I’ve often wondered about the mad man I see walking naked on the street. He rummages through rubbish bins. After he has eaten his fill of the decaying rubbish, he lies by the side of the road, under the glaring African sun, oblivious of the happenings around him.
What I wonder about when I see a mad man is if he has any memory left in his head. After weighing the situation, I simply conclude that his memories are intact somewhere in his head. The strength he lacks to grasp them might just be the same strength he needs to snap himself back to sanity.
So he lies there defeated, cut off from everything he once knew, did and loved. That’s what makes him a mad man. It is very much the same with the memories Nancy built as a child growing up in a once loving family. One day, she wakes up to find a once secure family unit fall apart.
Nancy was born at a maternity clinic a few blocks away from her Uncle Gabriel’s home in Surulere. Uncle Gabriel is the older brother of Nancy’s mother. Gabriel became one of her favourite uncles. It was too easy to love Uncle Gabriel. He was very rich, very loving and very generous. On top of that, he had an excellent sense of humour. He loved to make everyone laugh and he loved children.
Her earliest memory of Uncle Gabriel was the Christmas of 1982 as a young girl of eight. Her parents had driven their four children all the way from Benin City where they lived to spend the Christmas with Uncle Gabriel, his wife Susan and their two children, Ekaette and Uwem.
Uncle Gabriel was outside his house, leaning on his red Subaru car and smoking a cigarette when they arrived. He had picked her and tossed her up in the air, exclaiming how much taller, she had grown. His wife Susan was the typical African woman; full of hospitality. She never frowned at the fact that she was going to cook all week for a full house or clean up after six hyperactive kids. Their warmth made that holiday a memorable one.
Uncle Gabriel took everyone to Bar Beach. Each time the ocean waves rolled towards them, Nancy would squeal and run to her uncle who would reassure her that nothing would happen to her as long as he was there. After that, they had lunch at the fascinating Federal Palace Hotel which was built on water. Nancy was frightened again on New Year’s Day of 1983 when she woke up to a lot of commotion on the streets of Lagos.
The then President, Alhaji Shehu Shagari had just been overthrown by the military government of Buhari/Idiagbon. They were army trucks filled with soldiers driving all over the streets of Lagos. In the eyes of little Nancy, it seemed like the soldiers were going to kill everyone they saw. Her uncle assured her once more that they only did that because they wanted to prevent bad people from using the opportunity of a coup d’état to harm innocent people.
When the new military government changed the colour of the Nigerian Naira to prevent corrupt politicians from spending laundered money, life became hard. People couldn’t lay hands on the new Naira immediately to buy anything. Uncle Gabriel used his connections at the Central Bank to get the new Naira. He drove all the way to Benin City to hand the money to her parents so they could at least stock up on foodstuff.
At such times, when Uncle Gabriel would visit them in Benin City, Nancy and her younger sisters would do a cultural dance to welcome him. They would wriggle their tiny waists as they danced, while their uncle would reward them by spraying them with crisp Naira notes.
Four years later in 1987, Nancy spent another Christmas holiday with Uncle Gabriel and the rest of her mother’s extended family. This time, her uncle was opening his new country home in Uyo and they were all invited to the house warming party. It was a grand house. It had enough space to run wild and free. There was more than enough to eat and drink. Aunt Susan was an excellent planner. She had drawn up activities for the kids for everyday of the holidays. She had a Volkswagen mini bus with which she took all the family children on tour to see the various masquerades and dances on display.
There was ‘Tinkoriko’, the masquerade who walked on stilts, ‘Udotot’ the naughty puppet masquerade and the ‘Uturekpe’ masquerade. There was also the masquerade who wore mirrors all over its body, and when it did a spin dance, the mirrors would reflect light all over; creating an amazing spectacle. The beautiful maiden dance, ‘Asian Uboikpa’ and the energetic ‘Abre’ dance were simply the highlights of the day. For Nancy, it was the most memorable holiday ever.
As the years went by, Uncle Gabriel travelled more frequently to his country home. He began to develop an intimate relationship with another woman. When Aunt Susan found out about his mistress, she was very upset naturally and made trouble with her husband. What started as a ‘harmless’ extramarital affair ended up in a disaster. Aunt Susan painfully watched as Uncle Gabriel packed a suitcase and left her and their four children behind in their Lagos home and moved into his country home with the other woman. The country home Aunt Susan had painstakingly monitored its successful completion.
Situations like this always see tables turning. For some reason, Uncle Gabriel’s wealth started to dwindle. He sold off property after property. Since he now kept two homes, his wife and kids were not adequately provided for. It was even a problem for his children who were once the apple of his eye to continue with their education. Today, Aunt Susan and her kids have nothing to benefit. Everything has gone to the new wife who jealously guards her ‘possession’.
For Nancy, here is her real problem: where should her loyalty lie? Is it with Uncle Gabriel or Aunt Susan? Uncle Gabriel expects his family to accept his new decision and his new wife who is not a bit as welcoming or hospitable to her in-laws as Aunt Susan was. How does Nancy throw away such memories which were built steadily over half her lifetime?
Aunt Susan had been there for Nancy at very crucial times in her life. She had helped Nancy to gain an admission into the University of her choice. She was actively involved in the planning of Nancy’s wedding. Nancy was at Lagos with her for a whole week making choices on wedding gowns, clothes and accessories that were to be used. She helped do all the shopping and supervised the cooking. She was practically a second mother to Nancy.
Uncle Gabriel gradually cut himself off from family gatherings. He did not attend Nancy’s wedding because he felt his new wife would be uncomfortable at the event. So a young man, who once loved to have every member of his extended family with him for the holidays, spends his older days as a lonely man. He broke the bridge of golden memories with a painful divorce.
As a woman of 35, Nancy has also experienced pains untold from a turbulent marriage. She has drawn strength from her uncle’s experience and did not opt for a divorce. She thinks that adults who go through with a divorce do so most times because they are selfish. Nancy says:
“Marriage is a bridge between many families. It connects people who later become in-laws, cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and grandchildren. When the people who made this connection possible break up, it breaks up a lot more than their love for each other. It exposes their children to untold dangers and temptations. It divides loyalties. It destroys memories.”
If that mad man on the street suddenly recalled that there was a time a mother or wife or sister once prepared a nice meal and laid it on the table for him to eat; if he remembered receiving a hug or a smile, if his loved one ever made him laugh or cry; if he remembered he once watched the sunset or the full moon rise; then probably at that point he would have come back to his senses because his memory would have awakened him back to reality.
Memories could be used as powerful a powerful tool; especially if they were pleasant. They are bridges which link our past to our present and perhaps our future. When that bridge is broken, it erases an era in which we once existed. Sometimes we catch glimpses of that era and it makes us sad or happy.
When we fold our hands and do nothing about using our memories as a tool to repairing the cracks caused by our past, we do not only brace ourselves for a shaky future, we are like the mad man on the street who has given up on himself.
Written By: Peace Ben Williams
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Broken Bridge Of Memories 1: Nancy’s Story ©2013
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