Last year, I spent time with an older friend of mine, a veteran African women’s rights activist. She played a major role in the United Nations 1995 Women’s Conference in Beijing, and has been very active since in her home country, across the African continent and globally. She is now in her 70s. We were at an event to reflect on achievements of the Beijing Conference in the Africa region, 25 years after. I asked her if she was working on her memoirs and she gave me a rueful look. She confided that she really wanted to, but did not know where to start. She is well connected, so I advised her to ask one of the donor partners for help to hire a postgraduate student to assist her. I sent her a simple framework that I had developed for writing autobiographies that I had shared with another older friend who too had agonised over how to write her story. This friend of mine is one of so many older people who are reluctant, indifferent, weary, unwilling or simply unable to share their stories with the world. There are many critical actors who pass away, taking all their knowledge and experience with them.
In February of this year, I wrote about the passing of Princess Jolaade Osho, a destitute centenarian from Ikere-Ekiti who I met last year and adopted as a mother. Mama Osho passed away peacefully after many years of loneliness and suffering, but living her last days in comfort and peace of mind. As we set about preparing for Mama’s funeral, we discovered that there were no photographs of her to be found anywhere. All her children had predeceased her, and even though she had members of her extended family, none of them could produce a single photograph of her. The narrative we had of her life was what we could glean from her patchy accounts, and the uneven verifications of others around her. Every single image of Mama Osho that is out in the public domain was taken by my team. I am now in the process of starting an Oral History Project in Ekiti State, to document the images and stories of forgotten senior citizens who have no one to remind the world of who they were.
In 2004, my husband, Governor Kayode Fayemi (JK to me), published his memoirs, “Out of the Shadows,” most of which was an account of his activities in the pro-democracy movement in exile and struggles against military dictatorship in the 1990s. When the book was published, one of the people who we had worked with briefly in London said that something JK wrote in the book was not how he remembered it. JK’s response was very simple, “Write your own book.” We never heard a word from him after that.
I wrote my autobiography in 2013 in time for my 50th birthday. I procrastinated, dithered, invented excuses and tried to cut corners. I had a collection of essays I had written over a period of 20 years and I planned to publish that. I told JK I did not need to write an autobiography since I was publishing a book of essays. He told me that it was not the same thing. So that was how “Speaking Above a Whisper,” my autobiography, and “Speaking for Myself,” the collection of essays and poetry, came into existence.
Not everyone has the urge to share their thoughts or explain themselves to the world, nor should they be compelled to. Yet, everyone has a story. Not everyone might be interested in hearing it, but it would do a lot of good if public figures in particular could share their thoughts and experiences and leave posterity to be the judge. Only a tiny group of people who have played leadership roles in our communities share their experiences. I am not referring to the ‘whitewash’ propaganda pieces written by paid authors, there are many of those.
Last week, the nation mourned the passing of Mallam Abba Kyari, Chief of Staff to President Muhammadu Buhari. Quite a number of Nigerians took to cyberspace to celebrate his passing, describing him as a symbol of all that is wrong with governance and leadership in the country. The outpouring of vile comments was appalling, to put it mildly. We were taught never to speak ill of the dead, but this no longer seems to be applicable. Some of the friends of the late Mallam Kyari spoke up about his decency, loyalty to friends, nationalism and deep commitment to duty. Many claimed they were not impressed with the testimonies of those who knew him beyond seeing him on television or on the pages of newspapers. It really does not matter what we think of the dead or living. In my opinion, what should matter is that they did their bit. They lived their lives, made choices good or bad, and left legacies for better or worse. I would, however, like to learn more about people beyond the opinions or perceptions of others and there is no better way of achieving this other than encouraging people to speak for themselves. I believe that one of the reasons why we do not speak ill of the dead is because when they pass on, they are supposed to be beyond our judgement or reproach. They have transcended into entities that can only be held accountable by whatever creator they believe in. Every time we are tempted to engage in judgement of the dead, we should remember that our own day of judgement will be upon us. Call me old school, but this is one core value that we should not give up on. It is in extremely bad taste to go on and on about how evil someone was in life, a person we never met and who we really know very little about. There are things we can do when a public figure passes away. We can either express our condolences or simply keep quiet. We should not be found running negative commentaries on people who are no longer around to defend themselves.
One of the more reflective reactions to the testimonies of the friends of the late Mallam Kyari wondered why this information was not in the public domain before now, how come he never wrote or spoke about any of these things. Mallam Kyari was perfectly entitled to his silence and discretion, and to whatever confidences he took to his grave. The historian in me would, however, like to see more public figures telling their own stories. The younger generation might be inspired (or repulsed) by what they read and learn, but any reactions, positive or otherwise, should not be the main concern of the writer. What should concern the writer is a sense of duty. I consider it as part of our responsibility as public figures to invest in communal knowledge-building, reflection, teaching, mentoring, understanding, and healing. In other parts of the world, public figures write their memoirs to mark milestones or transitions, or on retirement from public life. Some might be motivated by the generous advances major publishing houses might offer, but it is generally understood that they are willing to share their experiences in order to set the record straight and give their own account of their stewardship and the roles they played in influencing the world they live in.
It would be a good thing if public officers entrusted with so much could consider it a part of their duty to tell their story. Some people I have spoken to have admitted a reluctance to talk about things that are too painful to dredge up or stand the risk of being misunderstood. Autobiographies are not meant for you to justify yourself to the world in expectation of a favourable judgement. They are for you to just tell your own truth and reflect on what you have learnt, if anything. If anyone wants to argue with that, either in your lifetime or long after you are gone, in JK’s words, let them write their own books. For those who are contemplating documenting their stories, you can use a competent ghost writer. I wish our Liberal Arts curricula had not been so badly compromised and devalued over the years, we would have had a pool of talented young writers to draw from.
No one story is ever the whole truth, that should be a given. Every story, however, has the power to bear witness for generations to come, and it would be nice if we could speak for ourselves rather than have words taken from our mouths or spoken on our behalf.
•Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi is a gender specialist, social entrepreneur and writer. She is the founder of Abovewhispers.com, an online community for women. She can be reached at [email protected]