Dreaming to create the future
The story of a person’s life is never the domain of the individual whose life it is. It exceeds the individual, bits and pieces of it are known and remembered differently by other people – from those who lived with the individual and observed her or him close up to the ones who knew or know of the person from the fragments of stories that floated in the wind about the person. This aspect of the story of an individual raises questions when a person writes her or his memoir. How much of it is true? What does the person remember? What has s/he forgotten? How much does the author distort or leave out either because some details have faded through time or so as to present a certain view of herself or himself that may not be necessarily what others know to be true?
National Heritage (or Heritage with a capital ‘H’) seems to me similar to a memoir in some ways. When groups of politicians and state-employed professionals dream up what pasts to make the story of the nation, like the memoirist remembering certain events scantily and others more vividly, some events and people come into clear view for those choosing the things to prioritise, put money behind and make national heritage sites out of. Other events and people fade.
We see this in the individual life in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir (2010). He tells us about growing up for a time in his early life in his father’s compound as one of twenty-four children of his father’s four wives. He remembers his relationship with his mother and his younger brother in very fine detail. Strikingly, he remembers how he got scars on his body that remain as he writes: who he was playing with and what had happened leading up to the particular injury that left the scar. At one point he even asks, “But why does one recall some events and characters vividly and others not at all?” (67). He then goes on to identify people he remembers from his school years.
And it is not just intimate details Ngugi remembers. Born in 1932, his memoir covers the first sixteen years of his life in Kenya, but the World War II and the Mau Mau’s war of liberation against the British are just the background to the drama of family life. The large events only register increasingly as the story goes, and as he grows older and more aware. One such event is when Ngugi learns the word “propaganda” during Jomo Kenyatta’s trial and, with that, that “every event has more than one side to it… “ (191).
Every event, even a minor one, has more than one side to it indeed. Even the story of an individual life certainly has more sides to it, more than the side or sides Ngugi tells us in his memoir. How many more sides are there when it’s the story of a whole country? The individual story (or individual’s story) becomes a whole lot more complicated when you then place the individual in the world. People and things act upon the individual and the individual upon them. The one story the individual might tell becomes many, many stories that others might tell even better about the individual. Yet in a memoir the individual selects and brings together the details in one way. It is always an incomplete story, one view among many.
There is the matter of bias. The loss of some details or even whole events in the mist of time is understandable. The deliberate suppression or elimination of some details in order to create a good impression about oneself is something else altogether. We cannot tell to what extent the bending, suppression or elimination of some details has taken place since I do not know Ngugi beyond his books and one minor face-to-face meeting in New York when he launched his novel Wizard of the Crow. But when it comes to the selection of what past of a country to tell, Emile Maurice’s outrage in this issue about the silence of the master narrative on activists who were involved in the Non-European Unity Movement tells us that our memoir as a country is being written in bad faith. There are too many elisions, silences and exclusions in order to create a singular and sanitised version of the past to promote a view of the authors that’s a little too neat.
When we place the individual in a collective, such as a family, unpredictable things that challenge the neatness of the story happen, however much the individual may try to silence them. As Jo-Anne Duggan suggests, the family mythology may no longer hold when some details come to light. That child with the secretary may be kept quiet for a time, but the truth will out eventually – when the person is dead or the context has changed in some other way.
It’s much the same with a country, this country. The single story may (perhaps must) and always does get challenged by other details and other stories. The space for such challenges does not always exist, but something shifts one day – power changes hands – and suddenly space opens for parts that had been left out to be told. Those who had been dismissed as shouting from the lunatic fringe trying to sully the good name of the uncle or of the party are found to have been right all along.
My reflection on the memoir and Heritage comes out of hearing a worrying saying repeated by more a more people lately: a government you elect is the government you deserve or you get the government you deserve. I have constructed too neat a view of how the stories of countries are constructed. Of course a more realistic view of the authorship of stories of nations, and even of individual, is that it happens everywhere as Katie Moonie’s thoughts about personal heritage in this issue show us. Many of us dream of time when something will have changed so multiple stories can be told. Like Ngugi throughout his childhood, we dream to create the future.
Mbongiseni Buthelezi is the Deputy Director of the Archival Platform