Custodian Editorial: The Importance of History

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“History shall be kind to me for I intend to write it“ -Winston Churchill

I once interned at a publishing company in Lagos and during this period, I learnt about one of the great Nigerian failings: a poor maintenance culture and the depreciation of history.

At the time, this firm was working on an essay collection. Some of these essays were published in some of the most popular publications in the nation in the 80’s. The firm wanted to republish these essays and wanted them in original form. They commissioned researchers, sending them far and wide to scour the nation’s largest libraries for these pieces. This was eventually unsuccessful and the firm had no choice than to drop those articles. This experience taught me to appreciate the numerous books and newspapers my father kept in his library which I had come to view as junk.

What makes this more galling is that, this was in the pre-Internet age which means that these articles and other historically relevant materials would probably never be accessed again. I remember reading a review of Oluremi Obasanjo’s account of her life as President Obasanjo’s first wife in which the reviewer advised that our leaders and members of the older generation cultivate a writing habit that would help shed light on so many issues and factors that have shaped our growth and development as a nation as they would be key in defining our identity and its origins for generations to come. We are nothing, if we don’t know how we got to where we are.

One of the great pitfalls of poor historical documentation is that it allows for Revisionism. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, it allows us change our tunes to pontificate the undeserving. It allows us to misinterpret nuances in a way that would conform to what is socially desirable. Reading old magazines and newspapers has taught me how important it is to understand issues and the context surrounding them. It teaches the importance of gauging the public reaction at the said time instead of relying on hearsay. You know what they say about seeing and believing.

We live in a culture of now, a society where every little issue is subjected through the microscope of the public. When we aren’t tweeting our thoughts, we’re calling in to radio shows to debate them . I once had the privilege of going through a private collection of Thisweek magazine (Nduka Obaigbena’s 80′s publication) and I regard it as providing the foundation of whatever understanding I hold of pre my birth Nigeria. It allowed me to witness the immediacy effect and the condemnation that followed IBB’s Structural Adjustment Programme whilst also helping me understand what that generation felt. Fortunately for me, this belonged to a family member. Based on this, I clearly am the exception. What understanding of our parents and grandparents Nigeria do the not so lucky of my peers hold?

As a people, our history defines who and what we are. It is our identity. It is what would define how future generations view those before them. Our history helps us fulfill one of our greatest desires as human beings; uniqueness. Most African Americans have an understanding of the Slave Trade and how their forefathers were forcefully made subordinates to the white man on the daft basis they were inferior. They understand that this set back the development of the Black race by creating obstacles that we are still smarting from today. It is for this reason, Barack Obama’s ascent to US President was so profound. It was a step in the right direction. Not every member of the ‘Obama’ generation was subjected to racism but with the way it was celebrated, one would think we were all born when Emmit Till was stoned to death. One would think we all sat down on that bus with Rosa Parks or marched with Martin Luther King. The racism of years past is something that defines the Black race. It is with sentiments like this, I fear for what would become of the Nigerian story.

I rewrite this article in the wake of the Half of a Yellow Sun film debacle. I’m lucky to have seen the film already. (Thank God, I still live in England). The film is important because it captures Nigeria at its lowest point post Independence. The publication of Chinua Achebe’s ‘There was a Country’ was important in resurrecting the topic of that War. That was a great starting point. The Adichie film is great in the advancement of this education process. It can reach a greater audience than the Adichie and Achebe books. There are more people who don’t particularly read or enjoy reading. The Accountant type (If you didn’t know, they are more suited to crunching numbers) friend I saw it with was on Google and Wikipedia researching on the deeper significance of the war before the movie even ended. When and where does the censorship and airbrushing of history end? As it is, the War isn’t even covered in our School curriculum. That is no way to go.

How can we possibly appreciate some of those things that got us here when they’re so poorly documented? How can one appreciate the beauty of 30s and 40s Lagos if Wole Soyinka doesn’t articulate it like he did here? How would the generation to come understand the failings that plagued their grandfathers if Chinua Achebe didn’t document it in ‘The Problem With Nigeria‘?

Documenting our history is something we have to take on board more in order to ensure that the work of our forefathers is not in vain. Preserving it is also something we need to work on.

Portions of this essay were originally published on Bella Naija on September 13th 2012

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