I am haunted and healed by memories.
In my quiet moments of meditation, I have been fascinated by how answers to some personal questions I have asked myself were found in memories. Memory, in all its forms, must be one of the world’s most powerful phenomena; for it has its ways of defining humanity. I am often wont to return to my childhood and adulthood memories to examine and make sense of my life’s journey. Sometimes it takes the past to understand the present, even though the past does not ultimately define the present. What memories do, in a sense, is to preserve a traveler’s routes and show how they led to the present destination.
It is like borrowing glimpses from the past to clarify the labyrinths of the here-and-now.
I like to think of humanity as a machine driven by memories as one of its engines. Perhaps, this explains why the need to concretize moments became imperative and dates back to centuries ago, or the beginning of humanity even. In many cases, like mine, some of the things we hold as objects of memory might not have been deliberately sought, but they exist in real time as objects of recollection and introspection. I have from my childhood, three mementoes which I would discuss in this order: photographs, music, and scars.
Photographs are the most common objects of memory. It is amazing, almost magical how a careful look at an old photograph could recall a significant moment or past events which, when reexamined, could yield different meanings or possibly alter one’s view or perspective. For Karl Lagerfeld, the most thrilling thing about photographs is their ability to capture moments which cannot be reproduced. It is like trapping several streams of stories into an object. This view is not strange. It is what it is—an object of remembrance.
However, engaging photographs sometimes goes beyond mere recollections to search for implied meanings. In my own case, some photographs remind me of other unrelated events that happened within the same time frame. In my childhood years, my parents enlarged and framed photos of me and my siblings as was the practice in many homes at the time. For a reason unknown to me, I would always stare at the photo of myself as a baby. While it might be impossible for me to recall exactly what I thought at those moments, it must have been fascinating to see myself as a baby, because I always went back to the photo.
I have not stopped. I still go back to that framed photograph whenever I get the chance. I marvel at my inquisitive eyes and firm countenance—perhaps, they were a resolution to face the world I knew nothing about; to rebel when necessary; to ask questions and find my own path. Interestingly, I have nearly the same inquisitive look at our family portrait taken at the western door of our cathedral at the time. It was December 1994 and my father had just been collated and installed as one of the canons of the cathedral. I think about the strong similarities between my countenances in both portraits and I conclude that they are not coincidental.
My parents kept albums containing old photos of their youth, their wedding, college and university years, my father’s ordination, and many others. As a child, I would look at the photos carefully and ask too many questions. Subsequently, I found a photograph of my father posing beside my pregnant mother. After I ascertained that I was the forthcoming one in the womb, I acquired it. I still go back to be awed by the photograph. What does it mean to see a baby bump that is you, unbothered fetus, oblivious of the camera lens that has captured your bearer?
On my ninth birthday, my family planned a celebration and invited a photographer. One of my best friends from nursery and early primary school had come visiting too. My sense of elation blinded my earlier doubts and suspicion that the photographer might not show up. Annie, as he was popularly called, was always in the midst of young schoolgirls, boarders in a nearby Girls’ Secondary School who seemingly took more photographs than they needed. It took quite a while to realize that his real name was Ernest. Schoolgirls had nicknamed him “Annie” as an expression of endearment. He would bend backwards, lean forward; his legs wide at ease while he took photos of girls whose poses he willingly arranged and re-arranged over and over again. The girls did not mind. They loved and admired him and were always at his studio located near the school. At some point, I thought he photographed only schoolgirls and may not bother about other clients, least of all me. A few minutes into the celebration, Annie showed up. The photographer took a few shots and left. In less than one week, he returned with the photographs and they were kept safely in one of our family albums. Looking at those photographs now, especially the one I took with my best friend, it is strange how I have a vague memory of the main event, but a vivid memory of one of my embarrassing childhood moments which happened shortly after that birthday party. I had gone to spend my holiday with the same childhood friend who visited during my ninth birthday. It was an opportunity for me to take one of the birthday photographs to him. They lived in a nearby town where my father had served as a vicar for six years before he was transferred. One day, during my visit, I asked my friend to escort me to an old friend’s house which was, in fact, less than four hundred meters away. I needed to see my bosom friend with whom I shared a strong bond mainly because we were namesakes. We had spent a lot of time together until suddenly, he stopped coming to school. When I asked, I was told he travelled. Shortly after that, we were transferred to another location and I thought I would never see him again.
Spending my holiday in the town was an opportunity to see him again.
So I asked my host friend to escort me to their house. Although I didn’t mention the exact purpose of my visit, I think about that incident now and I wonder who he thought I was going to see. We knocked at the gate and someone asked us to enter. I went in first, followed by my host friend. For a reason I do not know, I stopped at the gate when I saw my friend’s two elder sisters and I immediately asked if my friend was at home.
That question was greeted with a mixture of shock and confusion.
