americans."

I shared the story of how I came to write my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, starting from the years when I offered advice and cultural orientation to Americans going to Africa as students, volunteers, tourists. I talked about how I wrote and rewrote the drafts for the book, and how that process enabled me to not only represent Americans but also  discover my own biases and prejudices.

I talked about how, eventually, I settled on a text that treated both the African and the American cultures respectfully, even though I chose humour as my strategy, in order to render palatable and enjoyable the things I was saying about both cultures.

I said quite a few things, and this might not be the place to report everything. Time flew past, and, as I concluded my talk, it was clear that people had enjoyed it. You can read a report about it that Becky wrote on her blog.

Friday, February 20, 2015

My "Africans and Americans" Book in the Kindle Store

A few weeks ago, I reported on this blog that I had just created a Kindle version of my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. I did not say how and why I decided to produce the book in that format.

However, I did state the reasons on my Swahili blog. I wrote that I wanted to keep up with changes in technology. I also said that I was basically forced to go the Kindle way by an experience I had had at a Twin Cities Book Festival.

At that Festival, a gentleman stopped by my vendor table and started checking my books. Holding the Africans and Americans book, which he apparently liked, he asked whether it was available on Kindle. I replied, with some embarrassment, that it wasn't. He told me plainly that he flies regularly, and he doesn't want to carry around a load of books. He prefers e-books.

That conversation weighed upon my heart for months and forced me to think seriously about making my book available on Kindle. Consequently, as I noted on this blog, I succeeded, after some attempts, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

The book is now available in the Kindle store. It is also available as a printed book at Amazon, as well in my online store, where it first appeared.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Reading "The Kalevala"

I have started reading The Kalevala, the Finnish epic, in preparation for teaching it in my Folklore course. It is proving to be a most enjoyable learning experience. How I wish I had read this epic years ago, when I first heard about it. I would have cited it again and again in my Folklore and Literature classes, since it offers much food for thought and for comparative studies.

I always start my Folklore course with discussions of the origin and evolution of language, which goes hand in hand with the origin and evolution of storytelling and folklore as such. I enjoy sharing with my students what the experts have been saying about the evolution and diversification of the functions of language and storytelling  from the earliest  beginnings. I enjoy sharing the theories about the interface between orality and literacy as discussed so eloquently and insightfully by people like Walter Ong.

In view of all this, I have been moved by how The Kalevala presents the issue of the power and magic of language. The Kalevala exemplifies the art of storytelling in a masterful fashion. It weaves together  adventure, suspense, and unexpected outcomes.

I am intrigued by Old Vainamoinen, the central character and magician par excellence. He patiently listens to an opinionated young man who would measure his knowledge against Old Vainamoinen's and then, by the sheer power of speech, punishes the young man in a manner he will never forget. After the young man begs for mercy, Old Vainamoinen frees the young man, again through the sheer power of words.

When asked by a young lady he desires to accomplish a series of seemingly impossible feats, Old Vainamoinen does so, but, in the end, gracefully admits that he is unable to make the Sampo. He tells the young lady that he will get in touch with Ilmarinen, the peerless master smith, who will surely make the Sampo.

That is what happens. Old Vainamoinen travels from the young lady's home in the remote northern lands back to his home and contacts Ilmarinen with the news of the young lady and what she wants before she will consent to marry any man.

Ilmarinen travels all the way to the young lady's home and, after much effort, succeeds in making the Sampo. Here is what follows:

          Then the smith Ilmarinen
               went to beg the girl.
          He uttered a word, spoke thus:
          'Will you marry me, maid, now
          that the Sampo is finished
               and the bright-lid fair?'

          But that fair girl of the North
               put this into words:
               'And who here next year
               who the third summer
          would set the cuckoo calling
               set the birds singing
          if I went elsewhere and came,
          a berry, to other lands!
          If this hen were to be lost
          if this goose were to wander
          mother's offspring were to stray
          the cowberry went away
          all the cuckoos would be lost
          the joy-birds would move away
               from the peaks of this
          knoll, the shoulders of this ridge.
          Nor am I free otherwise
          cannot leave my maiden days
               these jobs to be done
               in the summer rush--
          berries on the land un-picked
               the bay shores unsung
          untrodden by me the glades
          the groves unplayed in by me.'

      The Kalevala, 117-118.

Ilmanarinen, crestfallen and sorrowful as he is, gracefully takes his leave and prepares to go back home, out of this "dark" and "dreary" place, as the poet/narrator describes it.

Reading this, I recalled the words inscribed in the casket the Prince of Morocco chooses in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in his unsuccessful bid to win Portia's hand in marriage:

          All that glitters is not gold--
          Often have you heard that told;
          Many a man his life hath sold
          But my outside to behold;
          Gilded tombs do worms infold:
          Had you been as wise as bold,
          Young in limbs, in judgement old,
          Your answer had not been inscrolled.
          Fare you well, your suit is cold.
William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, II, VII, 66-74.

