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The Geography of Memory: Fiction by Kabu Okai-Davies

Image: Al Ibrahim via Flickr

Memory dances like a mirage, alchemy of metaphors for something else, like a fictional character in a novel, anchored to the past of a city of bricks called Newark in New Jersey. Personally I am learning how to deal with the vicissitudes of being an African immigrant in America. Rapt within the inward silence of each night, just before I sleep, my thoughts tell me: We are all flickers in the sky, meteors in the galaxy of heaven’s thoughts, representations of things past; we have suffered the agonies of history, weathered the storms of time, coups, tyranny and the deceptions of languages that tell us untruths about ourselves. The philosophy of time marches on against the crushing blows of history’s tragic tales that tyrants tell, the ruse of despotic rulers, paltry promises of politicians, empty witticisms of traditional witchdoctors, prayers of the zealot, secessionists and their extremist ideologies. Despite the maleficent nightmares of genocide, the persistence of memory allows me to endure in these times of hibernation, waiting for a new spring to tell the world my version of history. All these disconcerting things I did experience, most of them against my will, within the darker realm of my dreaming of reality or did I actually experience them in the secret chambers of the consciousness of the body on this physical earth? Or am I just a representation of thoughts gone astray? Anyway these are the reasons why I left Africa in search of other realms of freedom. I have often asked myself whether being who I am is a coincidence of time and space. But one thing that I know is that, I have become the evidence of my meditations on memory.

My dreams of the future and hopes for myself have been deferred, promises unfulfilled, excuses have been given and the things that I was told would be added unto me if only I sought the political kingdom of independence have all eluded me. I am like a country that has gone astray, betrayed by the very people who told me they would work for my interest, lead me besides still waters and restore my soul. But rather, see how wretched I have become, shards of memory, splinters of dreams, fragments of lost futures, unborn, unkempt, unbelievable and of course objectionable. How do I account for my own identity and personality? If it is true that our personality determines our personal circumstances, how do I change my personality in order to change my personal circumstances? I am now a gypsy on the streets of America.

The things that I remember about myself are not the same things that others remember about me. Remembering is one of those mysteries that memory experts claim works by a system of an inner alchemical processes and a methodology embedded within our neurons by which we remember the things that need remembering. But there are times when my memory systems fail and the mnemonic spirit goes to sleep. On other occasions it becomes overloaded with the intricate details of my past and I remember everything in such minutiae, the past becomes the present. Sometimes, I find myself knocking at the door of memory and it refuses to yield its treasured past. Too often I can only see through the window of memorized pain, anguish and fear and the many moments when I could have made love to my former lovers in different ways that could have made me to mark myself permanently on the landscape of their memory of me. But I failed them many times. I was selfish, I was unimaginative and pedantic, thinking only about my pleasures and forsaking the desires of my former lovers. I failed them and I failed myself, dragging out the narrative of my alienation as an immigrant in America and losing many opportunities to legitimize my life as an alien in the New World. Now I must reconstruct my past and make love to them all over again, as if yesterday and today were still the same day and nothing, not even time itself has transpired between me and the many memories of my past lovers. Then of course, out of inner curiosity I jump through the window into the house of memory, to reappraise the past, the ancient haunted years; by reliving all the evidence of my mistakes, the abuses, embarrassing moments and the humiliations. I still remember the lost loves, my lack of charisma and fumbling before girls and missing the opportunities that their loving eyes offered me the chance of my manhood; these were the wasted years. Sometimes in the lonely nights just before sleep, I remember the things that I could have done, books I should have read, masterpieces I could have written, career paths I should have taken, different journeys I should have travelled or even the possibility of being born by different parents, in a more fortunate country, free of the tragedy of tribalism and rituals of eulogizing the dead; at a different period in history, made different choices that would have led me on a different path to my destiny. Likewise, there are some memories that have followed me and others recede into the dark shadows of the mind.

‘Do you dream when you sleep, Songhai?’ The voice asked.

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘How often do you dream?’ It asked again.

‘Quite often.’ I said. ‘Sometimes I dream every night?’

‘Do you dream that you are back in Africa but your body is in America?’ The voice asked.

‘All the time, every night my soul feels deported to an invisible country.’ I said.

‘How often do you dream such dreams?’ It asked.

