The world’s leading association of African literature scholars, artists and writers is now housed at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y. Last weekend, members of the group’s Executive Council gathered from around the world at HWS for the group’s annual retreat.
For Scholar-in-Residence and Co-Director of Africana Studies Thelma Pinto and Professor of French and Francophone Studies George Joseph, looking back on the long history of the African Literature Association (ALA), it seems almost inevitable that the ALA should call HWS its headquarters.
Pinto, the past-president of the ALA, and Joseph, a former secretary and Executive Council member, have held leadership positions in this international organization for years. The ALA recognizes and elevates the work of African writers and artists and has a tradition of political activism and advocacy on behalf of African and Diaspora writers and artists whose human rights are threatened or infringed because of artistic and literary activity.
The connection between literature, Africa and activism is deeply rooted for Pinto. As a young school teacher in Cape Town, South Africa, she witnessed the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre at Nyanga Township. “They removed people from their homes forcing them to relocate to ghettos. It was intolerable and since I was part of the underground anti-apartheid movement, I could become a target,” Pinto explains.
After living under apartheid where civil rights were ignored, literature was banned, and threats from police were commonplace, Pinto left South Africa after having to sign an affidavit stating that she was not to expect any help from any South African embassy abroad. She joined her fiancé, who had left South Africa on an exit permit, and became a UN refugee in the Netherlands. She would remain in exile for the next 27 years.
In the Netherlands, Pinto received her Doctoral (DRS. ALW) in comparative literature. She taught English as a second language and worked as a consultant for foreign women, a translator from Afrikaans into Dutch for the Dutch national TV (NOS), and as an advisor on South Africa to a current affairs radio program. She was asked to become a member of the Editorial Board of a major project, De Derde Spreker Serie, to translate literature from the so-called “Third World” (Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean) into Dutch. “We translated 150 African, Latin American, Caribbean and Asian novels into Dutch in this project for NOVIB (the Dutch affiliate of Oxfam) and publisher Het Wereldvenster. She has also maintained a steady stream of scholarly and activist publications. Pinto was married and started a family and, not surprisingly, continued to work in the anti-apartheid movement. It was under the auspices of NOVIB that she eventually travelled to Zimbabwe where, at the request of then-first lady Sally Mugabe, Pinto created the Melfort Women’s Education Center for ex-combatant women, many of whom had been in the bush as fighters for ten years.
Pinto returned with her family to Holland, but when her husband was offered a job teaching at Spelman College in Atlanta, she moved with him and was hired at Spelman as a visiting professor where she taught English and African literature. There she interacted with many prominent African American leaders such as Beverly Guy Sheftall, Angela Davis, Bill Cosby, Andrew Young, Betty Shabazz (the widow of Malcom X) and Christine King Farris ( the sister of Martin Luther King). It was in Atlanta that Pinto first attended an ALA meeting.
“I love teaching,” she says. “It’s the one thing I’ve never been able to escape. But what I love to teach more than anything else is African literature. The ALA has given me a group of like-minded colleagues all over the world whom I now consider friends and family.”
One of those colleagues was Joseph. And although neither one remembers the exact moment when they met, Joseph does recall that Pinto’s fierce dedication to social justice was his first impression. “She was so passionate and involved that I was a little overwhelmed and perhaps even a bit scared,” he says with a laugh. “She was dedicating herself to her cause in a way that was just extraordinary and so admirable.”
Joseph, whose research interests include Francophone African literature and Wolof oral traditions (Wolof is Senegal’s main language), has been recording Wolof oral poetry since 1973. Having been trained originally in French Renaissance Literature, Joseph brings a fresh perspective to African literature in his writings. In 1995, he received a Fulbright African Regional Research Fellowship to study translations of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Wolof. He has taught at Hobart and William Smith since 1986.
After the death of Pinto’s husband and through a series of global moves that had Pinto teaching in the Netherlands, Africa and in the United States at Temple University, the two remained in contact through ALA and eventually married in 2001.
Today, Joseph directs the ALA Headquarters, which had previously been based at San Diego State and, before that, at Cornell University. Last weekend Pinto and Joseph welcomed the ALA’s Executive Council from around the world to Geneva for the group’s annual retreat.
“We couldn’t be more pleased with the incredible way that the Colleges and Geneva have welcomed the ALA Headquarters,” says Joseph. “We are particularly grateful for the graciousness of the Colleges’ Provost and President, and to Geneva Mayor Stu Einstein, who joined the Executive Council to officially welcome the ALA to Geneva.”