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ISSUE 119 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/11/2005

Mbele reads

By Andrea Horbinski
Opinion Editor

Friday, November 11, 2005

Whenever a speaker begins his or her presentation with a disclaimer such as “I’m never very organized,” or “I just like to tell stories,” what follows is sure to be interesting. Associate Professor of English Joseph Mbele proved no exception.

Mbele, a native of southern Tanzania, appeared to discuss his new book “Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences” with a small but attentive group of Oles Tuesday in Viking Theatre. He noted multiple times that the book was not very academic, saying that it contained a mixture of anecdotes, personal reflections and jokes, and that it was “very conversational.” Reading Ernest Hemingway while writing “Africans and Americans,” caused Hemingway’s laconic style to rub off on him, Mbele said.

Mbele’s discussions with friends on the faculty of Beloit College who advise students traveling abroad to Africa gave Mbele the idea for the book. These professors wanted a primer to teach American students about the different ways of life that they would encounter in Africa.

The sovereignty of cultural differences was a theme Mbele returned to several times in his hour-long talk. His goal for the book, he said, was to help readers realize that “we are ourselves and to understand that someone else is different,” and to make cultural differences accessible, rather than a source of painful tension between people of different cultures.

Everyone grows up in a culture and assimilates to its values, perspectives and customs, Mbele said. We each think our culture is not just normal, but the norm, until we are forced to consider other cultures.

While Mbele only read a few paragraphs, he did relate several anecdotes both from his time as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and as a professor in Northfield.

While a graduate student, he and fellow African students thought that “compared to African parties, American parties seemed like funerals,” Mbele said. Especially since the police usually came to complain about the noise – something that Mbele called “unthinkable” in Africa, where silence is abnormal.

Mbele currently lives near the off-campus students, whose “noisy parties” have provoked some Northfield residents to complain. Rather than agreeing with the residents, Mbele said, “Hey, let the music play!”

A huge difference between Africa and America that Mbele discussed more than once is the relative importance of punctuality. Whereas Americans see promptness as a mark of respect, Mbele said, people in Africa place a higher value on showing the appropriate respect and appreciation to the people, relatives and friends whom they meet while going about their day. In turn, they place less importance than Americans do on keeping appointments. “We have a different set of priorities,” Mbele said.

Although Mbele used humor in his talk and in his book, he said the challenge of respecting another country is as real as the tensions which arise between different cultures. While writing the book, “I learned my own biases,” Mbele said. He encouraged the audience to do the same. We should “look into ourselves before going abroad,” he said, since encountering another culture is both a risk and an opportunity for growth.

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