The Memory of Odafe Atogun

Our sense of self is normally tied to a picture of what home is for us.  To many of us, home is defined by a particular location and with reference to a particular group of people. Should any of these factors change, then our entire conception of home, and therefore, our ideas of self, risk being destroyed. Think Jende and Neni, the main characters in Imbolo Mbue’s Behold The Dreamers, losing themselves in the United States because the US is not Limbe. Think Isaiah Bolton in Yvonne Adhiambo’s Dust travelling to Wuoth Ogik to pursue the memory of his father. But what does it mean when the physicality and demographic of home remain constant, but neither of the two can remember the person? Is the person’s home still their home? 

Odafe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song opens with the titular character, Taduno, living in exile away from his home. One morning, he receives a letter whose envelope has no address, with only his name scrawled across it. The letter, from a woman named Lela, does not actually tell him to return home to Nigeria, to Lagos. On the contrary, Lela writes to encourage him to build a life elsewhere knowing that very soon nothing may remain the same here. However, the moment he receives the letter, his decision is made; he returns home to Lagos. Upon his return, Taduno discovers that he has been forgotten, that no one remembers who he is, that he has been erased from the national memory.

Sometimes, upon our return from a long journey, we suffer the expectation that our home environments may have changed somewhat. However, the time spent away is usually not enough for there to be any drastic change, and so all we are left with is a vague sense of disappointment. Taduno does not suffer this experience since when he gets back home:
“…the city where he had spent most of his adult life had changed drastically in three months. The smells and noises were still the same, and the people still spoke in so many tongues and tones. Yet there was something which had changed about the city. He could not tell what it was, but with his heart beating unevenly, he began to realize what Lela meant in her letter.”

The next day, Taduno’s neighbor and best friend, Aroli, does not recognize him, and thus does Atogun begin his dance with memory. All through our lives, we are made aware of the ways in which our memories may be edited, either consciously or subconsciously. Look at your parents’ wedding photos long enough and you’ll start seeing yourself in the ceremonies, even though you may not have been born yet. More intriguing yet is how old songs from a certain era gives us a nostalgia which is fake because we weren’t alive when the music in that era was sung.  Additionally, we are told how a sudden shock and trauma can rejig your memory and make you forget important events in your past. Then, as we get older, the risk of Alzheimer’s and, therefore, memory loss, grows, and with it the fear of losing the narcissistic pleasures that reminiscence gives us. What happens when a country loses its collective memories? What possibilities of pleasure does it lose?

Odafe Atogun’s Taduno is loosely modelled on Fela Kuti. Although at no point is this revealed in the book, drawing parallels between Taduno’s battle with the country’s despotic ruler, and Fela Kuti’s battle with Sani Abacha is not too big a jump to make. Of course, Fela Kuti did not tackle memory in the manner that Taduno does, but other artistes have done so. Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust springs to mind here, with its oft-quoted, “The national languages of Kenya are English, Kiswahili and Silence. But then there was memory,” but a more direct comparison to be made here is with the Kenyan music group Gidigidi Majimaji. Gidigidi Majimaji were a hiphop duo who took Kenya by storm at the turn of the millennium with hits such as Atoti and Ting Badi Malo. However, the most memorable Gidigidi Majimaji track, Unbwogable, is an elegy to memory and the people who deserve to be remembered. Most communities honor the memories of their heroes of war, and Gidigidi Majimaji remember Gor Mahia. It is a de jure rule that our (male) politicians need to be remembered. And Gidigidi Majimaji agree, rapping elegies to such politicians as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Tom Mboya, Ouko Robert, Raila Odinga and Orengo Jimmy. But do musicians deserve to be remembered? According to the rules of Kenya’s amnesiac memory, no, but Gidigidi Majimaji remember Okatch Biggy, and they remember Princess Jully. Does Fela Kuti deserve to be remembered? Or do the Babagindas and the Obasanjos of this world matter more? Does Taduno, the guitar player who has forgotten how to sing, deserve to be remembered?

But who deserves to be remembered? According to Gidigidi Majimaji, first, we remember the wise men and women. Then we remember those who have helped us, and those who have, to translate directly, carried us. Do women deserve to be remembered? History is replete with occasions where the women have been written out of the stories they deserve to be in. Marie Curie was famously denied the Nobel in Physics, with the Nobel committee arguing that a woman couldn’t have done the work she claimed as hers. The committee begrudgingly awarded her the Nobel jointly with her husband only because he had refused to accept it unless she was merited in the award. Were we to attempt to list occasions when women have been denied the merit they deserve except as appendages of men, we would fall short the moment we grow old and our memories eventually fail us. The sole woman in Odafe Atogun’s book, Lela, is presented to us as nothing more than an appendage of the main character. She has no personality of her own, presented to us as a) The reason Taduno goes back to Nigeria, b) The reason Taduno tries to remember how to sing, c) The reason Taduno agrees to sing for the despot in the book. Is this the only way women deserve to be remembered? As nothing more than the motivations for the actions of the men who inhabit their worlds?

When interacting with Odafe Atogun’s edict on memory, we must be wary of and know how to deal with the pitfalls Taduno’s Song provides: the lack of female representation, the Ngugi-esque ploy to get the reader into a revolution, the cringeworthy nod to Wole Soyinka in the form of a prisoner called Man of Kongi, the president Atogun refuses to name. But in reflecting on these pitfalls, we must ask, why are they pitfalls, and who decides that they should be pitfalls? In following the rules of memory, are we to be mindless zombies echoing the actions of the soldiers in Taduno’s Song who are Taduno’s jailers even though they don’t want to?

When we talk about memory loss, we do so with the silent understanding in its element of negativity. But judging memory loss only from this prism only serves to obscure its full meaning from us.
It was while shaving off his beard that Taduno realized his most lucid state since returning from exile; and it occurred to him that losing his identity was not so bad after all. He realized that he was no longer a man on the run from the law, as was the case before. Considering the advantage, he began to see himself as his neighbors saw him ‒a man with no past‒ and he realized that if he must find Lela and unravel the mystery that now surrounded him, he must continue to see himself that way.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez recognized the value of disremembering episodes of one’s life, saying, “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Before his country lost its memory of him, Taduno was a musician whose activism had brought him trouble with the state and made him flee to exile. When he returns and discovers that he has been forgotten by the country, he regains the freedoms he had lost as a criminalized man. He is able to walk the parts of Lagos he was unable to earlier. And that there is the value of his country’s collective amnesia. Collective Amnesia and Memory, (which African writers have written around a lot in the last couple of years; See Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Petina Gappah’s A Book of Memory and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust which was originally called A Book of Dust and Memory) enable a person, or group of people, rewrite the parts of themselves they prefer hidden. The literary critic Anatole Broyard passed himself as a white man, a task that became easier as the people who had known him as a black person either died or were exiled from his life. In Claude McKay’s 1931 short story, “Near-White,” a child asks its mother, “But if some people are light enough to live like white, mother, why should there be such a fuss?” Rewrite the parts of our histories we don’t want known. Change Nairobi’s Delamere Street to Kenyatta Avenue to demonstrate our status as an independent African country freed of the shackles of the capitalists who stole its land. Change our constitutions so that we can forget the memory of having military dictators called Buhari and Obasanjo and have democratically-elected presidents called, um, Buhari and Obasanjo. Delete the parts of ourselves we don’t like: Rename the scholarship named after a colonial slaver; Forget the massacre of Somalis on the tarmac of Wagalla because a Kenyan government can’t illegally detain Somalis in such a manner again; Delete the memory of a president called Kenyatta having his security personnel mow down the supporters of an opposition leader called Odinga in a place called Kisumu. If we blink back the memories hard enough, they’ll be gone, and the events will never have happened.

Thus, because of the gift of his country’s amnesia, Taduno reinvents himself from a singer whose music got him into trouble with the President into a singer whose music gets him into trouble with the President. Songs have refrains and choruses which repeat themselves every couple of seconds, and as long as the song does not change the refrain and chorus do not change. That is the memory of Taduno’s song.

About the Writer:
Carey Baraka used to think that cooked bananas are called plantains. Now, he hopes to review restaurant plates some day. He sings for a secret choir in Nairobi, and is Msee wa Lights at Enkare Review.