‘Every dream of mine is a dream of exile, displacement and the fear of being caught, trapped and imprisoned. My dreams are like memories and they follow me everywhere I go.’ I replied.

‘You are suffering from a dream state of neurosis and dissonance of the mind.’ The voice said laughing at me in the dark night just before winter. I am aware of my own existence as an invention of my parents and my imagination. I do not know why my parents decided to name me Songhai Osei Tutu Kwame Nkrumah. Was it a throwback to an ancient idea of their idealism about Ghana’s past or Africa’s future? As I grew up, my parents drawn into their battles over which of their bad or good habits of mind, dominate in my nature, making me a victim of their inheritance. Sometimes I wish I were one of those people who live by the habits of their tribal heritage, steeped within the decadent conducts of ancestral rituals and behaviors that are degenerative to the advancement of our nation. I wish I were corrupt, slothful, vulgar, lazy, inept and shifty in my eyes. But here I am after traveling around the world and adapted myself to the enlightened habits of other cultures, I have developed a conscience that causes me to have nightmares in the face of the ineptitudes and corruption that plagues the nations of Africa. And though I am now in America, Africa is so alive in me, nudging at me; calling me like distant echoes from afar.

The memories that follow me have become like relatives who pay regular visits and call on me not to forget; etching and wedging themselves on the landscape of my thoughts; insisting that I remember them. ‘Send us remittances, we need money for school fees, food and funerals and please don’t forget, buy us things from America. Please uncle, send me one of those new mobile phones – that one that can also play music – and also I need a new pair of jeans…The ones you sent me the last time are now old.’

Their calls and letters were never remised with such requests. The past comes to haunt the present like tragic plays in the memory theatres of history. I see pyramids, coliseums, acropolises, hippodromes, palaces, castles and ancient pagodas that resist the tide of time, reminding me of the accomplishments of the past. Sometimes my whole being is seized by thoughts that urge me to go back to Ghana, to leave America and become free from the haunted feeling of being an illegal immigrant. Go back home and start some movement for change, to reinvent my country and Africa; become a radical, a revolutionary and use the tenets of the American Declaration of Independence like a manifesto to wage a new kind of war against the past. But such passions are fleeting, compared to the burning desires and passions of the midnight that envelop my whole body. Thoughts of unrequited love fill my mind. I become possessed by naked passions to consummate my dreams with imaginary women and live a life of self abandonment, be a nihilist of love and an anarchist against everything rational. Instead of writing about the imaginary nation I dream about building, I rather write about my brush with neurosis and how it follows me through the labyrinth of time. It filled all the secret places of my thoughts to remind me that in the mind of God we are all glimpses of memory. Our obsessions with power, vanities of the material earth, the greedy dreams of our generation, our sense of awe in the presence of royalty and celebrities, the poverty of the mendicant populace, the violent creed of the extremist, agonies of love, jealous hearts and the pain of war; in the sum of all things the human condition is but a fairy tale, a tragic comic farce in the invisible sight of the gods.

If I do not tell this story about phobias, agonies, passions and my lovers, I will be haunted by the thought of my failure to tell and probably my life may be prolonged beyond what I could bear, until I tell this story. There is only one thing that is inevitable, our memories die with us. Memory is indeed a mirage on a landscape of lost dreams, disappointed hopes and misplaced promises. There are no cemeteries for our memories, or museums or archival houses for our dreams. We live and die with our recollections and the things that we once imagined have no resting place beyond our grave. ‘Remember me,’ someone once said, I don’t remember who it was. But it resounds in my ear, whenever the memory of this story comes back to me, forcing its self on me, urging me to recollect every piece of evidence to prove that everything really happened, I cringe at the thought. Because there are certain experiences, secret occurrences for which we are the only witness to what happens to us. How can we even tell anyone that it really happened? This is the mystery of memory to me, it transcends personality. I must put it out there into text or a face-book of memories in case I forget, or fail to recollect it before the jury of heaven. I have sinned in many secret ways and that is why I am tempted to exclude the fact that I may have the opportunity to tell this story before the jury of heaven, so let me tell it before humanity, the world, my lovers, my mistresses so that they will know that I did not forget them in the menagerie of my thoughts, fears, doubts, blunders and my failings. I have not forgotten anything. After all I am only human. I am my own autobiography, whether it is imagined or remembered. What matters is the story that seeks to express itself through the metaphor of my life. My life has taken on the expression of dreamy memories with the passage of time. I have lost count of people, faces fade into a fog, my friends become lost in the mirage of time and something has happened to my emotional ability to recollect. I have stopped thinking about those whose image remind me of the embarrassing moments of my life, faces that hark back to the reckless periods of my existence, my mistakes and lost chances. The past has become lost in time, groping in the dark, searching to illuminate the night with invisible candles in my dreams. Forgotten fears resurface, angers that we thought were buried reincarnate in a new form and we replay love scenes with our former lovers over and over again, to make sure strip it of all its regrets and the sweat that accompanied the moment. It is not often that we are brought up to learn how to remember the future, to invent imaginary memories of things yet to come and visions of ourselves we would like to fulfill.