I stood there confused too, wondering if I had done something wrong. I did not know that my host friend who was standing right behind me was awash with embarrassment on my behalf. The two sisters looked at themselves and one of them managed to tell me that my friend had gone to their maternal home and might not return soon. Of course, that was supposed to make us leave and not bother to wait for him. I thanked them and left. Outside the gate, I was vehemently confronted and reprimanded by my host friend.
‘What was the meaning of that?’ He asked.
‘How do you mean? Meaning of what?’ I asked, oblivious of what I had done.
‘Oh! You don’t even know that you just messed up right now? Why did you ask them such a sensitive question? Did you plan to get them to start crying all over again or what? That didn’t make sense!’
‘Wait, why would they want to cry? I don’t understand’.
Biting his lower lip, he held my gaze long enough to register his disgust. He shook his head, turned, and walked away. I followed him, lost in confusion.
After a few seconds, he stopped and turned to face me.
‘Echezona is dead. You shouldn’t have asked to see him. It makes no sense.’
I stood transfixed.
As if that was not enough, he kept asking if I didn’t know that Echezona had died. I felt too weak and confused to argue. We had just been told that he went to his maternal home. I didn’t know what to believe. When we got back home, I confided in my host friend’s mother who told me that my friend died shortly before we went on transfer. He was terribly sick and his father rushed back from work to drive him to the hospital. He was confirmed dead on arrival and was buried afterwards. These were completely hidden from me. My holiday ended abruptly, and when I got back to my family, I cried inconsolably. I felt betrayed. I was betrayed.
At last, I mourned my friend whose grave I did not see.
Each time I went through my ninth birthday photographs, memories of discovering about my best friend’s demise played back. I suspect that it is triggered by my friend’s presence in the birthday photograph. This, for me, captures Andy Warhol’s view on photographs. Warhol says: “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.” This statement is true in every sense. I have since moved on without my best friend. A lot of things have changed since then. But the stories and memories captured in my ninth birthday photographs remain unaltered and evoke the same feeling from many years ago.
“Each memory has a soundtrack of its own.” This is, perhaps, one of the most popular anonymous quotes on music and memory. People tend to remember past events when they listen to songs associated with those events. Even lovers have special love songs that concretise sweet memories into an object—a memento of sorts.
In the academic study of music, music and memory is taken as one of the major topics in music psychology. Musicologists study how engaging in a musical activity, whether performing or listening, aids in the process of memorization. Jessie Hoover’s study on the premise of memory and soundtracks with a clear hypothesis which states that “Listening to music while engaging in a memory exercise would improve one’s memory while sitting in silence while engaging in a memory exercise would not improve one’s memory” show that 50% improved with music and 50% improved without music.
This study and process, although relevant in this discourse, are slightly at variance with the aspect of memory that forms my thesis. While people were tested to see how they could memorise with the aid of music, I look at it from a perspective where we turn to music to remember past events, especially events strongly associated with a song or particular songs. This sort of memory aided by music is often vague, but the memories are retained to an extent. Interestingly, in the introductory part of Jessie Hoover’s study, the researcher makes reference to the use of music by music therapists during their activities with patients, especially those with memory loss like dementia, amnesia, etc.
It is a complex process, this phenomenon, because music stirs up emotions which in turn connect to memories.
There are some old-school songs that effortlessly bring back memories of my childhood. I grew up listening to and watching Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Coolio, Don Moen, Ron Kenolly, Fela Kuti, Angelique Kidjo, Ras Kimono, Onyeka Onwenu, Nelly Uchendu, Christie Essien Igbokwe, Bright Chimezie, Rex Lawson, Celestine Ukwu, and a host of others across genres. Watching Micheal Jackson’s Thriller now, I remember how as a child, I wondered why someone would dance with ghosts and dead people. It scared me the first time; but, of course, I loved Michael’s dance steps and failed terribly at trying to imitate him. Amongst other songs that bring back fond memories are Onyeka Onwenu’s “Ekwe”, “Iyogogo”, Angelique Kidjo’s 1994 hit “Agolo”, “Wombolombo” released in 1996, and of course, my 1997 all time best song, Coolio’s “C U When U Get There.”
I learned from my older siblings the practice of singing into a switched–on standing fan. We got excited when the waves distorted our voices. It felt cool to hear myself sound differently. I cared less about rap music because I did not understand anything. The beats and sound did everything for me. But with Coolio’s hit, I always waited to join at the chorus so I could sing “I see you when you get there, see you when you get there, see you when you get there….” The first time I saw the video, I still recall that I was marveled that someone could stand on the edge of a precipice, and even attempt to jump off!
