Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Teaching "The Trickster and the Hero"

For the last three weeks, I have been teaching a January course titled "The Trickster and the Hero." I designed this course in 1990, when I was teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam. I had just been hired by the English Department at St. Olaf College to introduce Post colonial literature and the department chair asked me if I would like to design and teach a January course.

I knew right away that I would like to teach a course on the hero and the trickster. I had done my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980-86 and had written my doctoral dissertation on The Hero in the African Epic. Professor Harold Scheub, one of my professors and my main dissertation advisor, had sparked my interest in the hero and the trickster. 

Almost every year, for the twenty five years I have taught at St. Olaf College, I have taught my hero and trickster course. I start with Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in North American Indian Mythology. After that, I usually teach some more trickster tales from other traditions, drawn from various traditions, such as Anansi, Gizo, Nasreddin Hodja, and Hare, the ubiquitous trickster of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. I often incorporate trickster tales from my own collection, Matengo Folktales.

After exploring oral traditional trickster tales, I move on to epics. Over the years, I have used The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Book of Dede Korkut, Gassire's Lute, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, and Ibonia. I then move on to works of fiction. I have used novels such as Things Fall Apart, The Guide, and The Lonely Londoners, which afford further opportunity to explore the figure of the trickster and the hero in written literature. Then we read Things Fall Apart, and we are now reading The Guide. I hope to conclude with theoretical works which deal with the hero from the perspective of formalism, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

This January, we started with Paul Radin's The Trickster, watched a recording of comedian Louis CK, went on to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ibonia, Things Fall Apart, and The Guide. With only three days to go, I am in the process of concluding with theoretical perspectives as I have noted above.

Studying the trickster is an opportunity to reflect on a major figure in folklore and literature. So is studying the hero. I say as much in my course description:

The figure of the trickster is one of the most enduring of all the characters we encounter in literature and folklore, from the earliest times to the present. The figure of the hero is equally prevalent and engaging. In this course, we will study manifestations of these figures in the folklore and literature of various cultures and epochs. Our focus, though, will be Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean traditions. We will try to understand the social origins and functions of hero and trickster tales, using theories such as those of Paul Radin, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Alan Dundes. We will try also to explore the manifestations and influences of the hero and trickster archetypes in our lives. In addition to folklore stories, we will study selected literary texts, in order to understand how they appropriate the motifs and patterns of trickster and hero narratives. This is a great way to understand an important dimension of the making of literature.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tempo Afric TV Celebration

On January 9, 2016, I attended a celebration of Tempo Afric TV, at Jambo Africa Restaurant in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. Tempo Afric TV is the brainchild of Malick Sall, a Senegalese enterpreneur based in the Twin Cities.

People from various African countries and the U.S.A. attended the event. With Malick as host and Josiah Kibira, founder and director of Kibira Films International, as master of ceremonies, speakers--including the keynote speaker Farida Nabourema--expressed lofty sentiments about Tempo Afric TV: the road it has traveled, its growing impact in the world, and its future.

Started by amateurs, Tempo Afric TV now produces an array of programs, embracing economic, political, social and cultural issues. It showcases Africa and the African Diaspora, channeling and projecting the realities, accomplishments, and aspirations of people of African descent.

About a dozen key volunteers were recognized and awarded certificates. The photo above, by Dr. Alvine Laure, shows, from left to right, Josiah Kibira, Petros Haile, founder and director of African Global Roots, and Malick Sall.

Tempo Afric TV volunteers are passionate visionaries, committed to making a difference not only here in Minnesota and in the USA, but around the world. They seek to counter the colonial and neo-colonial legacy of marginalization and misrepresentations, mindful of the fact that we have the means now, in the form of communication technologies, to tell our own story.

I am a relative new comer to Tempo Afric TV, having been introduced to it last year by Petros Haile, who interviewed me on issues pertaining to my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. However, having attended the Tempo Afric TV event on Saturday, I am more inspired than ever to fully involve myself in its work, so noble and indispensable.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Cultural Learning is a Two Way Street

For a number of years, I have been offering cultural orientation to Americans going to Africa or those dealing with Africans here in the U.S.A. I have been doing the same to Africans who live in the U.S.A.

I have noted that Americans tend to be quite aware of the need to learn about the African ways. Wanting to do the right thing, they do not hesitate to ask for guidance. I can testify to this from the requests I get to offer such orientation.

My experience with fellow Africans in the U.S.A. has been somewhat different. These Africans have been mostly immigrants and refugees, who tend to desire to be understood and accommodated by the Americans. The Somalis, for example, who have moved into a number of cities in Minnesota and beyond, consistently appeal to the fact that they are Muslims and need to be able to abide by the norms of their religion, such as praying five times a day, not eating pork or drinking alcohol.

I think these are appropriate expectations, and as I have noted, Americans tend to want to understand them in order not to offend anyone. American society has evolved to a point where people are wary of offending any one or any group.

Still, I feel that the Africans and other foreigners who have come to the U.S.A. should learn about American culture and live by it, unless there are valid reasons not to do so, such religious beliefs.

I remember an episode from a talk I gave to immigrants, mostly Somalis and other Africans, in Mankato, Minnesota, about raising children in the U.S.A. During question time, a Somali woman, in typical Somali Islamic attire, asked me to advise her what to do with her daughter who was wearing jeans.

She was very concerned, and I had a hard time finding the right way to respond. I did emphasize, however, that this is a different culture, and jeans are acceptable in this culture, even for young women. I told her she should just pray and be grateful that her daughter was not breaking the laws of this country. She seemed to understand my point, but I do not know if she was entirely satisfied.

Yes, cultural learning is a two way street. That is what I emphasize in my book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences. It is the point I make whenever I offer cultural orientation, whether in Africa or in the U.S.A.