Forgotten Words, Forgotten Past
“No longer then bestride the threshold
But step in and stay
For good. We know the knife scars…”
I came across Abiku, by J.P.Clark again recently. I was not searching for these particular words, for this particular poem, but when I happened upon it, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. And the thought came to me, what happened to our history?
To the casual reader, it may seem odd that this would be my reaction to a poem about an ‘abiku’ – a child who is born and dies, and is born again. And though I believe there is much to be said about the idea of an abiku and the history of our people; that is not what I am getting at. For many, an abiku is a fictional character, a fantastical creature and one that is no more relevant in today’s world. Will our children even know what an abiku is?
I think it is important that they do know; and that they know who and what ijapa is; that they know about Queen Amina and Mami Wata. Why? Because these tales, these words carry our history. And this is important in Nigeria, in Africa. Our past does not trace as far back as the past of our paler brothers and sisters. Before colonization, our history is murky at best; many of our relics distributed around the world, with several of us having lost our language along the way. But we have always had our stories and our words to share our experiences and the experiences of others.
In 2006, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie was published. The novel depicts the experiences of three main characters during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970), or what is better known as the Biafran War. The novel stirred up discussions about the Civil War and even conversations about whether or not Chimamanda, who was born in 1977, should have written on what was essentially still a sensitive subject. However, the book was still very much a fictional tale; whether or not she had experienced it herself or done extensive research was besides the point. Her tale carried a truth, it carried our history in its pages.
Every year, in Hollywood, at least one new war movie comes out. In 2014, it was Fury; in 2015, 13 Minutes, amongst others. The point is, we have read several books and watched several movies on World War I, World War II, and the Vietnam War. We have read and watched the Tudors in power and other significant individuals. Most of these works, written and produced by people who had not been conceived at the time that these events were taking place. And yet their history and their dead, they live on. Even the myths have their place – how many remakes of Hercules, of the Loch Ness Monster and of vampires have we seen? They are more than the workings of one person’s imagination. Hercules, belongs in Greek mythology and is representative of the relationship they had with their gods; of how the people of those times lived and the battle they fought. The vampires that we have come to know and love, essentially belong to the Irish; because though Dracula was from Romania, the author Bram Stoker, was Irish.
But we too have myths, creatures and fantasies that could brighten up a big screen, or urge a reader to turn a page. We have morals and cultural lessons that are best expressed through stories that fascinate and entrench themselves in our memories. We have tales that can be expressed through prose, through ballads and through poetry.
So let’s give ourselves and our writers the freedom to do this and worry less about the authenticity and ‘Africanness’ of a work that is fundamentally the exercise of the creator’s unique mind as he or she tries to discover self and history and world through words.