Sunday, October 16, 2005

**Es'kia Mphahlele's African Literary Journey

Es'kia Mphahlele, as a dapper Drum magazine journalist in Johannesburg
in the early 50s. This photo is courtesy of Jurgen Schadeberg,
who captured Black South Africa during the Drum era.
Check out his web site--it's a fascinating visual journey.

Once again, this article is part of my Eye on Africa series. I feel honored that I had the opportunity to meet and interview Ezekiel Mphahlele. He is truly one of the giants of our African cultural leaders, and given his age, this recent visit to the States may be his last--he doesn't travel here very much. Meeting Es'kia reminded me somewhat of a chance encounter I once had with James Baldwin 22 years ago; they both had a powerful presence, a profound wisdom and soft-spoken intellect that is subtle yet overwhelming. I would have loved to have spent more time with Es'kia (or for that matter, James Baldwin), but alas, there never seems to be enough time to spend with these great "fundis." Their writings live on for future generations, but sadly, their time is limited in this world. In this article I wanted to present Es'kia in the broadest context of his life, and to hint at his ideas of "African humanism" which I believe can form the basis of a viable and creative African educational system.

Es'kia Mphahlele's African Literary Journey

“The minds I would be dealing with were
already unchained by their own effort. Give people a poor education and the mind will soon find a way out. Revolt is then inevitable. No, the mind cannot be chained forever...”
- Es'kia Mphahlele

Throughout my experiences and travels in Africa, I have followed the shadow of Es’kia Mphahlele--his reflection, traces of his footprints—until one fine, late August day, I met face to face with the world-acclaimed novelist, educator and African philosopher. The 85 year-old former University of Denver professor lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was in Denver on a rare trip (and perhaps his last) to the United States. I had the good fortune of being introduced through a mutual friend and spending an afternoon of evocative conversation in the backyard shade of a quiet Park Hill home. It was an extraordinary encounter.

Ezekiel “Es’kia” Mphahlele is one of Africa’s most revered writers and scholars, known both for his literary works as well as for his activism in arts, cultural and educational matters. He was initially trained as a teacher, but after he spoke out against the inferior standards of “Bantu” education the apartheid government banned him from teaching anywhere in South Africa. Subsequently Mphahlele became a political reporter and fiction editor for Drum, a continent-wide African magazine that printed daring political exposes by brilliant investigative journalists, peppered with colorful features and creative writing styles blending English with African idioms and narratives. Drum mirrored a literary renaissance in the 1950s, an era when South Africa was burgeoning with creative energy in the music and the arts. (Interestingly enough, a recent South African film, Drum, by director Zola Maseko and starring Taye Diggs, tells the story of Henry Nxumalo, one of the most popular Drum journalists who was found murdered in Johannesburg.) Notwithstanding the attention he and others received through Drum, Mphahlele aspired to be a writer, and after he finished his Masters degree at the University of South Africa in 1956 he went into exile with his wife Rebecca and their three children.

Mphahlele began teaching in Nigeria, later saying that “West Africa gave Africa back to me,” awakening him from the alienation and deep-rooted emotional traumas of apartheid. The 1959 publication of his autobiographical novel, Down Second Avenue, drew worldwide interest in Mphahlele as a writer, and focused a powerful spotlight on the internal dynamics of South Africa as it steadily drifted toward greater racial oppression and greater world isolation. Now a classic of African literature, Down Second Avenue had successful printings in English, French, German, Russian, Dutch and Japanese, which reflected the impact and international popularity of the book. Mphahlele’s second novel, The Wanderers, a story chronicling the experience of exiles in Africa, earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1969.

Mphahlele thrived on his teaching activities in Nigeria, but he also found himself drawn into a whirlwind of creativity activity among West African writers and artists such as novelists Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi Wa Thiongo and Amos Tutuola, sculptor Ben Ewanwu and painters Demas Nwoko and Uche Okeke. Mphahlele felt he had been plucked from a South African literary renaissance only to be dropped into the heart of a West African cultural renaissance. He was appointed director of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris, for which he traveled and worked extensively in Kenya, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Uganda, in addition to lecturing throughout Europe. At the end of his term with the Congress, while teaching at the University of Nairobi in 1965, Mphahlele was offered a teaching fellowship at the University of Denver and an opportunity to earn his PhD, an offer that he gladly accepted.

By the mid-1970s Mphahlele had built a thriving career in academia and a comfortable life in American suburbia, but the “tyranny of place” dominated his heart and mind. He could feel the land of his forefathers calling him, and he yearned to make his teaching and writing relevant to the actual conditions of life in South Africa. In August, 1977, barely a year after the Soweto riots, and less than a month before the death in detention of Steve Biko, the Mphahleles returned permanently to South Africa, exchanging their British passports for the infamous South African passbook ID, the “badge of oppression.” And this very fact makes Es’kia Mphahlele’s life distinctly different from most South African exiles, who generally left the country in the 50s, 60s and 70s and returned in the early 90s, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and Black political parties were unbanned.

The return to South Africa was not without its controversies. Many of Mphahlele’s fellow exiles—prominent political activists, writers, musicians and poets—told him that going back to South Africa was a mistake. Not only was he possibly endangering himself and his family, but they also argued that returning at that time would be a propaganda coup for the South African government, which would then appear to be more liberal and open in its policies. Mphahlele dismissed these arguments, but he also paid heavy prices for his return. Within a few months of being back in South Africa, his son Puso began to get his first ugly, bitter tastes of racism apartheid style. He was not conditioned to the survival instincts of living under apartheid, and they feared for his safety. The older Mphahlele children had already become accustomed to individualistic, independent American lifestyles, and so Es’kia and Rebecca sadly gave their son “back to America.” After some discussion, they all agreed that it was best for Puso to live with his sister in Washington, D.C. and finish his high school education in the United States.

Mphahlele had returned ostensibly to assume the chairmanship of the English Department at the historically Black University of the North, and the teaching staff voted unanimously for his appointment. But once again Mphahlele was destined to confront the face of government repression, as the Minister of the Department of Education vetoed his appointment, leaving him jobless. White supremacist politicians could not tolerate the idea of an African being the head of a Department of “English” over a White staff that was actually much less qualified. Despite the rebuke (and thinly-veiled retribution) of apartheid officialdom, Mphahlele had the last laugh. He was eventually asked by the vice chancellor of the private University of Witswatersrand—South Africa’s most distinguished university—to become the chairman of their new Department of African Literature.

In the South Africa of 1977—as compared to 1956, the year of his exile—Mphahlele found worsened conditions in the urban townships (Soweto was “monstrously slummier”) and an educational system ravaged by the sub-standard “Bantu” apartheid program. He traveled around the country in various capacities lecturing and teaching new ideas for transforming African education based on “African humanism,” an overarching concept that he felt was valid for the continent as a whole. In Black universities and schools, he often drew large, overflowing crowds of people, young and old, students and non-students, eager to hear from the worldly scholar and Nobel prize nominee who had returned to be with his people and fight the system from within. For that reason, Mphahlele was nothing less than a hero, a contemporary African prophet.

Mphahlele’s African humanism embodied the ideal that Africans should express their own unique approach to education, and get to know themselves and their continent through a study of African history, religion, cosmology, literature and the arts, before moving on to other areas of world knowledge. Although he never drew the apparent parallel, Mphahlele’s African humanism pedagogy presages a comprehensive introspection of African traditional culture, not unlike the Edo period in Japan, where the Japanese barred Europeans from their society and experienced a flowering of their classical culture while simultaneously learning Western technology and economics.

Over many years, I slowly discovered and learned why Es’kia Mphahlele is so revered by South Africans, the world academic community and Africa’s intelligentsia. Sitting in the shade of a plum tree, I had come full circle, and I could not help but love the small, soft-spoken literary giant. We talked for quite some time about his days with Drum magazine, his years in exile, trends in African art and literature and the future of South Africa and the Africa continent as a whole. His aged, graying eyes belied the intensity of his intellect moral courage and fierce honesty; his words conveyed the hard-won wisdom of years of travel, copious study and astute human observation.

I asked Es’kia if he felt Africa had a living spirit, and if that spirit touched him or spoke to him in some way. His poignant answer seemed timeless and full of meaning in light of the overwhelming darkness and strife South Africans, African Americans and many African people have faced in recent times.

“Yes, it speaks to me, because I tend to listen to much of the wild voices of now, of present day politics and ethnic problems and conflicts. (But) I (also) listen to the subterranean voices, the voices coming from the past, from my forefathers and our ancestors. That’s how Africa speaks to me. Never mind the political noises that one hears, this way or that way. I’m talking about something much more solid, as well as spiritual. And there are ugly things happening in African countries. The poverty of Africa touches me deeply, especially because our leaders seem to be so impotent in dealing with it. There’s a good deal of corruption among some African leaders who simply want to have power and wealth. They don’t care two hoots about what happens to the people, and that is the sad part of it. But if you stop and listen to the voices of ancient wisdom, and you can hear the voices in the metaphors of our languages and in the mannerisms in which we as Africans approach each other... If we listen to the voices of those forces, you get somewhere. You realize that you have some protection from other kinds of foes and forces that work on you.”

Monday, October 03, 2005

Ethiopian Lions and a Young Girl

Co-evolution? Spiritual communication between species?

