Of History and allied mattersWritten by Ibim Semenitari
It's a beautiful year. Welcome to 2017. It has been seven years since I last wrote a piece as a private citizen, and it feels good to be back on the beat. I hope that you would enjoy reading this column.
Every week in Reminiscences, we would take a tour of history. I would exhume, excavate, examine, analyse, probe and prod. It promises to be an interesting journey. Sometimes I would borrow from external experiences, other times I would be more introspective. At all times I would benchmark and compare what was, what is and dare to suggest what might be. Each time we meet it would be a conversation. The greatest problem of the times and our country is the lack of contestation of ideas. The almost non-existence of debate and ideology, the bandwagon effect of “carry go “ syndrome” or in the case of the once popular Fortune bank advert “ everybody come inside,” has blinded us to different narratives and perspectives. We need to interrogate more to arrive at dispassionate conclusions.
So in this column, my discourse will be straight, simple and experience based – whether mine or that of others. I will carry you dear readers on a journey through the hills, and valleys, the oceans, seas, rivers and rivulets. We will crisscross creeks in search of the treasure trove laden with the history of paradise lost. I hope you will enjoy our travels and that sometimes you too might be willing to take the helm and lead us into the bliss full or painful path of self discovery or rediscovery as it might be.
Let’s begin this week with a debate on my old girls/boys network. I attended the Federal Government Girls’ College, Abuloma, one of the 104 Unity schools set up as centres of academic excellence and beacons of a united nation.
The conclusion of the discussion, which was about the decision of the Federal Ministry of Education to bring history back into, the school curriculum was, “the sooner, the better”.
I remember my grandfather insisting on telling me the history of my community as a child. He insisted that a people without a past do not have a future. His words were; “if you do not know where you are going at least know where you are coming from.”
Knowing where you are coming from helps you put things in perspective. It helps you know what worked, what didn't and what you can do to avoid that which didn't work; of how you can improve on it.
On January 6th, the movie, Hidden Figures, opened up in theatres all across America. It was a beautiful movie that spoke to the essence of America and its contradictions. The film is based on the lives of three African American women (they called them computers, back then) who had to deal with discrimination in America’s deeply segregated South to help the country compete in the cold-war-fueled space race.
The film centres on Katherine G. Johnson, a NASA mathematician and her two other colleagues (all black) from West Computing group at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Their mathematics allowed America launch astronauts Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.
That history deliberately forgotten but brought back to America now, has already won 16 awards. The point of course being that the movie is not just another story but the recounting of an amazing history. It not only reinforces the interwoven fabric of multi-racial America but reaffirms the interdependence that makes America a great nation. Coming out of one of the nation’s most divisive elections, this movie is certainly a needful lesson in why America is called the land of the free. The movie carries a ray of hope to soothe frayed nerves, re- energize faith in the American dream.
So back to my country and the debate of history.
I have just finished reading the late Oba of Benin, Oba Erediuwa’s book, I Remain Sir, Your Obedient Servant. It is an interesting read. In it, Oba Erediuwa tells the story of an emerging civil service through colonial, pre independence and post independence Nigeria. The book paints the picture of a country in the throes of ethno-cultural divisions and the resulting damage to the fabrics of a young nation. As we travel through time vicariously through the author, we find the early seeds of corruption, the tares of political interference in the civil service and its unfortunate results. We find within the pages of this narrative the rumbles of the civil war and we see the ripple effect caused the tiny pebble thrown into the still waters of a nation that wanted to defeat differing tribe and tongue and stand in brotherhood.
Robert B. Sandler is an expert in atmospheric physics, electrical engineering and law. He wrote an essay making an argument on why history is so to people and nations. This is what he had to say - “The real accomplishment of a historian is to present the historical facts in such a coherent way, by adding original explanation for why the facts occurred.” Sandler in that essay quotes another colleague, Ronald Edsforth of Dartmouth College, who described the essence of history in this one sentence, “I sought to know what happened, what happened next and why.”
Essentially, therefore, History is important because it helps us catch the early warning signs. It helps us make sense out of life and figure out how to keep things sane. Little wonder that oral history and oral tradition was so critical to our forbears. Not an evening passed when they wouldn't gather under the moonlight to tell successive generations stories of who they were, how they became and what they must hold dear. Through those evenings, they learnt who were their enemies, who were their friends, who to trade with and who to avoid. They understood the beauty of the wild and the virtues hidden in the environment. They learnt to love their world and take pride in their community. In other clime, especially the United States of America and the United Kingdom, which we so gladly love to ape, history is a key subject. Every child who goes to school knows the history of the countries in which they reside.
I have seen Nigerian children who grew up in Nigeria and left after secondary school who knew everything about the history of other countries and nothing about their own. They see heroes outside but know nothing of their own heroes. Here in Nigeria we have consigned history and with it our heroes to the rubbish dump. So who do we have to look up to? What values do we know define us? How can we then complain when our bright children take pride in strutting about as bad imitations of a different culture that bears no resemblance to their root? But more than that, how can we know that all of us are ingrained in each other bound by a common history, shared pains and common joys?
History is important. It tells us who we are and how we have become. One often-used cliché is “he who controls the past controls the future.” History helps us count so we can account. Knowledge about the past will help us understand how to solve problems of the present. Honestly speaking, it is as simple as that.
Ibim Semenitari is a former Honourable Commissioner for Information and Communications, Rivers State and immediate past Acting Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer, Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC.