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Memory and remembering


General Gowon

As a people or as human beings, we ought to remember or utilise our memory always, for positive reasons. We must remember not to forget. But the tragedy of man is that he often forgets. Forgetfulness is the tendency to forget. Also, forgetting is the process of deliberately forgetting what has happened in the past in the misguided belief that knowledge of the past could jeopardize the efforts of the present. Some people are not able to deal with their past because it is shameful or tragic. In other words there are some people, communities or nations that deliberately decide to forget. Some individuals have gone down with mental health challenges because of their inability to deal with a broken relationship, a business deal gone sour, or encounter with traumatic experiences. There are others who remember quite alright but decide to ignore the lessons of history.

Often man forgets himself, forgets his history just the way some nations forget that there is a connection with their past; just the way we forget our antecedents which have helped to shape us. The colonial encounter is part of our past, and we are reminded everyday by our English names, Christianity and the name of the country-Nigeria. Memory is part of the human consciousness though often we suppress memory for the sake of instant gratification, for the convenience of the present. The result is often disastrous. It is important to observe that loss of memory could be collective. This is what is referred to as ‘collective amnesia.’ Also, some individuals who wriggle themselves out of the class of collective memory loss are often ridiculed by mainstream persons.

In the lives of individuals just as it happens in the history of nations, there are landmarks, turning points, profound events or incidents which serve as reference points. It could be a war of unity, or the struggle for independence. It could be a massive fire outbreak or a flooding incident, a tsunami or an earthquake. Nations draw lessons from such incidents. While for some the reaction could be the slogan ‘never again’, in others it could be ‘let us do this again’. In both cases, such events should serve as a form of inspiration to greater heights. At the end of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil war in 1970, General Yakubu Gowon the amiable Head of State at the time proclaimed the three Rs – Reconciliation, Reconstruction, Rehabilitation as a way of healing the trauma of the war and accepting the Igbo people back into the country. That there has been a resurgence of the Biafra spirit is an indication that we have not been able to deal squarely with the lessons of our war history.

A people who want to obliterate memory would ban the teaching of History as a subject in its educational system or wipe it off its academic curriculum. They would also deride History as a discipline, asking the asinine question: what job can you get as a graduate of History. For a society without memory, everything is reduced to bread and butter. Thinking is killed. Progress is stalled. The intellect becomes endangered.

When Chinua Achebe says ‘we should know where the rain began to beat us’, it is his own way of interrogating the past, the past as a known, a given. And so when he tells us the story of Okonkwo he is telling us aspects of our history, how we failed ourselves and how in the words of Wole Soyinka, ‘our world came tumbling in the void of strangers’ after ‘sitting on the edge of the bitter precipice’. The sub-text here is ‘why did the rain beat us? Another sub-text is ‘the knowledge of the past is there.’ It is the same Achebe who says that ‘we should not enter our house through another man’s door’. George Orwell fascinated the world when he wrote in his classic Nineteen Eighty Four when he asserted that the State could decide to alter the past, reconstruct it, and manipulate it to fit into the narrative of the present. Suffice it to say that we already have sped past the world which so well predicted by Orwell.

In some societies, while words show that there is knowledge of the past, actions show that the object lessons of the past have not been learnt or are not reckoned with in the process of policy formulation and implementation. When the exploiting colonialist built railway lines in Nigeria, it was for selfish reasons. If we had any memory we ought to have soared above that sore by connecting the entire country by rail to ferry the poor and hapless peoples of our land to their different destinations. If Africa had a memory we would by now have linked the different countries by rail to ease movement and transportation.

So when the wise Obierika tells Okonkwo in Things Fall Apart, ‘that boy calls you father; do not bear a hand in his death’, he passes on the lessons of communal experience and how the individual must yield to the communal within that world. That which we know should not kill us, a river that overflows before our very eyes should not drown us.

Remembering should be part of our work ethic, policy formulation and our national agenda. In different ways we should keep a memory of the past through buildings, mementoes and memoirs. These could be through physical or symbolic etchings in our cultural and social spaces.

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