Africa is full of mystery, overflowing with wildlife, and nature has a passion and energy that seems to be more intense than in other continents. The bond--as well as the struggle--between the human kingdom and the animal kingdom seems unusual there as well. When I read this article it fascinated me, and I cross-checked it with another article that said basically the same thing--it confirmed that a young girl had been found, apparently being protected by lions. Co-evolution is essentially about behavorial communication signals between different species. An evolutionary leap occurs when the species develop a new relationship or interaction based on a transformation in the response to communication signals. The lions heard the girl's whimpers, and instinctively chased away her attackers. I suppose I'm not really talking about co-evolution, but rather a unique instance of inter-species communication. Homo sapiens sapiens has the ability to domesticate, but what about circumstances where communication between the animal kingdom and the human occur spontaneously, from the animal side to the human side? Would that all young girls--or young boys for that matter--could have the protection of fierce, wild lions when they're threatened by human sexual predators...

African lions protect abducted girl, fend off attackers

By Anthony Mitchell, Associated Press

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.

The girl, missing for a week, had been taken by seven men who wanted to force her to marry one of them, said Sgt. Wondimu Wedajo, speaking by telephone from the provincial capital of Bita Genet, about 350 miles southwest of Addis Ababa.

She was beaten repeatedly before she was found June 9 by police and relatives on the outskirts of Bita Genet, Wondimu said. She had been guarded by the lions for about half a day, he said.
"They stood guard until we found her and then they just left her like a gift and went back into the forest," Wondimu said.

"If the lions had not come to her rescue, then it could have been much worse. Often these young girls are raped and severely beaten to force them to accept the marriage," he said.
Tilahun Kassa, a local government official who corroborated Wondimu, said one of the men had wanted to marry the girl against her wishes.

"Everyone thinks this is some kind of miracle, because normally the lions would attack people," Wondimu said.

Stuart Williams, a wildlife expert with the rural development ministry, said the girl may have survived because she was crying from the trauma of her attack.

"A young girl whimpering could be mistaken for the mewing sound from a lion cub, which in turn could explain why they didn't eat her," Williams said.

Ethiopia's lions, famous for their large black manes, are the country's national symbol and adorn statues and the local currency. Despite a recent crackdown, hunters also kill the animals for their skins, which can fetch $1,000. Williams estimates that only 1,000 Ethiopian lions remain in the wild.

The girl, the youngest of four siblings, was "shocked and terrified" after her abduction and had to be treated for the cuts from her beatings, Wondimu said.

He said police had caught four of the abductors; three were at large.

Kidnapping young girls has long been part of the marriage custom in Ethiopia. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of marriages in Ethiopia are by abduction, practiced in rural areas where most of the country's 71 million people live.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Bali Bombing - A Personal Perspective

A woman says a prayer for the dead after
the first Bali bombing in October, 2002

Anyone who has ever been to Bali must be feeling a profound sadness today... Before the ascendance of Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda, Bali was probably the most peaceful place on Earth. I always thought of Bali as one of the most evolved civilizations on the planet, a place overflowing with creativity, gentleness and laughter, where everyone seems to be a painter or a woodcarver or a jeweler or a musician or some kind of artist. There is magic and wonder all throughout the island. Lazaris would say they were people in touch with their "boundary dweller"--that creative power that lifts us out of the mundane human experience. The Balinese have maintained the beauty of their traditional culture, their sense of the sacred and artful, and yet they have also managed to absorb and balance the impact of the Western world. Every year, more and more people learned about the "paradise" of Bali, and every year, more and more tourists would come. And every year the Balinese welcomed all of them, openly, with laughter, innocence and love. I had a wonderfully funny spiritual experience at the temple dedicated to Hanuman in Bukit Sari, the sacred monkey forest, but I digress... But how long will Balinese culture endure suicide bombings, carryed out by fanatics whose stealth is only matched by their perverted hatred and messianic arrogance? In Maluku, Jema Islamiya destroyed groups of Christian villages because the Indonesian military turned a blind eye to the arms that were being brought into islands by Muslim militant ideologues. What will happen in Bali?

Poetry, Politics and Power, and a Good Friend

Two women and a man wait to be moved to Soweto from Sophiatown, the famed multi-racial, multi-ethnic community that symbolized the great literary, musical and theatrical creativity in South Africa before the dawn of apartheid. Sophiatown was the first community targeted for forced removal under the notorious "Group Areas Act." Africans were sent to Soweto, mixed-raced Coloureds to Western Areas, Indians to Fordsburg and Lenasia, while Sophiatown was bulldozed and rebuilt into a White working class suburb called "Triomf," meaning victory in Afrikaans. Sophiatown was Don Mattera's roots, the source of his poetry and personaltiy. His book "Memory is a Weapon" describes the destruction of Sophiatown and how the seeds of hate and suspicion were sown between different racial and ethnic groups by forced removals. This elegant, haunting photograph was taken by Jurgen Schadeberg, a German immigrant who documented the life of Sophiatown. You can visit his web site, which tells many fascinating visual stories about South Africa.

