Historians “are the memory of (hu)mankind”. Thus says the Malian griot, Kouyaté, in an introduction to the famous epic, Sundiata.
Griots are schools of hereditary oral performers who compose, memorise and propagate their societies’ history in the form of epic texts passed down the generations.
I agree with Kouyaté because, as I grow older, I realise that memory is one of the most valuable endowments of the human mind.
Dementia and related conditions like Alzheimer’s disease are some of the most dreaded afflictions today, especially among those of us of advancing age.
Losing one’s memory is not only sad and pathetic. It is also a direct threat to our existence. Imagine leaving your home and then forgetting where it is.
If you cannot even remember your name or those of anyone close to you, matters can get quite complicated.
This is why in some societies, many of us senior citizens wear tags with our names and residential addresses.
The litany of miseries is familiar and endless. Inability to recognise one’s own family members, even the closest, by face or by name, is common and sadly disturbing.
A professor friend of mine was recently visiting from America. She went to call on a former Makerere colleague, but the gentleman had no recollection of ever having met the lady before.
Yet the two had been close friends in their Makerere days. The “forgetful” don had, in fact, helped the lady escape from Uganda when Idi Amin’s killers were looking for her in their attempts to destroy evidence around the murder of the late Esther Chesire.
The erasure of memory can be that complete, although sometimes it is selective and desultory, working in fits and starts.
Indeed, this is one of the strands that those who try to treat or manage dementia cling on. By stimulating one bit of memory, they may resuscitate others and thus gradually repair the remembering mechanism.
They have observed, for example, that looking at old photographs and films can be beneficial. Clips of sports stars of yesteryears or pop singers in action are strikingly stimulating.
Anyway, mention of university dons as victims of dementia highlights the reality that the problem cuts across all levels of society.
For those in complex social and technological environments, faced with lots of new encounters and data to handle, like classes to teach, research to process, documents to assess and edit, passwords to remember, any wobble in the memory can be severely worrying.
This reminds me of Barack and Michelle Obama’s Harvard Mwalimu, Prof Charles Ogletree, who declared some two years ago that he was battling Alzheimer’s.
I wonder how he has been faring. Only the brightest minds get to teach at that august institution, and it is deeply saddening to see a mind like Ogletree’s degenerate into amnesia.
I have been relishing a jumble of memories of late, and realising how precious and rejuvenating they are to me. Indeed, as I said earlier, each little memory triggered a whole avenue of other memories.
If I were to tell you about all of them, I would have to take up the whole of today’s edition of the Saturday Nation.
Handshakes, for example, may be common these days. But seeing President Kenyatta shake hands with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth recently transported me back to the “once upon a time” era of 1952, when a young English princess climbed up a Kenyan tree for a night’s adventure, only to be called down a few hours later as the Queen and Empress of Great Britain and her dominions, on the demise of her father.
That was nine years before President Uhuru was born, and 11 before Kenya’s uhuru (freedom) was won. I was eight years old then, and I had learnt to read.
A lot of what I read in the Luganda newspapers was about the Mau Mau struggle and about Jomo Kenyatta, who was to be detained and tried for serious “crimes” only a few months after the young lady who had become Queen at the Treetops Hotel had returned to London.
I once spent a night at the Treetops in the 1980s, courtesy of the USIU-A, which used to sponsor subsidised country tours for their students and teachers, including us part-timers, as I was then.
USIU also enabled me to visit Amboseli, going all the way to Loitokitok, which I remembered with warmth recently, at the mention of Nice Nailantei. The now world-famous anti-FGM campaigner comes from Loitokitok.
So, the web gets pretty intricate. I told you a while back of my luxuriating for a night in a topflight beach hotel in Ukunda on my beloved South Coast. I was then touring with colleagues from KU and the treat at one of the Alliance Hotels was courtesy of none other than the recently departed Mr Kenneth Matiba, who owned the famous chain.
I will resolutely not lead you down the Ken Matiba memory lane because it is impossible to do any kind of justice to such a giant in a jumble of random memories like these.
Strangely, however, of all of the man’s gargantuan undertakings, the one that first leapt to my mind on hearing of his sad demise was his illustrious stint at the KFF, four years of true greatness for Kenyan football.
Most importantly, however, for me and my age-mates, we realise that it is such threads of memory that give significance to our lives and make us want to go on doddering around.
“So was it when my life began,” says the English poet William Wordsworth. “So is it now I am a man… so be it when I shall grow old, or let me die.” The continuity of memory is crucial to our survival.
But if memory is essential to individual existence and happiness, how much more must it be to the whole society? We should spare a kind thought for our historians, men and women who keep our collective memories alive.
They guard our societies from sinking into Alzheimer’s, dementia and amnesia.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature.