Long before there were cell phones, digital cameras or laptops, Harold Scheub lugged bulky tape recorders the size of small suitcases into the South African countryside, on the hunt for stories.
At a time when apartheid roused suspicions and ill will, Scheub (a white, 20-something doctoral student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison) somehow got himself invited into rural homes. The storytellers sat before fires, in the center of rondoval-style dwellings. Family members encircled them, listening raptly. They spoke in Xhosa, a language that Scheub, a student of African languages and literature, was only beginning to understand.
“The first time I heard a story, I thought I had learned the wrong language,” Scheub says. “It washed over me like a flood. But I knew I couldn’t work with interpreters, not if I was going to engage with something as intimately important as the storytelling tradition.”
Scheub, the Evjue-Bascom Professor of Humanities in the Department of African Languages and Literature, retires this month after four decades of teaching at UW-Madison. Looking back on the 1960s, when he was a young man starting his quest, Scheub remembers feeling “wide open to the possibilities.”
“I was an outsider, being invited into these homes to hear these intensely personal stories,” he remembers. “I wasn’t prepared for any of it. But it was very, very exciting.”
Scheub forced himself to learn, not only the mechanics of the Xhosa language, but its cadences and colloquialisms, its versatilities and rhythms. He paid close attention to non-verbal cues, such as body language and tone. After about six months, he remembers, it all “began to flow.”
From then on, Scheub lived and breathed the stories of Africa, tramping more than 6,000 miles through South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Lesotho, recording poetry, tales, and myths — including epic stories that could last for days. He learned Swahili and Yoruba along the way. And he brought thousands of recordings back to UW-Madison (most are now part of the UW Digital Collections), where he introduced students to the oral traditions of Africa, and embarked on a teaching and writing career that illuminated an art as old as human existence.
“Harold Scheub has had a storied career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” says Professor Aliko Songolo, chair of the Department of African Languages and Literature. “He has garnered all manner of intra- and extra-mural awards and honors, has published some 30 books and more than 50 scholarly articles. Teaching for him is not a job, it is a calling.”
For a man who treasured his scholarly routine, retirement will not be easy. When he was not traveling overseas, Scheub was always at his desk in Van Hise Hall by 5:30 a.m.
“There was a certainty, a regularity to my life,” he says. “But now I am faced with momentous change. On the one hand, it’s exciting. On the other, it’s kind of scary.”
For years Scheub has taught his students about how the old African stories deal with such moments. Now he is facing one himself.
“There are all kinds of themes, but a recurring one is transformation,” he says. “The movement from one state of being to another — puberty, marriage, all the change that one goes through in one’s life — the stories explore all manner of transformation. Sometimes it’s an easy, positive change, and sometimes it’s very, very difficult.”
Humans, says Scheub, find comfort in stories that emphasize our similarity and make us feel that we are not alone. Since change is the very essence of living, it becomes central to the oral tradition, which emphasizes what life is all about.
Scheub joined the faculty in 1970 and served three times as chair of the Department of African Languages and Literature. He won numerous teaching, research and service awards and digitized about 2,300 hours of taped oral narratives, poems, histories and epics collected during his research trips among the Xhosa, Zulu, Ndebele, Swati and Sotho peoples in South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. The collection also includes thousands of photographs and hours of film.
— Aliko Songolo, chair, Department of African Languages and Literature
In his most popular course, African 210: The African Storyteller, Scheub introduced generations of students to the oral traditions of Africa. He extolled the rich languages but argued that stories transcended them. The storyteller, Scheub pointed out, uses traditional images, repetition, and other techniques to move the audience past the story’s surface of morals and ideas, and make connections to its past, present, and future. To guide the audience on this emotional journey is the storyteller’s art.
Students signed up for the class in droves, according to Songolo.
“Students sometimes waited years to get into his class,” former chancellor John Wiley told University Communications in a 2012 story about Scheub. “They all left with the feeling they had experienced something extraordinary.”
Scheub established the Harold Scheub Great People Scholarship in 2011 to support UW-Madison students with financial needs. On his 80th birthday in 2011, the department solicited contributions in his honor, and received more than 150 gifts from former students.
Earlier this year, a former student, Tim McConnell, wrote an in-depth story for the multimedia news website Narratively about Scheub’s remarkable career.
Scheub’s friends in Africa often puzzled over how he could be happy in a “landlocked university” so far from the cultures and traditions he loved. But Scheub always felt at home at UW-Madison.
“This university is so important, not just for the study of Africa, but for all world literatures and languages,” he says.
As for the next chapter, Scheub says he has plenty to keep him busy in terms of scholarly work. Beyond that, he doesn’t know. He feels he is entering unknown territory. But the world’s oldest stories remind him that others have walked here, too.
To view photos from Scheub’s final lecture at UW-Madison, see the slideshow below:
“The Gatherer of Stories”
For Harold Scheub
Every day I drive past
The professor who walks to work,
Who walked for years
Through Africa, gathering
Stories from the tellers
In dusty villages — I know
The stories repeat in his head
As he walks toward a Midwestern
Lecture hall where hundreds
Of faces lean forward
At his opening gesture
As, one by one
Voices begin to speak
Their stories through him
The common rhythm of walking
Pacing every translated word —
See how the banyan tree
Has canopied the room.
— Robin Chapman, professor emerita, communication sciences and disorders, and poet