Poetry moves things, poetry changes the world…

I was watching “No Direction Home” on PBS, a film about Bob Dylan by Martin Scorsese, and it struck me how much Dylan and the beat generation gave a certain voice to the civil rights struggle, and masses of people responded to that voice. With what I see in new street cafes, "slam" contests and Def Poetry Jam, it seems that spoken word art is becoming powerful again, reflecting that same passion and potential. That's really what true hip hop--early hip hop--was all about anyway. It was poetry of the streets.

Allen Ginsberg said, “Poetry is words that are empowered that makes your hair stand on end. Words that you recognize instinctively have some form of subjective truth that has an objective reality to it, because somebody has realized it. Then you call it poetry later...”

When I lived in South Africa I had the good fortune of becoming good friends with Don Mattera, one of South Africa's great poetic voices. In his own way, Don embodies the humanity of South Africa, and his words are full of rich meanings and great truth. Not unlike Tupac and Biggie, Ice T and Ice Cube, Don was a gangster who lived the streets and later found his voice in poetry. Don was a mentor, a guide and father figure to me, and as they say in South Africa, Don was a "
fundi." I walked with Don, through various ghettos and ethnic neighborhoods, and I watched him talk to anyone and everyone in Zulu, Sotho, English, Afrikaans and tsotsi taal, and I even prayed with him once on the street with a sangoma. Don was the same brother, whether he was eating at a local dive, lecturing at a university, writing poetry, speaking at a stadium rally or leading prayers of the Eid Festival at the end of Ramadan. The same brother...

Three of my favorite poems, from Don's book, “Azanian Love Song,” are "Black Plum," The Day They Came for Our House" (which is about Sophiatown) and "Child."


This land
The soil so stiff necked and proud
This beautiful earth is a garden
And I am the fruit
Squeezed of energy
Drained of love
Dried of hope:

a garden watered by anguish
fertilised by the tears
of my people,
strewn with the seeds
of their lives

I am the black plum
Fruit of mama africa
The spirit that cries out beyond the horizon
The soul that seeks emancipation
I am africa


Sophiatown, 1962

The sun stood still
in the sullen wintry sky
a witness
to the impending destruction

Armed with bulldozers
they came
to do a job
nothing more
just hired killers

We gave way
there was nothing we could do
although the bitterness stung in us,
in the place we knew to be part of us
and in the earth around,

We stood.
Slow painfully slow
clumsy crushes crawled over
the firm pillars
into the rooms that held us
and the roof that covered
our heads

We stood.
Dust clouded our vision
We held back tears
It was over in minutes,


Bulldozers have power.
They can take apart in a few minutes
all that had been built up over the years
and raised over generations
and generations of children

The power of destroying
the pain of being destroyed,


South African Police executing forced removals in Sophiatown.


For my daughter Noeleen

The leaves of my tree
grow brown and thin
soon they will fall to earth
and be forgotten

Much fruit has withered
only a few strong boughs remain
but they too will be broken
by the fury that will sweep our land

But of all my fruit
of all things clear and close to my heart,
are you and the hope that is manifest
in your being
you the offspring
of an invisible dream

All my seeking my fervent cries
and the depth
of longing are but distant echoes
my wounds mere relics
yet all I ask of you
is that you should remember me
for what I tried to do, tried to offer
so that a new bright sun would rise on your day;
that a portion of
my dream for the freedom of my people
would find a match in your song
my name and those who marched with me
be recorded on your scroll

What does a man live for
if not to be remembered by his beloved?

I wanted
to offer you sonnets
And springbuds unfurling to the sunlight
sing about the fir trees pointing to God
but how can I sing of the tree when
beneath it my brothers lie bleeding
and their wounds unfurl the horror of existence
and their prayers are cries of death
and their hearts curse God

Yet amid all the hate and hostility
I do not hate those who hold
us in servitude
though I have tried hard to do so,
I just cannot hate

Perhaps it is a weakness on my part
perhaps the folly of the oppressed
is that we do not hate enough
or that we love too much but
it is a truism that revolutions
are born out of love;
love for land and liberty
love of humanity and love of oneself

I have watched many suns sink
seen phantom shadows raise their ominous banners
and I have heard my name called
while dreams, desires of a lifetime
whittled under violent feet

I hold the bloody scroll
with shakey, awe-struck hands
the cup will not pass untouched
for the lips that hunger after justice

How often have I asked God
whether there was something we missed
or a teaching that went unheeded
from the prophets in whose shadows we walked

