Friday, December 23, 2005

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Pots

Yesterday there were two murders in the Lincoln-Lemington section of Pittsburgh within 48 hours of each other. There's sure a lot of trouble in the world, and don't we all know? Among the many troubles trying to explain Bazungu Bucks is that Africa is a category that lots of us here in the U.S. chuck into that big heap-o-trouble. There are many reasons we do that, and some of them boil down to entrenched stereotypes. Just because I'm happy corresponding with my Ugandan friends doesn't mean that I'm immune from prevelant stereotypes. All I know is that I don't want to perpetuate the negative and spurious ones. And in that heap-o-trouble we all know is as high as a mountain; people reasonably ask: "There's so much trouble here. Let's worry about it first and then tackle over there." I've yet to formulate a good retort to that.

One of the men murdered in Pittsburgh was Nzubamunu Mitete a Pentecostal minister from Kinshasha the captital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). The story makes me sad, for Mr. Mitete's family and all who knew him. I'm sad too for our city. So many of the problems we face seem intractable.

The story of how Nzubamunu Mitete came to Pittsburgh is remarkable. In 1999 he had a dream in which he saw the face of Loran Mann. Loran Mann is a familiar face to Pittsburghers because he was a TV news reporter for many years and still can be seen on TV occasionally. Why Mitete should be dreaming of Mann's face is a mystery to me, in any case "his vision told him to go in search of that face." As well as serving as a minister in Mann's Pentecostal Temple Church Mitete was a jitney driver. Jitneys are unlicensed taxis, which while quite illegal, are also a quite indespensible transportation service in the city.

That has nothing to do with pots. I've been reading John Reader's splendid book Africa : A Biography of the Continent. The book is fat, but the chapters are relatively short and each has a short summary of the chapter contents right at the beginning; those summaries help to keep track of the narrative. The book is perfectly constructed for reading it slowly and it's a big story. All people are out of Africa and Reader explains how the continent shaped how we are as human beings.

Over time the conditions have between favorable for plants and animals, including people, or have been far less favorable. During good times human populations across Africa increased and in bad times diminished. Both periods brought with them new developments, but it's been the bad times where technological advances has been the most rapid. Pots which allowed boiling food were a major technological innovation. One significant reason was that it allowed people to make baby food and therefore to reduce the length of time babies required nursing. The lovely photograph is from a Website for a DVD about African Pottery Techniques.

Most of us are rather disconnected from making a living; what we do are specialized jobs to make money. Reader's journey into human prehistory puts the history in a new perspective. Certainly if you enjoyed Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel you'll love Reader's book.

Most of us are also rather disconnected from our history as well. Something that motivates my interest in Africa is the way that Africans historically came to America created a rent in the fabric of their cultures. Many of the threads are visible in today's culture and it seems possible to reweave the treads back to the continent. So in part I want to know more about African people so that I can know my culture and myself better.

Uganda has a very interesting mix of cultures within its boundaries. Many Ugandans, like many Americans, now feel disconnected from their cultures in this modern world. Because I have an interest in hearing African stories, which has usually be understood as "myths" and "legends," but really what I mean are stories about how their grandparents lived, I've told my Ugandans friends as much. To make the point I talked about Foxfire.

I failed miserably trying to be a teacher. So I have a great fondness for stories about how teachers who are failing somehow succeed. Elliot Wigginton's first year of teaching English and Geography was going very badly until he asked his class:
How would you like to throw away the text and start a magazine?
What's remarkable is that the idea worked, and not just once, the magazine has been published now for more than thirty years. The students are in rural Appalachia.

Pittsburgh is sometimes mocked as "the capital of Appalachia." I don't think we should run from a heritage so rich. Teresa Heinz still calls it home. During the election her sons told stories about how she would kill a chicken for supper. Nobody seemed to believe she'd condescend to such mundane chore. I was curious nobody questioned there'd be chickens running around the estate. There were groans whenever she was refered to as Africn American, but the name is fair enough. I don't doubt she did kill and pluck chickens like she used to at home. Probably lots of Pittsburghers feel the same and that's why it seems like home to her.

In the very first Foxfire Book some of the students visit Aunt Arie in her cabin. They arrived just as she was trying to remove the eyeballs from a fresh hog's head a neighbor had delivered to her earlier that morning. The whole article is so wonderful because it's mostly simply transcribed from the tape recordings they made. Aunt Arie's voice is so magical it's easy to see how the kids became so engrossed. This parenthetical bit in the text delights me:
She takes the first eye to the back door and throws it out. It sails through the air, lands on a nearby tin roof, rolls off and hangs bobbing on the clothsline. All of us are laughing so hard we can hardly see to work on the second eye. Finally, we start again.
Teachers who make students laugh so hard their bellies ache have their rapt attention. It's no wonder that Aunt Arie figured prominently in the early years of Foxfire.

So my Uganda friends enjoyed the Foxfire Web site. They particularly admired the sale of crafts on the site. So far nobody's sent me stories like the one about Aunt Arie. I'd still love to hear some. It's the kind of thing that would make a good blog. It's exciting to think that such a blog might be of interest to Ugandans to learn more about their diverse cultures as well as to many outside Uganda too.

Many thousands of years ago African women found a way to make pots to boil food to feed their families. I'm living now today because ingenious forebears found ways of making a living. I can't quite join together pots and the tragic death of Nzubamunu Mitete. It's strange to me that he was drawn to Pittsburgh by a dream of Loran Mann's face, still he was connected to this place. We all now feel the loss. All of us are connected through the lives of people who lived before us. Reader's book makes plain that people emerged first on African soil and that for this reason who we are in this present owes much to our shared history of Africa.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Know- we all feel the loss of Mitete. His pure heart demonstrated in his patience and love for those who abused him as well as loved him sets the example of what we should all aspire to be. I can only wait in eager anticipation to see what God has planned to make his death worthwhile. I pray for peace - for peace in the hearts of the African American community, and for peace in the hearts of the white community that yet to understand. Perhaps together, Mitete's love for all of humanity can shine.

Blessings and happy new year!

Kaunda said...

Peace be with you.

Thank you so much for taking a moment to leave your comment. I did not know Nzumanunu Mitete, yet certainly feel the loss.

There are so many differences among people. Still we share our humanity, indeed we must share or we will all perish. The divisions between the hearts of people in the African American community and the white community are wide. I'm very moved by your blessings and wishes for a happy new year. Please accept the same from me.

A friend just told me "one small step at a time can make a journey." Perhaps something that Mitete understood in his patience is that one peaceful step can lead to another.

I'm not good at praying, still I too pray for peace.

Thank you, and happy new year.