A country without a memory

-By Abdul Mahmud

Human memory always harks back to itself to give meaning to learning. Not to be trapped by forgetting, humanity has always embarked on adventures in memory to place a handle on the past.

These adventures, which form part of the human story, not only reveal the truth of human journeys while at the mercy of time and space but also provide spatial contexts for all human endeavour, revealing interferences, memories and the humanity of movement. So, in a nutshell, it is time – as is memory – that gifts us the spatial intelligence and the power to remember and to become aware of when the rain began to beat us. Remembering is one-half of human learning, forgetting is the other half which makes memory whole. When humanity willfully – no less nations – neglects to remember the past or conveniently forgets the past, it becomes a hostage of the very things that ruin it. History has consistently shown us personages who reminded nations of their sins and missteps and warned of the gloom and doom that loomed. We provide two examples here.

Enter Jonah of Gath-hepher. He roamed Nineveh for three days ringing his bell, proclaiming God’s impending wrath: “forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown”. Ninevites heeded his warning. God spared the city of sins. The king was happy. Enter Jeremiah, not the weeping prophet, fondly called Awo. He understood the place of memory, of remembering, in the life of a nation. He saw the ruins of the civil war. His memory, tied to the memory of a nation that battled to heal from within itself, he understood how ostentatious and plundering elite classes everywhere imperil and ruin nations, plunging them into war; the hunger war.

So, when in 1981 the economy tanked and the ship of state headed south, he returned to memory. Fearing that ordinary suffering masses would be tossed as fodder into the sea of misery like Pi, in Yann Martel’s ‘Life of Pi’, if the worst came to the worst; he cried out. Like Jeremiah of old, he warned the ruling party to save the nation from the ruins of its sins. He was derided by politicians on a horse-drawn carriage, dragging the nation to Golgotha. A few months later, the economy “doped out of the deep and bobbed up belly wise;” like the fish in JP Clark’s ‘Night Rain’.

How does a nation forget its ruinous past, then embarks on the road to the things that ruin it? Is it hubris? Is it heedlessness? Is it forgetfulness? If we believe Plato’s philosophical arguments in the ‘Myth of Er’, then heedlessness becomes the first culprit, forgetfulness follows as a close second. Believing that our extrapolation of Plato is correct, it then means that any nation that drinks from the ‘River of Heedlessness on the Plane of Forgetting’ invariably forgets the past that does not exist in the future; and the present that empties itself out so that nothing exists in it.

If we find Plato too heavy, and too philosophical; for us to grasp the place of remembering in memory, we may find Anton Chekhov’s quip in his play, ‘The Cherry Orchard’, easier to grasp: “for it’s so clear that in order to begin to live in the present we must first redeem the past, and that can only be done by suffering, by strenuous, uninterrupted labour”. In a very telling manner indeed, The Cherry Orchard depicts a changing society, not imprisoned by amnesia, by forgetfulness, that remembers its ‘je me souvien moments’ and sets itself on the path of rediscovery, while telling its stories of the now and comparing them to the stories of then.   

No country distorts the meaning of its story by insisting that nothing passes, as if it exists in a time warp. To avoid distortion, politicians who are elected to run the country, not ruin it, take on the responsibility of making and remaking, telling and retelling stories of the past that shape the present around which the country coheres. By telling and retelling the stories of the past, mistakes are avoided, lessons are learned and history is not repeated as farce. The tragedy of our case is that our elected politicians, imprisoned by amnesia, are only too glad to secure freedom by banning history from the curriculum of our schools.

If redeeming the past is “strenuous and uninterrupted labour”, our elected politicians make a poor showing of it by suppressing historical truths and creating an alternate universe where falsehood is passed off as truth, villains are turned into heroes, and make-belief is reinvented as inverted reality; the dystopian roost where their supporters live in and scream that they are always right, when in actual fact they are wrong.

But, there is redemption from a familiar quarter. Supo Shashore, my friend and fellow delegate at the 2014 National Conference, has taken up the task of redeeming the past in a revealing way. In his recently released historical documentary, ‘Journey of an African Colony: The Making of Nigeria’, he debunks ‘myths’ about our nation-state and sheds light on historical facts hidden in both plain sight and the hideous recesses of time. His is a strenuous and uninterrupted labour of love that marries “historical facts” and “facts of the past” and constructs our history as a perpetual dialogue between the past and the present. The present and the future are meaningless without the past, he suggests in the documentary. He is right. So is George Santayana who famously quipped, “a country without a memory is a country of madmen”.       

Mahmud, a regular columnist with The Difference Newspaper, is a lawyer, poet and former President of the National Association of Nigerian Students

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