But your blood is changing;
a vibrant light glows in your eyes
a sacred fire of unseen power within you
claims its bounty of life
tomorrow belongs to you
yours through strength and defiance
that flows in the struggle carved from God's image

The world is teeming with unrest
everywhere men are fighting to be heard
to walk upright in the
land of their fathers
it is no different in our continent
nor in our country where the tin gods
teach their offspring to despise and humiliate us

Greed, selfishness and hypocrisy
have blinded most white people
verily, they live by the sword

Yet there are many good, well-meaning
justice-loving white folk
men and women of conscience
who sacrifice their days that others might be free

Those who did not conform were broken

those who refused to break
were imprisoned or killed
others persecuted to self-exile
but many millions remain silent
enjoying the ill-gotten harvest

I am not influencing you to hate whites
I could not ask such a thing
for it would negate my own humanity
the enmity I feel is for the denial of black dignity
for the sacred right to love unhindered

I tell you that even our finer emotions,
those which sustain us with inner succour
when debasement exacts its toll on our lives,
are now the white man's past-time
and God is made the lie with which we are deceived

But as there are evil white people
so are there black ones
who have become the tools
with which we are fooled and indoctrinated
black men and women who travel
for the colonial crumbs of comfort
selling their souls for money

Child, I look at the slow decaying
of our people in the cities
in the dry foodless reserves in
the prisons, and a thousand angry rivers
rush inside of me:
the deaths they die will not be in vain,
they are the foundation of your freedom

I look at you and the fear I had for death falters
as I touch your dimpled hands
drink of your warm laughter
certain that you would outlive
the tempest which must first lash the land
in order to set it free

Yet it was in a dream
and it was by the river
that I heard the plaintive voices of men in chains
black men naked and shining, singing the
slave's song:
How long Lord, how long?
and the moon fell on the
shimmering water
lighting up their faces and I was among them
shackled but singing

So that our voices rose heavy with sound
breaking the fetters that held us bondage

And children came with seed
and where we stood,
they planted a new people

These words I give you
as a testament of my deepest love for you
and for our beloved land

written in the hope that you will remember
those valiant folk who marched with me
and in remembering, cherish the legacy
bequeathed to you through their blood
in the final hope that a new bright sun
will rise on your Tomorrow

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers

Marlon Brando looks on during a Black Panther demonstration.

I saw this pic on another web site, and it was intruiging... It reminded me of one the first articles I wrote years ago when I started working as a newspaper reporter for the Ithaca Journal. I thought it'd be cool to post it here because there's nothing like feeling history directly from a person who was at the center of it. There's a lot of myth and mystification about the Black Panthers, and as time passes we seem to get further and further removed from that history. One of the things I enjoyed about meeting Bobby in person was his charisma... This article really only captures a fraction of what he said and what he was trying suggest about those early years with the Panthers. I just tried to bang out the story on deadline and select the words that I felt were most eloquent and cogent. Looking at these pics, it's also clear that these brothas and sistas were making a statement, and making it with style...

Black panther co-founder Bobby Seale hasn't lost his idealism or his interest in activism among college students.

In an intimate and lively discussion Wednesday with a group of about 80 students, mostly African American, Seal passionately described the climate of the 60s and his personal struggle to overcome racial oppression.

Seal co-founded the Black Panthers political party 21 years ago.

"It wasn't until 1963 that I learned I wasn't a nigger. It took Dick Gregory to do it," Seale said. He told the students of an incident where the comedian and several other activists staged a sit-in at a Southern restaurant known for its discrimination.

"A white proprietor said 'We don't serve niggers,' and he (Dick Gregory) said, "Well I don't eat those things anyway--give me a hamburger.' " Seale said the even "clicked" for him because he had been a stand-up comic.

Seal was 22 or 23 at the time and was just beginning to learn his ignorance of African history and culture.

"I read this book--Jomo Kenyatta's "Facing Mount Kenya"--and I discovered that Tarzan didn't run Africa." Seale said. "I discovered that the Mau Mau was an organization of brothers and sisters who tried to liberate themselves from colonial rule."

"In 1962 in anthropology class I researched a paper that proved that there wasn't any 'th,' 'er,' 'ar,' and rolling 'r' sounds in West African langauges," Seale explained. "The reason why brothers stand on the corner and and say 'Hey bro, gimme some mo a dat da wine ova da,' is because they dropped every 'th,' 'er,' 'ar,' and rolling 'r' sound."

In 1966, while working in an Oakland War on Poverty office, Seale and Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton thought of a 10-point platform that was to become the foundation for the party. The points included issues such as food, clothing, housing and shelter, health care, education, end of police brutality towards African Americans and fair treatment in courts.

