Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the keynote speaker at an event hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation as part of the “Remembrance period” to mark five years since Madiba’s passing. She explored how histories have shaped the imagination of the future. This was followed by a conversation with Dr. Sebabatso Manoeli and Neo Muyanga on the role of memory and importance of remembering:
Diane de Beer
There was envy, said Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Johannesburg on Thursday night, where she was the keynote speaker at the Nelson Mandela Tribute night hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation as part of the centenary Living the Legend celebrations. “We wanted a Nigerian Nelson Mandela!”
Fresh from her talk with former First Lady and author Michele Obama, who reinforced the Nelson Mandela legacy when she told Adichie that Nelson Mandela made Barack Obama possible, she switched between the inaccuracies of history and memory, turned to women who need to fight back and also dwelled on being African and the pride that had to be reclaimed.
“But I don’t trust this Rainbow Nation thing,” she said to loud cheers from her predominantly young audience. “I am fiercely Pan African. My visceral sense of protection is high. We haven’t talked it through,” she said, pointing out that we cannot just forget the past as is so often suggested.
Can the process of remembering be scrubbed clean? “They might suppress it but always it will be there,” she warned. “It is important to acknowledge that the process will be messy and long and most of all, that kindness is necessary.”
Returning to Nelson Mandela time and again as was her brief, who and what he represented, speaking about memory and history, she shared that even though he was South African, the world claimed him. “He sparked a belief in what was possible,” she said.
Speaking in a country where heroes are ditched easily, and the memories distorted, she explained that as a storyteller she couldn’t trade in perfection. “Where does absolute perfection exist? Memory, she pointed out was often about how the present configured the past, something that features strongly in our world today. “To avoid the truths we do not like is to avoid grappling with complexity,” she says. “Progress is a journey which doesn’t run in a straight line but in zigzag.”
“I think humanising him, acknowledging that he wasn’t perfect, isn’t denigrating him. When we do that, we realise that there’s a lot that we ourselves can do.”
“It’s about pushing against this idea that perfection is required. The idea of people being heroic is not that they are perfect, it’s that they have done one thing that is remarkable”
That’s it absolutely. Often with history, the facts are there, but the citizens, those who lived it, know it is not the truth. That’s where storytelling becomes the driving force says the storyteller. That’s where the truth often lies. “If human beings were perfect stories wouldn’t exist because our imperfections create the stories we tell.”
Who defines the accepted norm? “It’s about owning who you are and knowing that who you are is enough.” In stories she learnt about the loss of dignity, to be human, is to be valued, she affirmed. “We need to push back against the idea that there is a way that things should be.”
“Our history was invented for us. It’s time for us to reclaim it. I went to a very good school in Nigeria, but I knew very little about Nigerian history. I knew a lot more about the kings and queens of England.”
Changing tack but sticking to her theme of humanity, she said that with our high rates of sexual violence, South Africa needs to grapple with gender stereotypes, but we need to focus on the perpetrators, the boys. It’s no longer good enough to tell the girls to be careful. “It is time to raise boys differently,” she says. “A woman’s body belongs to her and to her alone. We must insist that men go through a process of learning. Women must be accepted and respected as full human beings – from the boardrooms to the busses.”
As we focus on boys rather than on girls, we could start by saying “Mandela wouldn’t do that!” And switching to fighting talk she insisted that women should never feel shame or guilt because they were a victim of crime.
She also touched on South Africans and their many languages. Traveling from the airport, her driver confessed that he spoke nine languages. “South Africa is in many ways an inspiration to many parts of the African continent,” said Adichie, as she pointed to their confidence and their command of African languages.
“We should own who we are and know that it is enough.”
She was then joined on stage by historian Dr Sebabatso Manoeli and activist, composer and musician Neo Muyanga. Discussing how people could reclaim their history, Dr Manoeli suggested that Europe should be regarded as irrelevant, an idea that Adichie immediately adopted.
“We also need to read against the grain,” noted Muyanga, suggesting that’s how to find history on the margins. “We need to explore alternative narratives as we move away from fact to truth.”
Given the final word by journalist Cathy Mohlahlana, who facilitated the discussion on the importance of memory, Adichie encouraged everyone not just to talk about the wrongs of the current historical narrative, but to find a way to do something – anything – even something tiny.
That’s the way forward.