We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory—Loiuse Gluck
When I was perhaps five or six years old, my twin brother and I created a game we called ‘Chopi’. It was a game of paper figures. We got sheets of paper and shaped them into little effigies of human beings. Chopi was the iconoclastic, long-suffering protagonist who bore the burden of his family on his shoulders. Chopi fought many wars, caught criminals and had a lot of meetings with all sorts of people. All these moves were in order to protect his family. It is not clear to me now, writing more than twenty years later, why Chopi’s family seemed to be in so much danger, but I know that we were completely immersed in that world.
At that time in our lives, we did not consciously decide that it was a game; we thought of it as part of what we do every day, part of our existence. We were so absorbed in the game at one point we took it for granted that Chopi had always been there and that we did not create it. Our room became the entire universe. There were paper trees, paper cars made from matchboxes, wooden contraptions of articulated vehicles, highways marked out with bottle corks, cities containing high-rises signified by empty tins of chocolate and milk, and paper people everywhere, placed strategically, as though in a crowded Main Street.
Our minds created and conjured up things. If we wanted something badly—a toy car, for example—we made Chopi buy it first. Ours was a world of ease and magic in which the mere act of imagination brought us into the reality of accomplishment. It was a dream world, hypaethral and strange to behold; everything was achievable and all was full of colours and happiness.
Childhood is coloured by the exuberance of imagination. There is a sense of restlessness, of recklessness, of randomness. Around the time we clocked ten, my twin brother and I joined many neighbourhood kids to make a kind of movable vehicle we called ‘Boress’. The vehicle was very rudimentary and consisted of a wood plank and three or four bearings as tires. ‘Boress’ was the colloquial name for motor wheel bearing among the children of my generation. There were times that, while scouring different mechanic workshops to get disused bearings, we were chased away by the mechanics who called us little brats.
The Boress was legendary. Only real royalty owned it. At any point, there were always two people using the Boress: one pushing it, the other on the machine steering and enjoying the ride. The joy of that breezy locomotion, the sense of accomplishment and freedom, was like reaching for the moon.
There was also the brand of football game we played at that time using bottle corks and shirt buttons. The players were eleven bottle corks on each opposing side, and the ball was a tiny shirt button. The goalkeeper was a bottle cork that we bent slightly by biting down on it with our teeth, or hitting it with one strike of a small stone, to make it stand. The general name we gave this game was ‘Canter’.
We went everywhere with our eleven players and sparred with neighbourhood kids. There was always an undisputed champion—that rare kid who had defeated everyone. He would hold onto that position until he was dethroned.
Canter football was our localised, hands-on Play Station in those heady days.
It is clear to me that the incidence of creation and spontaneity is something many people experience in childhood. In one form or another, a lot of people would agree that they have created versions of ‘Chopi,’ ‘Boress’ vehicle and ‘Canter’ football, as we did so many years ago. Childhood is thus, our first unencumbered touch with boundless imagination; childhood sees the manifestation of art in its purest form.
We had freedom. A dizzying abundance of it. To be sure, there were times when my mother locked us up inside the flat before going out, fearing the mischief our roving curiosity would cause. The earliest times of our lives are spent stumbling through an array of novelties. Each discovery was a peal of delight and each revelation gave us a sense of transgressive pride. The moment I discovered dancing—on the day of my graduation from nursery school—puts this in perspective. I was five. I had probably danced earlier in my life but I wasn’t conscious of those acts until that fateful day of my graduation.
My twin brother and I wore matching outfits of t-shirts and shorts. Our shirts had a big portrait of Congolese Makossa singer Awilo Logomba embossed on it. Awilo (Francophone African music was experiencing a boom at this time) was in his prime in the late nineties and into the aught. Awilo’s famous song, “Coupe Bibamba,” was playing as award-giving activities went on. Parents were jostling to get their wayward kids in line to receive the awards and certificates. I wasn’t in line with the other kids. I was looking at the long line of kids, searching for myself among them. I was wondering where I was. Did I know myself enough? My confusion rose. My eyes began to feel hot. I was looking for myself.
My mother was waving. She was not stern. She was laughing. I looked around and saw the manicured ixora hedge behind me. It dawned on me at that moment that I was apart from my classmates. My limbs were moving: I was swaying my legs in a false clapping motion. I was dancing. The knowledge descended gradually and, in that moment, wearing my matching Awilo Logomba outfit, I became conscious of dancing for the first time.
When we dance, we reach for space, we explore pockets of vacuum, forgetting the events around us; we live spiritually in the moment, creating and inventing in the pulse of each minute, each movement. Dancing as a child for me was not a therapeutic “dancing away of sorrow,” as rendered in the lingo of adult trauma—it was an expression of freedom, of unadulterated joy, of the oneiric images of the strange power of self-expression.