"We were saying we would go out and rally and organize and capture the imagination of the people. We were saying we would use the political electoral method to get Black people to unify around social programs in the community," Seale said.

The organization become more visible, Seale said, after watching a group of idealistic African Americans trying to cope with the aftermather of the Watts riots. The "Community Alert Patrol" members, wearing arm bands to identify themselves and armed with law books and tape recorders, set out to observe police officers arresting Black people. They wanted to stop police brutality and avert more rioting.

A month later the group was stopped, Seale said, after police "took their law books and smashed them up, took their heads and beat them up and took them downtown and locked them up."

Newton, a law student at the time, found a California statute that said any citizen standing at a reasonable distance away had a right to observe a police officer carrying out his duty. Donning uniforms, carrying tape recorders and flyers of their 10-point platform, the Black Panthers imitated the Los Angeles group but with one addition--they carried loaded shotguns.

"The Community Alert Patrol had a democratic right by state law to walk out there, and yet they were getting beat up and locked up," Seale said, adding that the non-violent protests seemed to be failing. "So we started to draw a line between being a political revolutionary and whether or not we were going to take this crap."

Seale called it a "bold act of social responsibility."

"The point is it was good organization. We had the books and the law," he said.

Seale also described an array of Black Panther sponsored social activities such as "free breakfast for children," "free food and voter registration drives" and "preventative health" programs aimed at organizing the community.

"Before brothers and sisters could get groceries they had to register to vote and take the sickle-cell anemia test," Seale said. "We talked to the people about organizing to take over city council."

Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973 but lost.

He said the party was not without its limitations.

"I'm not trying to create a myth about the Black Panther party. There were a lot of people who came and goofed the party up," Seale said. "But we had more people who were very good, dedicated brothers and sisters."

Seale, now an assistant to the dean of Temple University, teaches courses on social activism that "integrate theory and practice." He encouraged students to take a broad view of responsibility.

"Social responsibility is not what people say it is," Seale pointed out. "It's really about getting your heart and mind and soul in the right place, trying to understand where you're going in the future."

Miriam Makeba Leaves the International Stage

If you ask me, I'd say that Miriam Makeba's retirement represents the end of an era in history. It's really hard to understate influence Miriam had on the struggle against apartheid and the growth of South African music on the world stage... When I read this article, it touched me deeply. Sometimes we take great music and great musicians for granted, like they'll always be there, always performing and creating, always a part of our lives. But then Aaliyah dies in a plane crash, or Luther passes away unexpectedly, or Barry White has kidney problems, and suddenly that great music ends, and there's a huge, sad shift in our feelings about the world. And then we become sentimental... Now, after decades in the limelight, Miriam reminds us that music has its limits and she has to find the right way to wind down her own illustrious career. I love this picture of her in the Zulu headress. She is stunning. And there were other great South African divas--like Dolly Rathebe and Tandie Klaasen--who had all the talent, grace and beauty of Miriam, but for accidents of fate and history, never went into exile and achieved the fame that Miriam had... Their stars shine bright, although not as many see their light...

Miriam Makeba says farewell to the international stage

Florence Panoussian Johannesburg, South Africa
26 September 2005 08:53

After a career of more than 50 years, South Africa's legendary singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba has decided she will end her performing days with a farewell international tour that starts in Johannesburg on Monday.

"I have to go and say farewell to all the countries that I have been to, if I can. I am 73 now, it is taxing on me," Makeba said in an interview with Agence France Presse while she prepared for the first concert.

Her voice has lost nothing as she sings the hit Pata Pata, which has excited generations around the world, neither has her sense of timing which she marks with her elegant but simple shoes."I don't want to travel as much as I have been. But as long as I'll have my voice, I'll keep on recording," said the singer who won a Grammy award in 1966 for best folk recording with Harry Belafonte for the album An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba and performed with Paul Simon on his Graceland tour in the mid-1980s.

A new album will be released "very soon" with a new version of Malaika, another hit which she reworks with the South African Miagi Orchestra, conducted by the Argentine maestro Dante Anzolini and with whom she will perform at the Johannesburg concert and another in Cape Town on September 29.

"Makeba doesn't know where 'doe' is, where 're' is, so you have to be patient" she admitted to the stupefied young musicians of Miagi, with whom she is making the farewell tour, due to wrap up sometime next year.

"After, I will stay at home and be the great-grandmother that I am."

Then she admitted with a burst of laughter, that she "has a lot" of record projects: "I want also to rework some of my early songs."

It's difficult to imagine Makeba giving up live performances.

However her South African concerts will definitely be "the beginning of the grand finale", said Robert Brooks, director of Miagi.To sing in her own country with such an orchestra, is however, a first."I was so scared. Such a big orchestra" Makeba said with a smile, relieved after the first practice.

