By Hope Eghagha
Today I have elected to discuss our attitude to history. ‘Our’ of course refers to us the Nigerian people. I intend to discuss history at two levels- history as experience and history as a recorded account of experience(s).
The recorded experience could be personal, family, communal, ethnic or national. The title of the essay suggests that there is a problem with our attitude to History both as a subject and as memory of the past.
Let me state from the outset that I am not a professional historian. Simply expressed, I am not trained in the art of recording history. But I appreciate history.
Achebe says that we must know ‘when the rain began to beat us’ as a people. That is history. My love for history as a subject goes back in time. I will deal with that at another time. Everybody has a history; that is history in the sense of one’s past activities, written or unwritten.
So there is sense in which all of us are a moving body of history. A person’s history (antecedents) may shape their reactions to issues of the day. If deprivation had defined a person from the past, they would likely live all their lives fighting against deprivation.
A child who grew up in a polygamous home is more likely to detest polygamy, particularly if the experience was a horror. It is for this reason Ernest Hemmingway opined that a ‘man is a sum of his memories’. There are other people who ignore their history and remain in perpetual darkness.
Communities also have a history too. Most Nigerian communities have oral accounts of their history, how they arrived and settled down in their current location. Sometimes it is spiced with exaggerations and or distortions which often come in when we orally pass information after decades or ages.
All nations have a history; some terrible and some very interesting and engaging. The sum total of the historical experiences of our ethnic groups is the history of Nigeria in a sense. Sadly, this approach to history is not properly managed. It has been reported that we have about 400 ethnic groups in Nigeria.
As we go through the educational system, we hardly, if ever, are taught the history of communities outside our geographical location. The exception is when the syllabus incorporates the history of the big ethnic groups in the country. This narrow approach to history is highly problematic. The effect is that we hardly know our neighbours. In the place of authentic history, we stick to stereotypes.
There is no formal teaching of the Igbo people in the south west just as there is no formal programme to teach Igbo kids the history of the Yoruba people in the primary school system.
The same applies to Hausa or Edo or most of the ethnic groups. Until I schooled in Jos I didn’t know a thing about the indigenes of Plateau State. I had thought that everybody in the north was Hausa/Fulani.
My late Tiv friend Apel Iorver educated me on the state of things before we were formally taught in GST course. There are some people who initiate policies on a wrong premise: that there are only three major ethnic groups in the country.
The subtext is that once these major groups are happy the rest will take a cue and remain in the background perpetually. Most nations that have completely defined their nationhood create markers. There are national and local markers. National markers are icons who have contributed to building the nation. Statutes, monuments and other forms are raised in their honour.
Local icons are also honoured in such societies. Some citizens may never have travelled outside their immediate environment. But in their lifetime they make a significant contribution to the development of the community in question. Tombstones, whether private or public, can also be markers. In most communities in the Niger Delta there are no cemeteries. There are many unmarked graves.
Driving through Benin City the other day I found out to my utmost chagrin that the moat that was used to defend Bini Kingdom in its days of political and military ascendancy was being built upon. Some parts of it were used as refuse collectors! We are told that some built the place without official permission.
The moat could be a goldmine from tourism if properly harnessed. This was and is a reckless destruction of historical artifact. Some Bini bronze art works which the British stole in 1897 are still in the British Museum. It is now part of their history, a dubious one if you ask me.
There is something puzzling about the nation’s use and attitude to history. First we yanked off History as a subject from the secondary school syllabus.
The Historical Association of Nigeria along with other bodies like The Guardian Newspaper fought a long and hard battle for History to be restored as a subject in our secondary schools.
The battle was won this year. Departments of History in the universities found themselves near extinction and some have added ‘Strategic Studies’ to the name of the department.
In other words, History on its own is not worth attention. It has to be modernized to attract young people. Some parents have asked their kids: “who will employ you if you read History?
History guides or ought to guide contemporary decisions. History is a teacher to those who want to learn, those who open their ears to whispers from the past. History is a master to a man of deep consciousness.
History is a pointer to new directions. History is a reservoir from which one can draw lessons; it is an instructor about the past and a guide to the future. History tells us who our oppressors are and who we should embrace as real friends.
I see no reason why the average Nigerian child/student should not be properly educated on transatlantic slave trade. A child growing up in Sokoto should know the history of the people of the Niger Delta and vice versa. The colonial experience must be taught to all Nigerian kids. Not the Mungo Park or John Lander (the Lander brothers) rubbish we were fed with in the primary school system.
History accounts for departures and meeting points. Without a sense of history one may not recognize their destination even when they have arrived. A man who does not understand where he is coming from is likely to make serious errors in analyzing contemporary experiences. Thus our attitude to our history which had shown great disdain for the past has to change.
Anyone with a clear memory of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War would be more careful in policy formulation and implementation. We must learn that the past is not there for its own sake. It is recorded so that we as a people do not repeat the mistakes of our fathers.
Our poor attitude to history is caused by poor self-confidence – our past is not worth preserving because superior ways have arrived.