Older songs released in the early 90’s remind me of nothing more than my parent’s love and chastisement, hide and seek games, sand castles, cooking sand, hibiscus and grass in empty tins, and even tasting them when no one was looking! I developed a sense of fear and loathing for mother hen with newly hatched chicks. Once, a fierce mother hen chased my immediate elder brother around the compound for daring to come close to her chicks. The hen refused to give up. Even when my brother climbed the guava tree in the compound, the hen flew up too. That incident was the entire lesson I needed to keep my distance.
Listening to some early 90’s rap, I remember now what happened when I tasted beer for the first time. It was Christmas and we had travelled to our hometown to spend time with our extended family. That year, we went to my maternal home and one of my relatives gave me a glass of beer to taste. They played a lot of rap music. I sipped only a little and did not wake up until late in the evening when we were set to leave. I sweated profusely and was kept directly under the ceiling fan in the living room downstairs under the watchful eyes of my aunt.
Memories of my undergraduate years at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka are tied mostly to Naija pop songs released within those years by Timaya (his first album True Story which had “Dem Mama”, “Ogologo Mma”, as popular tracks), Eedris Abdulkareem, Plantashun boiz, Mo Hits Records, 2Face, Faze, Style Plus, Stereoman, Kelly Handsome, Sky B, Olu Maintain’s “Yahooze”, Duncan Mighty’s album Koliwater, and a host of others.
I have a vivid memory of a more recent experience tied to all of Adele’s songs.
In the summer of 2015, I was rounding-off my graduate studies in Music at Kingston University, London. My dissertation was on popular music analysis, and of all the pop musicians in the world, I chose Adele. For critical analysis which also sought socio-cultural meanings from a generic perspective, I had to listen to each of the songs countless times while making notes and necessary transcriptions. I listened to Adele so much so that she sang in my sleep. It was difficult to concentrate on anything else until I finished the dissertation. I had a corner upstairs at the Coombehurst House on Kingston Hill Campus where I always stayed alone to write. Consequently, anytime I listen to “Someone Like You”, “Rolling in the Deep”, or any of the songs in the artist’s first two albums, my mind transports me back to the quiet corner of that room.
I have two scars.
They are stories written on my skin as mementoes for lifetime memories.
The first scar is above my left knee. It looks like a sutured scar, but it is not. On a hot afternoon in 1994, classes had just dismissed and as usual, I ran back home to drop my schoolbag and quickly return to play with my friends. We lived in the rectory, and the school was in the same compound where a larger new church-building was nearing completion. I and my friends would run around the building until we were spent. That day, we were running when suddenly, a sharp nail from the scaffolds pierced through my left leg. I stopped. The first thing I saw when I looked at the spot was a bare white skin. Blood followed. Pain followed too. I wailed and my friends stopped. After I was escorted home, I was taken to a nearby pharmaceutical shop for treatment and dressing. Hydrogen peroxides and iodine contributed their own quota to my excruciating pain. It became a routine until the wound healed. Recalling this experience gives me the impression that even though the bleeding and pain stopped and the wound healed, the healing may never be permanent because the scar on my body repeats the same story each time I observe it. Or maybe, the story in the scar is the ultimate healing. Stories heal.
The second scar is located at the lower right part of my stomach. In March 2007, I was an undergraduate at the University of Nigeria Nsukka when my stomach pain started. At first, I thought it was a minor pain that I could endure and treat with recommended drugs I bought from medicine stores. It became severe, so I left school to seek proper medical attention from my family doctor. There, I was diagnosed with appendicitis and immediately booked for appendectomy. According to the doctor, the surgery was to take place in some hours. I was advised to eat nothing.
The hours of waiting became a mixture of severe hunger and pain.
In the end, I was prepared for surgery and moved into the operating room. I recall that after I was given an injection, one of the nurses started a quiet conversation with me until I blanked out. It was not an ordinary sleep. There were no dreams. Nothing. When I opened my eyes, I felt a slight pain in my stomach and was swiftly held back from touching the spot. I noticed the drip on my right hand and felt defeated. I turned to my family and a few visitors who had been sitting patiently for hours, awaiting my awakening. While I stayed with family, visitors who were mostly friends brought more goodies and Lipton than I needed. In a sense, the excessive dosage of love and care I received was the major catalyst for my recovery. The stitches were soon removed and I was discharged. Today, this memory has become a permanent scar that will follow me to my grave. I will not forget.
How do you erase stories etched in scars?
Born and raised in Nigeria, Echezonachukwu Nduka, poet, pianist, and writer, was educated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Kingston University London, England. Recipient of the 2016 Korea-Nigeria Poetry Prize, his literary works have been published or are forthcoming in River River, The Bombay Review, Ake Review, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, African Writer, Saraba, Jalada, Bakwa, Afridiaspora, The Kalahari Review, The New Black Magazine, Brittle Paper, A Thousand Voices Rising: An Anthology of Contemporary African Poetry, Black Communion: Poems of 100 New African Poets, and elsewhere. An active member of South Jersey Poets Collective, he writes from New Jersey, USA.