• Monday, June 24, 2024
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A river that forgets its’ source will dry up

A river that forgets its’ source will dry up

“Awon oku je airi, sugbon won wa nihin” (The dead are invisible, not absent) –

When the pandemic first began, we scrambled for insight from different experts. Typically, one would assume that in the search for knowledge we would camp at the feet of the most notable scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the virus. Instead, some of us found ourselves drifting towards historians and their interpretations and predictions of the pandemic in the context of previous global pandemics. Scientists could tell us about the virus; the way it spreads, its ability to mutate and the potential means of combating it. However, historians provided us and society at large the much-needed frame of reference to understand that our current global predicament is not new. There have been widespread pandemic outbreaks in the past from the Black Death of the fourteenth century , to the Spanish Flu between 1918-1920. Engaging and understanding history is reaffirmed in the words of one of my favourite historical fiction writers, Hilary Mantel who said, “If you don’t understand history you are not so much doomed to repeat history but doomed to destruction.”. Amidst the raging pandemic, the quote rings true–our active dismissal of the lessons of our global human history will destroy us. As an educator however, the link does not stop there. My team and I have spent the lockdown working to ensure that children across Nigeria are able to continue learning. I’m currently working on our final, of a series of 8, home learning kits for “My Story of Water”. The worksheets take the child through a journey that touches on health and sanitation, science, geography, economics and now, aptly, history. This sheet titled “A River That Forgets Its’ Source Will Dry Up’’ is an appeal for us to consciously and collectively recall our history because it is the source of who we are.

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In traditional Nigerian cultures, oral storytelling has always been at the heart of preserving the history and way of life of past generations. The role of communities has been central in doing this. Nowadays, the practice of traditional storytelling has been relegated to a distant corner. With no history in the school curriculum and the practice of oral storytelling dying out, how can we expect our young people to learn, digest, and be proud of their history? Recently, President Buhari announced that several train stations across the country will carry names of notable Nigerians of past and present history. This is important because names have a purpose, they give meaning and they become part of the stories woven into the very fabric of the places that they are named for and the communities they represent. This is reflected in so many place names around the world, in Nigeria we have names such as: Ebute Meta (three jetties)

Kofar Ruwa (Waters Gate) Azumiri (River Bank) Idemili (Water Logged). The generations of Nigerians, who lived in these places before Nigeria was even called Nigeria gave these places these names. Names that signify something important; water. While it may seem inconsequential, these naming patterns have made a link between geography and history. However these links have been truncates due to the incomplete knowledge that many communities in Nigeria have of the past. The name of a place gives future generations an understanding of the history of the place. While today’s Anambra youth may not fully understand the historical and cultural context behind the name Idemili, I hope that future generations are given the opportunity to fully understand the history behind the names of the new train stations.

Telling our stories is important but who gets to tell those stories and how we tell those stories needs to be considered. To quote Hilary

Mantel again, “The space of the past belongs to those who suffered in it”, and any retelling must reflect this suffering that comes alongside experiencing history. Art has often provided the most genuine and authentic retelling of history as it allow us to voice an opinion, to reimagine, and illustrate the key markers of the past. Public art is an opportunity to see the stories of the past through the voice of an artist. We are able to see this perspective in works such as Yinka Shonibares’ “Nelsons Ship” (2012) on the Fourth Plinth in London, which reimagines British Colonial history from the perspective of a Nigerian artist. Ben Enwonwus’ Sculpture of “Sango” (1965) outside the Electric Corporation office on Lagos Island, brings a representation of traditional religion into the heart of Lagos’s commercial centre. Fusing the old and the new, these installations connect the community to the past in a way that lights up the imagination. Despite the obvious benefits of public art, there are still so few stories told of the community history and perspective in this way. Consequently, Nigerians youth face the world unguided by the lessons of the past. Having a clear understanding of your “source” engenders an innate confidence and sense of belonging and security. Nigeria’s youths are blessed with irrepressible confidence in the here and now, transposing that confidence into understanding, articulating, and reconciling the past is vital otherwise the suffering and the ensuing impact will could lead to generational oppression and discrimination.

In order to create effective change, all young people need to know where they fit in the global narrative, which is something we imbed in work our at FCI. Through the journey which all participants in Five Cowries programmes take, references are made to the past. References are made to dress, customs, city development, architecture, trade. With a focus on how artists have represented the past in traditional modern and contemporary art forms. As schools across the world remain shut, this means that learning has effectively stopped for many children. Nevertheless, what does this mean for that actually means–particularly for children in Nigerian where up to 60% of them are not registered in formal education. Community-based approach to education could provide a solution for Nigerian children amidst the pandemic. These traditional yet new approaches will encourage children to think creatively, to exercise their imagination and to problem-solve in unique, innovative, exciting ways. The lockdown has not only allowed the planet to breathe, it has been an opportunity for the child to breathe. Now we can encourage intergenerational learning, get the learner out of their comfort zone, expose themselves to a greater richness of experiences and experiment without fear of failure. And we can allow the older generations to once again become the storyteller at the heart of the family. We are seeing this happen as the Five Cowries Arts Education Initiative worksheets are reaching children in Lagos, Ogun and Kaduna States. The activities are bringing together families and communities so much so that some of our coordinators are setting up intergenerational community workshops. This is an invaluable learning ground for us as educators, to see how family-led and intergenerational learning in homes across the country can be supported. When creative activities are relevant, they become, in the words of Gus Casely Hayford, “an engine of societal opportunity, of change, of skills development and life-changing inspiration. Since this is true, something so important must be universal, inclusive, and open.”