Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. We do not believe that history matters.
America, a place commonly referred to as the greatest nation on earth despite being a relatively young country of barely 200 years old, is full of people intensely proud of its history. A history that began long before America became a united nation and continues to bind more than divide the people. I have always believed that history is important because it helps us understand the past to predict the future thereby enabling us to create a future we want. It also allows us avoid repeating the mistakes of the past over and over again.
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It was thought that the past helps a child understand who he is. Not surprising that many young people today cannot relate with being Nigerians because they were never introduced to the past. Nigeria has yet to embrace her history and the people who played major roles in it. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of indifference. We do not believe that history matters. But history does matter. It has been said that he who controls the past controls the future. Our view of history shapes the way we view the present, and therefore it dictates what answers we offer for existing problems. Problems like ethnic unrest, territorial disputes and religious wars can be closer to being solved if the origin of such unease were properly understood.
We have learnt through excavation of the Nok culture, Benin mask, Ife bronze and many more relics of the past that “Nigeria” is over two thousand years old. Centuries ago, before it became a nation, the geographical space housed thousands of different tribes and cultures existing as separate entities with unique systems. Due to colonialism, those many tribes and cultures were forced to carry one flag and claim one nation. Yet if only we could understand what made each tribe thrive as an entity, we could better begin to appreciate how that uniqueness can be a strength.
Fast forward to our post-colonial days, we have stories of great artists who used different medium to express our way of life. Sadly, they are only now great outside the shores of their own country. Picasso famously said that his works were influenced by African arts particularly Nigeria yet many will disregard our art for the foreign. Ben Enwonwu, the renowned Nigerian painter and sculptor was arguably the most influential African artist of the 20th century. Only recently, his work sold for 1.8 million pounds in London. Similarly, the works of Oshinowo, Erhabor Emokpae, Bruce Onobrakpeya and Yusuf Grillo are now being auctioned outside the country. While this is good news and exciting to many Nigerians as it shows that our artists are finally getting the right recognition for their works, it is clear that there’s still a lot of work to do. Not too long ago, Picasso’s work was found in a building site and sold in an auction for over 42 million pounds also in London. As someone who has always been an admirer of Ben’s work, I find it sad that when I converse with many young and not so young people even art enthusiast, he is unknown to them. When they teach about art in schools and the people who shaped Nigerian art, what exactly do they talk about?
I recently visited the British Museum which I have done a number of times but on this occasion as I was taken on a tour, I was told of an incident that occurred during the Ooni of Ife’s visit to the museum. You see the British Museum is a treasure of historical works; a number of these works came from Nigeria. They are beautifully displayed and well represented. One of such works is the original gate of the Palace’s Shrine that was taken many decades ago with the permission of the then Ooni of Ife and replaced with a golden gate by the British. The golden gate still serves as the entrance to the shrine till now. After seeing the original gate displayed at the British Museum during his visit, the present Ooni of Ife was said to have joked that the museum should take back their golden gate and return original gate to the Palace. I saw the humor in the story but it also made me think that we really need to start appreciating what we have and stop waiting for the outside world to do it for us.
As we prepare to cast our votes in another election, it will help to choose candidates that will not repeat history but pave the way to a new era that benefits us all. However, we can only make informed decisions with proper information.
In a previous article, titled “There will be a Country”, I had stated that part of the reason for this blatant disregard of a very important symbol of nationality is the elimination of History from the curriculum in our schools (I’m aware it is being reintroduced into the curriculum which is long overdue). The Nigerian stories have to be told to the younger generation so they can have an idea where we got it wrong and we can give them a chance to not repeat the same mistake again. There are a lot of stories pre-Independence and post-Independence that can shed light on the Nigerian state; the First Republic, the Military Era, the incessant coups and how we became a democratic nation. These stories should not be swept under the rug never to be heard of again, for the sake of history not repeating itself. The educational value of all these to the younger generation must not be underestimated.
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