But a professional in every way, she carefully welcomes suggestions, repeating, as many times as necessary, each melody. At the break, far from playing the star, Makeba relaxes... surprising everyone with a bewitching a capella of Liwawechi, quickly joined by the drums of her loyal percussionist Papa Kouyate, whom she met by chance during her travels.

Leaving South Africa on tour in 1959, Makeba, who "never sang of politics, only the truth", paid with 31 years of exile for her commitment to human rights. Having condemned apartheid all the way to the United Nations, she was banished and didn't see her hometown Johannesburg until the freeing of Nelson Mandela in 1990. "Mama Africa" sang about all the independence struggles of the continent.

"People gave me that name. At first I said to myself: 'Why do they want to give me that responsibility, carrying a whole continent?' Then I understood that they did that affectionately. So I accepted. I am Mama Africa."

Makeba says she is "very happy in my new South Africa", but is aware of the problems.

"We have only had 11 years of democracy but we are moving, we are moving forward faster than many countries who have been independent a long, long time before. We all have to do it together, all of us, found ourselves this country regardless we are black, white or whatever!".

As part of this work, Makeba has founded a centre for the rehabilitation of youths from the street, introducing them to performing music."They all have a lot of talent. When they sing, ouah, they sing! When they dance, haaa, they dance! I really think that the next performers could be among those girls."

The next Makeba? "No, nobody can replace me as I can't replace anyone else," said the singer, who wants to leave a memory of, simply, a "very good old lady". - Sapa-AFP

The Beauty and Wisdom of African Languages

I wrote this as a series of posts to the Afrofuturism listserve, and I got some interesting responses. These ideas are not really fully developed, partly because I'm not a linguist or an academic researcher, but also because this are just some intuitive thoughts I've had based on my experience of learning to speak Xhosa while I was in South Africa. I think it would be great if I could us this blog to get some feedback from other people who are African or have had some experience with African languages...

I’ve been meaning to write about “the wisdom and beauty” embedded in African languages, and I finally put some time aside to take a stab at it. It’s not such an easy thing to write about because a lot of my ideas are intuitive and are based more on my experience rather than research or an academic investigation. But nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and maybe these ideas will elicit some comments, critiques and creative riffs from others on the list. I know there are some African brothers and sisters from the continent here, and it would nice to hear your perspectives. Please, bollweevil and syntactic, jump in and add your thoughts…

In my experience, speaking in an African language involves a big shift in how you relate to words emotionally and how you relate to people through language, in comparison to speaking English. A lot of it is social and cultural, but a lot of it is based on the way words and meanings are actually constructed. In the African languages, root words have multi-layered meanings, and then one can add upon these core meanings by conjugating the root to transform a verb into a noun or a name, or subject, object, etc. The word “funda” means to read, or to study, or to learn. Mfundi, is a student, or someone who is learned, an expert, a wise person, or any of a number of these meanings depending on the context. For example, if I could say that Art McGee is a “fundi,” (“fundi” is a little slang) and I could be referring to his technical expertise as a computer whiz, or I could be referring to his wisdom as a leader in the African American community or both. I could also name my child Mfundi, and he would grow up with the associations of being a scholar, or someone who reads a lot, or someone who learns quickly or is adept in some particular area or field. A “fundi” could be a Nelson Mandela or a Dr. King or a skilled auto mechanic or Cheikh Anta Diop.

“Thula” means to be quiet, or to be silent, or to be still or to be peaceful. I could name a child Thuli, and the name would imply someone who is peaceful or a peacemaker, someone who brings calm to a situation, someone who puts people at ease, someone who harmonizes. “Lumka” means watch out, be careful, look out, watch your step, etc. Someone with the name Lumka would be someone who watches out for others, who is caring, mindful, considerate and protective. In other contexts the word "lumka" can mean "wisdom," or to do something "with wisdom," or "wisely," or even "gentleness." The word “khanya” means to shine, or to make bright, or to enlighten or to educate or shed light upon something. A person can be named Khanya, and she would have the association of being bright and intelligent, someone who has an ability to uplift people and to educate and enlighten. African languages are loaded with words that have these multi-layered meanings that take on different shades and subtleties depending on context. When you immerse yourself in these languages the meanings often crossover and intersect and you can find yourself making intentional and unexpected puns and cracking up all the time. Sometimes the things you say sound like timeless aphorisms, other times it just comes out funny. Also, because so much depends on context, there is an emphasis on rhythm, sound and tone in speaking, as well as storytelling, emotion, gestures and drama, and it feels a lot like getting together with a bunch of brothas and sistas and talkin’ stuff and signifying. You end up laughing a lot.