There were tensions too. There were things I hated, things I feared, things that made my heart beat with bated intensity. I remember the night we saw the movie, Igodo, at a neighbour’s house. The unrelenting horror of the movie kept me in a paralysing fear of dark places. After eating, I refused to take my plate to the kitchen because the corridor from the parlour to the kitchen was dark. That night, I woke up and, in the darkness of our room, I saw the shadow of a woman standing by the refrigerator. She was calling someone near the window. She was not talking; her right hand was outstretched towards the window, her fingers making a come sign.
I have never been able to decide if this was a memory or a dream; but it haunted me for years. As adults, we find that childhood dreams can become memories through the wear and tear of many years and the erstwhile galactic tensions that threatened our lives may now seem like puny misgivings.
Some of the tensions of childhood are mixed with a sense of bated anticipation and ecstasy. There is the queasy fear of starting school again after a long break; there is the fear of a certain boy, a big bully; there is the fear of a certain place, a wall; there is fear of a tree. Some of these fears can be very particular. I remember that old wall behind my school. I thought that the arrangement of the green mould on the wall had an uncanny resemblance to a skull. There was a gmelina tree in front of the main school building. The tree had a lot of green from the top to the middle of the stem. There were two large holes near the top of the tree where leafy branches did not grow. I thought that the tree looked like an evil old man, the two holes being his massive eyes. At the time, I avoided the wall and the tree like a pestilence. I am not sure now, in retrospect, that anyone else saw those figures the way I saw them; but my head conjured things that kept me in a loop of fear.
Stanley Rachman theorised that childhood fear is a result of three factors: the direct conditioning of certain cues internalised from a single unpleasant event, the vicarious experience of other people’s response to fear, and the negative information about a thing or event. The ontology of my childhood fear may not be far from direct conditioning or receiving negative information, but it was not a chronic affliction. I experienced the phobia in oxymoronic terms: each time, the object of fear came before me, I felt a sense of awe akin to ecstasy. In the depths of my quickened heart, I felt the tiny stirrings of a terrible delight.
It is possible that the occasional appearance of strange and inexplicable characters or events in my fiction may be linked to this unlikely combination of fear and delight. In Camara Laye’s African Child, Laye describes his awestruck fascination with his father’s forge as a child, the lyrical sound of the hammer on the anvil and the sacred ritual of making gold. In one early scene, he describes a snake that appeared before him and how, even in his fear, he was amazed at the coiled creature. These memories haunted his emotional anxieties as an adult in France and he decided to return back to his country, to that time of dreamy innocence.
Imagination happens in the ability to find joy in fear—in the act of daring to dream, to look far beyond the present. The creation of Chopi or Canter happens in the bubble produced by the defiant dream to become something greater than we are yet to understand. Herein is the wonder of childhood—the joy, the delight, the fear, the discovery of the unknown and the hesitant yet wide-eyed exploration of this new mystery. Starting from 2017, I somehow lost my writing mojo. Each time I sat with a pad and a pen, to try to articulate a basic idea before moving to a computer, I’d end up drawing meaningless circles on the sheet. The difficult world around me was too real for me—a joyless presence on the borders of my head: with an endless list of failures, financial worries, and emotional anxieties. In the whirling vortex of these problems, I struggled to find that curious fascination that often became the creative spur.
In a 1931 essay, “The Stages of Life”, Carl Jung conceives that human consciousness progresses from childhood to adulthood through an archetypal route linked to a big outward view of the world. “In the morning,” he writes, “it rises from the nocturnal sea of unconsciousness and looks upon the wide, bright world which lies before it in an expanse that steadily widens the higher it climbs in the firmament.” As he develops, the child emerges from the collective unconscious like the rising sun; his view of the world widens as he detaches from the consciousness of his parents’ world. In Jung’s words, “the little world of the child in its familiar surroundings is the model of the greater world.”
Adulthood jumps in on us without ceremony. We must develop and leave starry-eyed wonder behind. We begin to live in a world of facts and realities. Any attempt to re-enact childhood becomes immaturity, for why would a grown man, people would ask, behave like a child? Childhood becomes, not that time of untold freedom, but a picture of dependency, tantrums, and utter silliness. The picture is one of denigration.
And yet the adult romanticises the days of childhood.
In the rough streets of adulthood, the adult must fight many battles in his daily life. Economic, social, psychological, moral, and physical battles assail him. The navigation of adulthood becomes a difficult plodding through a desert of quick dunes. The sense of serenity that childhood provides, the insulation from real-time adult issues, fades away and becomes a memory of happy times. Reassurances fade with the certainty of reality; nothing gives the luxury of fake hope.
To become an adult is to struggle for everything. Nothing comes with the easy identification of a sense of need. To become an adult is to be ready to shoulder the bigger responsibility that comes with a bigger age. As Nigerians say, Obi will not always be a boy.