Those who have learnt to live in an imaginary future are blessed. But those of us who live, haunted by the past, repeating the ancestral narrative of thought, live our lives trapped within the prison of the past, waiting till the day when we shall join our ancestors in the frozen kingdom of the afterlife. This is the time in my life when I wished I had the luxury of claiming that I have no identity, that I am not African. That I do not want to be identified with the geography of my origins and the fact that Africa has failed as a continent, fragmented and degenerate, has nothing to do with me. I am an individual and my individuality is my own responsibility. What a luxury? But the haunted house of my own neurosis has become so unshakable, it is both an African form of neurological sense of displacement and despair, it doesn’t matter my geographical location, I carry it with me, even if I deny it before the world.

If Africa had flourished, if the continent had unraveled the contradictions of her history and forged for itself new dreams of redemption, destiny and the magic of development, self-transformation and self-actualization; would I be here in search of other dreams, living my life by borrowed names? The thought kept reoccurring to you, the failures of Africa are your failures, do not be deluded. Your leaders do not know that they do not know. That is why you have become the self-caused reason for the powerlessness of your countenance of displacement and the flowers of your history are petals of despair.

‘Tell me, you inept populace of a continent, what have you built for yourselves, that I must admit you into the dreamland of your own imaginary opulence of America? You have wasted your history. You have lived by the tribal ideologies of backward thinking; you have made mediocrity your idols of faith, practicing fetish beliefs that do not make sense before the sight of God. I shall punish you and you shall suffer the deeper agonies of history.’ The voice taunted me.

I walked around Newark, took the Path train to New York city, went to Times Square to vanish amid the kaleidoscope of colors within the dancing parade of lights, glittering wizardry of neon images and the teaming throng of humanity, haunted by the tyranny of my own memories of loss, emotional ambivalence and an inheritance of failed faiths. How can I rely on ancestral beliefs to prepare me to confront the challenges of being in America? Our ancestral gods have failed us, yet we keep worshipping them. My empty faith in the tribal tradition of being myself has now caused me to become a destitute of history. We are all in denial. This idea of being or not being an African is an exercise in self-denial and self-betrayal. Africa is my neurosis and my life has become a chronicle of an African experience within the soup of an American life. My thoughts followed me like haunted shows in the streets of America. This is why I have frozen my memories in the kingdom of ice, hoping that in the twilight years of my tired and futile life, they would cool off in the remains of the summer night as I slowly rest in the winter years of my life. I am the child of my memories; secretly I climb its mountain everyday, waiting for the day I will bring my life to rest.

This is my solemn tale about the Geography of Memory and a story about the immortalization of the lives of those who shaped me in bitter and sweet ways that continue to resurface before me in the silent hours at the threshold of sleep.


Image: Al Ibrahim

Kabu Okai-Davies
Kabu Okai-Davies
Kabu Okai-Davies is an African-Australian playwright, novelist and poet from Ghana. He is the author of Long Road to Africa, Curfew’s Children and Evidence of Nostalgia and Other Stories. He holds a PhD in Creative Writing - UC. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in Writing - School of Arts and Humanities at ANU and the 2015 Alumni Award Winner for Excellence, Faculty of Arts and Design, University of Canberra. (Editor: Dr. Okai-Davies passed away on February 17, 2017, after a battle with cancer. He was a good friend of

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