I think one of the main things that distinguishes African languages from European languages is the notion of being separate from God. In the Judeo-Christian tradition there is the fundamental concept of the "Fall of Man" and "original sin" and the idea that humankind is separate from God and must be redeemed. There is no such separation in African languages--the unity of God with the people, and the people being good, and life being good--all run through the most basic wordings and fundamental meanings of simple everyday greetings and conversation. "Nkulungkulu nkhona" (Zulu) and "uThixo ukhona" (Xhosa) are phrases meaning "God is good" or "God is present" or "God is here with us." This simple saying is probably spoken a million times over every day throughout South Africa. "Khona" is again, one of those words with double meanings, a kind of pun, with "good" and "present" being one and same. People use this saying when they might be facing a problem, implying that a Higher power is present and working on the situation, or when they are explaining how God may have intervened and brought good fortune to a particular circumstance, or the saying may be used just for the joy of greeting, just for the joy of celebrating life--i.e., "God (life) is good" (for all of us).

I also feel that when one speaks an African language—at least in the context that I experienced it in South Africa—it seems that the underlying goal of communication is not to assert oneself as an individual or to dominate the conversation, but rather to reach a level of common understanding, to add to the group dialogue. There is a natural sense of unity, with a high level of group consciousness where everyone is interconnected and equal and it is almost taboo to be too domineering or individualistic. There is a high premium placed on sharing and respect for elders and care for children. In South Africa, people often refer to “Ubuntu,” which has no English translation, but might be referred to as an African traditional idea, concept and philosophy that emphasizes how all people are a part of each other, part of one human family and community. “Ubuntu” is central to African culture and life.

Following along the lines of the article you posted on Chinese students versus American students perceptions, I think it would be interesting for an enterprising psychology student to do a similar study of the electrical brain signals that are active when two people are speaking a European language, in comparison to the brain activity patterns of two people speaking an African language. My guess is that the right brain will be far more active among the African language speakers, as that is the hemisphere of the brain that is involved in seeing things as a whole, whereas the left brain is more associated with analysis and seeing things in component parts. At times I’ve wondered if we, as modern Africans, should be striving to develop thought processes that allow us to move more consciously between to the scientific, informational, discrete data processes of European languages and the emotional, intuitive, holistic right-brain communication of African languages.


Bit, those are some good questions...

Jamal pointed out that the research on these language issues go in both directions--looking at the African origins of our current language and the patterns of Ebonics as it evolves and changes. It's clear that Ebonics is a way that we have recreated our own sense of brotherhood and sisterhood by reinventing English to fit our ancestral habits of speech and conditioning as Africans. It's even more telling that mainstream popular culture takes its cues from Ebonics and African American culture. It kind of amazes me how white kids are always throwing around the word "bro," with each other, trying to extend the sense of identification that we created and apply it to themselves. Somehow the analogue qualities of African language--as well as dance, communication gestures, postures, poses, etc.--are a balancing antidote to the abstract scientific materialism, and a general stiffness and rigidness that pervades modern civilization.

XM, bollweevil and Syntactik are often talking about niggaHz and how many cycles people are clockin'. I was trying to suggest that people probably can break through and find a way of "shifting gears" mentally, to a point where we are consciously re-making our own language, rather than being trapped in our instinctive reactions to the limited definitions and racist labels of our environment. We can talk about seeing an Afrofuture where our brains our are clockin' more cycles and using more neural networks in new and different dimensions. I think something like that is happening when we look at the broader picture of how African Americans recreate mass pop culture, and I think something like that is happening in South Africa, where brothas and sistas are speaking groups of African languages and English and all of that is colliding with modern economics, technology, telecommunications, computer screens, etc. It always strikes me as odd that Soweto may have 40 percent unemployment or more, and yet the average Sowetan is speaking 4-6 or more languages. There is a lot more going on there than what appears on the surface.

There is a natural tension between the African language urge toward unity, Ubuntu, communal identity, etc., and the imperative of individual assertion for survival and livelihood in a capitalist, urban economy. Maybe there's a way to move fluidly from group identification to individualism and back again.

Howard, I like what you are hinting at about looking at the differences and distinctions between African people and "Black" people. From what I understand, the Bantu group of languages, which includes Zulu and Swahili and the most commonly spoken languages on the continent, have the same 11 or 12 classes of verb noun conjugations. Many of the root words are the same or similar, and so it's much easier for a Bantu language speaker to switch over and learn another Bantu language, than it is for an American to learn French. Maybe some people are researching pedagogical methods that would teach African languages starting from a mega-archetypal overview. I'm not quite sure how we can bridge these languages with Ebonics. While we are thinking of ourselves as "Black" and identifying with being African, most Africans--when they finally encounter us on the continent--tend to perceive African Americans as being far more American than African. Besides economic class issues, language is a big part of that.