What shapes our opinion as adults? Why do we become who we are as adults? Why do we pursue certain causes and not others? Why do we acquire certain mannerisms and affectations and not others? Why do we love certain memories and not others? Why do we love or hate certain things and not others? The answer is not too distant. On the one hand, we are shaped by our experiences. Childhood is perhaps the most crucial stage of our lives and the lenses from which we see the world are acquired at this time. On the other hand, there are also scattered adult events that are emotional raw matter—grief, pain, love. Suddenly our minds begin to understand and acquire world-weary experience and gravitate towards things that keep our senses sharp and discerning, our actions deliberate, and our lives patterned. Let it therefore not be said that we changed; we simply went through the motions of adulthood.
In recent years, the phrase adulthood na scam, has trended in the Nigerian social media space. Similar phrases pointing to the difficulty of adult life have also seen visibility in other social spaces around the world. The implication is that no one was psychologically prepared for the assault of adulthood. One must worry about mounting bills and various economic issues. An adult is expected to pay his house rent or mortgage, pay his insurance, taxes, power bills, water bills, shop for groceries and essentials every month, and take care of loved ones. The mere act of feeding demands a financial commitment. As his debit card depletes, his frustration mounts. If he marries, these commitments escalate. Financial issues may drive him to the precipice. I was once on a phone call with a friend who works in Dubai. He complained bitterly about the meaning of his life. He saw nothing worthwhile in his life and felt no sense of hope for the future. He was caught in a loop where he kept borrowing to keep alive. Once the credit alert of his salary startled his phone, numerous debit alerts followed until there was hardly anything left.
Why weren’t we told that it would be so difficult, he asked?
There are also the emotional issues. The anxieties of love. The trepidation of belonging. The struggle to meet expectations. Suddenly, we find ourselves on the brink of breakdown. Our love is rejected. Our heart tightens at this feeling of softness and kinship with someone who does not want us. We dream, we hanker, but in the morning we must face the sun once again and the reality of our tears. The brink hovers enticingly. We struggle to be sane in the midst of these thousand arrows. Trauma mounts and we cannot escape it; one way or the other we are subject to grim adult emotions we cannot escape. We feel trapped. We have been scammed, we conclude. No one told us it would be so difficult.
Amidst these struggles, childhood becomes a memory.
The moment will come in our lives when we look back with infinite longing at the carefree life of our young selves. We hanker after the light, laughter, and levity of childhood—those moments full of beautiful snapshots of innocent euphoria. The reels of memories appear in sepia and our nostalgia for a time devoid of commitment envelops us.
We think of the chubby smiles, the wondrous curious awe with which a child regards things. His eyes, his way of seeing things, is light and not heavy; it is devoid of the gravity of adulthood. To him, the world is a mighty doll house full of wonders and unending mysteries. Even in his fear, he does not think for a moment, or wonder at the consequences of following the strange masquerade through the streets. His world is singular, there are no multiplicities. So at unguarded times, tired of the hectic world, we long after this unblemished view of the world, the slight provocations, the joys, the petty jealousies, the whimsies, the rashness, the games, the fights, the whirling madness of a child’s puny world.
A child’s mind is a fickle thing, like a bird—and like a bird it can fly away with daydreams. It can construct elaborate imaginings around its playthings and surround itself with a fantastic maze of pictures only he can decipher. These pictures are honest wishes and longings, and they are the substance of his living, the essence of his world—he has the luxury of hope.
And so the child lives out a star-struck existence in his hood, his imagination. Everyone is counted out of this world. In his poem, “Streamside Exchange,” J.P Clark pictures a child questioning a bird by the streamside. Their exchange, piqued by the child’s infinite curiosity—the innocent impulse to discover the meaning of loss and grief—may sound inconsequential, but that is his attempt to make sense of the world around him.
The memory of innocence will cling to us. We will always long after the laughter and lushness of times past the longer we live. Again, we will luxuriate in the memory of the unencumbered creative impulses of childhood. Childhood is many things: it is the shadow of big things; the groping and stumbling in the twilight; the ritual of passage; the mystery of burning; the wonder of colours; the fear of dark places; the tantrums over presents; the delight of morning play; the discovery of dance; the impatient need to done oversize shoes; the vast immensity of the world; the dawn of creativity.
Childhood is memory.
About the Author:
Chimezie Chika is a short story writer and an essayist. His works have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, The Lagos Review, Praxis Magazine, Brittle Paper, Afrocritik and Aerodrome. A Finalist for Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition (2013), he was a participant of the 2015 Writivism Writing Workshop and a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency. His children’s book, The Incident of the Dog, was published in 2020. He is a prose editor at Ngiga Review.
Feature image by Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash