This is what terrifies me: one day, we’ll wake up and find that all of the stories are gone.
Let me explain.
I find myself thinking more about endings as I grow older. Of late, I’ve been thinking specifically about what comes after the end. Not in the sense of what comes in the afterlife – although I have been compiling a list of questions to ask God when I meet him/her/them – but more, what do we leave behind us when we are gone? Some people might call this a legacy. I’m going to call it the stories we leave behind.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed something else about growing older, which is that the older people in my life become more expressive, more open to sharing the stories of their childhood and their past as both of us grow older. My maternal grandmother, for instance, did not speak with us much when we were children. When she did, she was usually shouting at us for doing something that we shouldn’t be doing (which happened often). But something really cool seems to have happened since I turned 20 – nowadays she wants to tell me about her life. Like, really tell me. Not in a way that’s an attempt at giving me advice, but as if she’s honestly sharing her own past. I’d like to hope that it is therapeutic for her to let out some of these thoughts, memories and feelings.
The last time we talked, she told me about what it was like to live during the State of Emergency in colonial Kenya. She described to me the way that young boys, their only crime being the fact that they were Kikuyu, would be rounded up, tortured, taken to prison; killed. At this point in the story, my young cousin, who’s about seven years old, was playing close to her feet. My Cucu pointed to him and said: They would kill boys as young as him.
I grew up treating history as something that was far removed from me: notes we read off of Social Studies textbooks for the sake of memorizing years, passing exams. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I ever “felt” the impact of history. I mean, sure, at the back of my mind I knew that the story of colonialism featured in my life history in the sense that I am a descendant of people who survived it, but the actual effect felt so distant from my existence in Nairobi. I used to think: Yes, colonialism happened, but it’s all in the past now. We’re all right. We got independence. We survived it.
My grandparents survived colonialism. They lived to have children and grandchildren. They were strong and hardworking people who believed in God and in the promise of education. But surviving does not mean that everything that happened is finished and done, it just means that we pick the pieces together and we learn to carry all of the pain, the fear and the memories in a way that’s dignified and socially acceptable.
Think about it: when you fall in love and lose that love, it changes you as a person. You can’t go back to who you were before, because you now carry the lessons gained from the relationship. So, too, we cannot just be done with colonialism. We continue to carry it within ourselves, in the systems of government and of law of our nation, in the languages that we use to communicate with one another, in the fact that our country is shaped like an uneven swimming costume.
Warsan Shire writes about maps and bodies and pain. In this one poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” she talks about receiving the news that someone burnt down her aunt’s house. She ends the poem with these words: “later that night/ I held an atlas on my lap/ ran my hands across the whole world/ and whispered: where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere”.
When I first read this poem, I thought that she was just talking about the fact that there’s so much pain and conflict in this world. But when I read it again a few weeks ago, I saw something different. I thought of the very idea of the map, the very existence of countries that are shaped a certain way, the fact that boundaries do not just come into being, they are negotiated and renegotiated with the use of force. And the names of countries and continents– Chimamanda Adichie says this: “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
Pain is embedded in the geography of our land and of our identity. So when Warsan Shire says “everywhere/everywhere/everywhere”, it could be that she’s talking not just about the geographical existence of pain, but to the fact that it has been there in the past, in the present and in the future, and to the fact that it’s contained in all of us.
I am Kenyan. I am African. I claim my heritage with a sense of pride and of passion because to me, being Kenyan does not just mean simply existing in the boundaries of this state: it means identifying with a certain story, a certain set of stories (not everyone feels this way, and that is completely valid). But in claiming my Kenyanness and Africanness in an article I’ve written in English, I need to also acknowledge that there’s a history behind how all of these things came to be a part of me.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a friend, and I were looking at the different exhibits and she pointed out something that I’ve never really paid attention to: when you walk in a museum, there are those pieces of art that have a name attached to them “Art by Rembrandt Harmesz. van Rijn”, and there are those that are simply presented as “Art by the Congo People”. So, too, “1,200 people have died of Ebola in Africa” versus “Keith Brantly” and “Sarah Writebol”.
Chimamanda Adichie, again, puts it aptly: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
There’s a moment in Grey’s Anatomy when Christina Yang is speaking about her ex fiance Burke, and she says that when she was with him, he took so many pieces of her that she lost herself. Violence and wars, even when they are finished, take away pieces of us. And this is why I am so terrified about us losing our stories: when history stops being something that we can relate with, when it becomes reduced to a thing that happened many years ago that we read about briefly in our text books so that we can pass our exams, then we lose pieces of ourselves. And one of the things that we lose is the ability to know where it is that our pain and our beauty come from.
This is my fear: that one day, we will have lost so many pieces of ourselves that there will be nothing left.
But maybe that’s not how it ends. Maybe, before that day comes, we speak with one another. We ask for the stories. Like, really ask, not for exams, not so we can win debates, not so we can know how to make money, but so that we can understand each other and our world better. We ask the people around us, “Hey, tell me a story?”. Our friends, loved ones, grandparents, great grandparents, even and especially those people with whom we disagree most vehemently.
I think you could call this hope: this thinking that maybe, asking for and sharing our stories could be the thing that saves us.