I have read only about one fifth of the epic, but this has whetted my thirst for more. I look forward to going through the rest of the epic, full of admiration for the enormous effort and skill Elias Lonnrot put into creating this epic, and truly impressed by Keith Bosley's translation of it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sister Spokesman Wellness Event, February 7

On February 7, I participated in a Sister Spokesman wellness event at the Summit Academy OIC in Minneapolis. The theme of the event was "From the Heart: Heart Awareness." When I first learned about the event, I thought it was only for women. Wishing to be a vendor, I called the organizers to find out. Upon learning that I would be welcome, I arranged and paid for a table.

I left Northfield early on the event date and arrived at around 11.35am. I entered the venue, at Summit Academy OIC, not knowing what to expect. Most vendors were there, and some were still coming. I completed the set-up of my vendor table, assisted by daughter Assumpta, and soon the program started.

Tracey Williams Dillard, CEO/Publisher of the Minnesota Spokesman Recorder, opened the proceedings and served as the MC throughout. Gentle and seemingly indefatigable, she facilitated the diverse program smoothly to the very end.

There was a panel consisting of Dr. Sue Everson Rose of the University of Minnesota Program in Health Disparities Research; Angela Winston-Herbert, Fitness Expert with Angela's Faith & Fitness; and Anika Robbins, Executive Director of the ANIKA Foundation. They discussed the health challenges facing African American women, including heart disease, stress, and disparities in health care between them and other sections of the population. They covered issues such as food choices and preparation and the importance of adequate sleep, exercise and proper relationships, and the timely diagnosis of health conditions.

Sheronda Orridge, spoken word artist, gave a performance rich in social criticism and wisdom.

As I have suggested, there were quite a few vendors. I was not able to talk with all of them and learn about their services and products. I did, however, talk with Andria Livingston, owner of Silk Reflections, which specializes in custom handmade accessories. She can be reached at and on facebook.

Another vendor I was able to talk with, albeit briefly, was Annie's Apparel and Accessories.

Val "I am Zumba" Turner invited people to some zumba dancing which was very vigorous and entertaining. Everybody enjoyed it, not only the people who stepped onto the floor to dance, but we spectators as well. If it were not for the fact that I am still unwell, I would have joyfully participated in the dancing.

One of the indisputable benefits of such events is the networking opportunities they offer. I got to know several people. Here I am seen conversing with Laura, who did a good job of helping people throughout the event.

I also had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Susan Everson-Rose and learned how passionate she was on research on stress and related matters. Although we did not have much time to talk, I remember she talked about psychological dimension of stress, while I talked about the cultural dimensions. It was clear that our interests and perspectives overlap in significant ways.

My daughters Assumpta and Zawadi came to lend me a hand at my vendor table, where we displayed three of my books: Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, Matengo Folktales, and Notes on Achebe's Things Fall Apart. The full list of my books is available from my online bookstore or from me, phone (507) 403-9756, email

As the program was drawing to a close, Sheronda Orridge stepped up again, to share some more spoken word performance, which delighted the audience.

This was a memorable event, and I am glad my daughters and I attended it. I value my daughters' participation in such events, which enable them to meet people and broaden their perspectives on social and cultural issues. I have three daughters, and they all enjoy participating in these community events together with me.

Summit Academy OIC, the venue for this month's Sister Spokesman event, was excellent, in my opinion, not least because it was easily accessible. The atmosphere of the event was warm and welcoming. At one point, vendors were given the opportunity to talk about themselves, their products and services. When my turn came, I enjoyed introducing myself, talking about my work as an educator, writer and cultural consultant. I salute the Sister Spokesman for organizing events of this nature, which take place every month. You can follow them here and on facebook.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Spring Semester Started Today

The Spring semester at St. Olaf College started today, and I met the two classes I am going to teach: Post-colonial Literature and Folklore. I spent the time, as I always do on the first day, introducing myself, my teaching philosophy, and my expectations.

I stressed that I consider the classroom a special place, the only space for true, unfettered freedom of thought and expression. I do not believe such freedom exists anywhere else. Students should use this opportunity to the fullest extent possible, articulating their thoughts and perspectives, challenging, whenever possible, the thoughts and perspectives of fellow students and me.

I also began exploring the definitional and theoretical controversies around the concepts of "Post-colonial Literature" and "Folklore." In both classes, time seemed to fly so fast that I couldn't say everything I had wanted to say. I promised to continue this discourse on Wednesday, Insh'Allah.

I am happy to be back in the classroom, to be with students again, exploring issues together, in the kind of dialogic manner proposed by educators like Paulo Freire. I wish I could be as effective as Socrates and Jesus in provoking thoughts and challenging conventional wisdom or common sense, crossing boundaries and opening up new horizons of knowledge and understanding.

How I wish I could inspire all my students to be lifelong seekers of knowledge. I wish, through studying Literature and Folklore, humanistic disciplines both, that we could make ourselves better and better human beings.