On Monday night, Mbele, an advisor for study-abroad programs in his native Tanzania, spoke on his most recent book, Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, to about 30 people in the basement of River City Books in downtown Northfield.
Mbele explained that the idea for his book arose after countless students and faculty asked for his advice on African travel. Now that Cultural Differences is complete, Mbele can respond to the travel-curious by saying, Just read the book.
Mbele explained that he was unsatisfied with his first drafts of the book; he felt hed been too hard on Americans. In response to his initial misgivings, he opened Mondays book talk with a story about his first winter in Minnesota. He had gone into Jacobsens Store (now closed) to look for winter boots.
After finding a pair, he told owner Bob Jacobsen that he would walk home to get money and return to buy the boots. But Jacobsen insisted Mbele take the boots and come back with the money whenever it was convenient.
His recollection of the incident caused Mbele to decide that in his book he wanted to address people like his friend Bob Jacobsen as positive examples of the American populace.
While Mbele does not hesitate to tease Americans, he wanted to avoid any blatant bashing of them.
Mbele highlighted parts of his book, soliciting a particularly loud round of laughs when he discussed the chapter entitled, Time Flies, But Not in Africa. He explained that while Americans are always on a schedule, Africans have a very flexible concept of time. African culture, Mbele explained, focuses on relationships rather than rules and schedules.
He also discussed the American custom of making eye contact during conversation, African versus African-American identity and the silence of many American neighborhoods that intimidates African visitors and immigrants. Mbele argued that while cultural misunderstandings are often amusing and simplistic, they can also have serious repercussions.
For an hour and a half, Mbele showcased his expert storytelling skills, weaving together facts, personal experiences and cultural context. He said that students need more books like his; we need more than the Lonely Planet guides that merely list exchange rates and hotel prices. Mbele wants his book to help people with things like surviving a crowded marketplace.
Africans and Americans tend to focus on their cultural differences, but Mbele said, I am not talking about [differences as] problems. Im trying to get to the soul of us all: The things which make us human; the things that make us relate to each other.