Photographs and Memories

For a long time as a child, whenever the night workmen plastered the walls on our street with the colourful posters of a recently deceased, announcing their burial date and other information for their funeral, I found myself asking this question: “How were the photographers able to sit the dead person up and take that photo of them?” I marvelled at the magic behind it. It was a troubling but, altogether, personal, intimate interrogation. For even then, I suspected the question was an unintelligent one, and that I would be laughed at terribly if I shared my thoughts with people. Time furnished me with answers.

At home, the black and white photographs trapped underneath the see-through nylons in the family’s old album had grandeur around them. As kids, we would fetch the thick albums and go through the photographs: my father’s father, Mazi Louis Okoronkwo; my father as a child, black and round-cheeked; my father with his two older siblings, Aunty Nkechi and Aunty Uzo; my father being carried by his father, my father’s long-dead uncles and aunties, unsmiling; Papa Louis in the 60s as a soldier in his Biafra army gear, Izundu’s first birthday celebration in 1992; my mother carrying Ebuka as a baby in 1993; many many things that were no longer here with us, and many that had changed. Every day, when we went through the albums, we were looking into the past from the present. It was like time travel. The present cast the past in a different light, one with shades of mystery and importance.

My father in our sitting room carrying Izundu, our old cupboard beside them. 1991.

In my eyes, the subjects within the photos gained a divinity that photographs taken at the present time do not have and are not qualified to have, not now. The things time is capable of. I might not have known then, but the truth stared at me in the eye: those monochrome photos were once like the ones taken then, at the present time. They only had the privilege of age, the same sort of privilege that allowed my father and mother to have two or three pieces of beef when we could only get one or none. These photographs were only gilded by time’s essence, of many memories, of the things that came after, of how things ended or changed. The old photographs held history for me. 

And they still do today. They fascinate me the same way they did when I was a child. They offer a means of looking into the past and seeing things the way they were before now, of noticing how much things have changed. In those photos, the dead are not dead. They are very much alive, smiling, drinking beer or Fanta, posing for a shot, kissing, cooking, carrying a child or children, playing football or golf, cutting a cake, or wearing the hopeful regalia of a sun that would soon set. 

Memory has the same quality as old photographs. Armoured by time and age, they become less normal than normal. Old memories have a life of their own, gain a delicacy of their own, gather a special film across their surface, and inherit nostalgia. The photo cards were fragile, and brittle, to be held gingerly, or they would fall apart. Old memories, then, become revered, a shrine to be revisited. Old memories create supplicants, trigger-propelled worshippers, unwilling or not. Photographs have a permanent essence to them, much like music.


Nostalgia is but a predecessor of memory…

As much as I can remember, most of the events that happened in my life were made memorable through music. My life has been rhythmic in itself; music of all kinds reverberating, floating, meandering, along and across the tides of my existence. For many things that happened, a song registered itself in place. And so it is only expected that I would as easily recall a significant person, event or place with songs. 

My baby sister, Chinaza, died on May 5th of 2005, a few months after we moved from Agbonyin in Surulere, to the second house in Onibuore. On that day, someone played songs in the sitting room from the VCD player. I would not have known that for the following years after that day, listening to Gozie Okeke’s “Emmanuel,” and “Akanchawa” would pull in me the strings of that loss. Memories do not leave easily, and they are helped, too, by the relative permanence of music. A quick search on YouTube to find those songs was an easy evocation of that event. On the day she died, my father, for reasons I cannot readily call to mind, spread five naira notes across the glass table and over the television cupboard. Those were the days the wooden cupboard still stood, the years before rainwater entered the house and ate the giant frame from right under. The cupboard was a solid wooden mass plastered all around with smooth black formica whose sharp edges cut us when we bumped into them while running around the house. It had golden-coloured steel (and later, towards its end, rubber) linings over its edges and glass-covered compartments that housed the VCD player, a giant radio and VCD player, stacks of film disks, rows of cassettes, books, newspapers, my father’s cigarette ash holder, his old wine decanter, remote controls, church magazines, and, once, a yellow, hard plastic battery-powered toy puppy that actually barked. The cupboard had been done decades ago, long before I was born. I knew this because it stood — an old, loyal heirloom — in the background of the photo of my father holding my eldest brother, Izundu, when he was only a baby. 

Memory is not as brittle as people often assume it is. Humans — by a deliberate act of personal choice, or by coercion — do not exactly forget. Memory, then, becomes a ship prepared and ready to sail into unknown waters unless an anchor is incentivised to hold it in place. In the end, we only forget what we want to.

During my mother’s 38th birthday. L-R. Ebuka, me, my mother, Yinka, a neighbor; and Izundu carrying Wisdom, my youngest brother. 2007.

Music anchored my memory of things. Years later, when I moved away from the third house in Olaitan into my first apartment in Iju-Ishaga, Ifako Ijaiye, an empty prepaid lightbox beeping irritably from a cupboard in the kitchen (I would eventually lock it inside my cloth drawer in the living room and cover it with some clothes), my clothes propped under my head as a pillow, I would listen to Buju and Ladipoe’s “Feeling.” By doing that, I would be tying a ship to shore, never to let it sail again towards nowhere.

More than a year before, during national youth service, in the decrepit, dark and quiet village of Eka Uruk Eshiet, a dark, stocky, kind man became refuge when I sought electricity. His bar, a small affair that other corps members in the village frequented, became a second home. My partner in whose house I stayed in Eka Uruk Eshiet — a fellow service member herself — would visit the bar with me, every evening. It was at Tilla’s bar that I offered her her first cigarettes (smoking was a habit I had only recently formed myself). We drank tumblers of cold or warm beer. At Tilla, we charged our phones and laptops full enough to take us through the night and the following day, until another evening of cigarettes, beer, goat meat soup, and the occasional catfish soup when we had extra money to spend. The catfish soups were personally selected point-and-kill affairs, served piping hot in two separate metal or china plates. My partner and I, over time, marked our spot at the local bar, a distance away from the other service members who — usually penniless or unwilling to spend more than their budget from the monthly allowance — stayed in the storeroom where corps members charged their devices. In our spot, and even after my partner completed her service, we smoked, ate goat or catfish, and listened to music.

The songs were the same, played in one cycle from a single playlist curated by a local DJ (all around the village, the same playlist was used). The DJ could have been Nseobong, who served us soup and beer, or Nsikak, who always brought us the wrong orders. Eka Uruk Eshiet, as well as Etuk Uruk Eshiet, is a small village. There were the market women, cloth traders, artisans, and numerous cooks. The music at Tilla was as simple as the place. It was a blend of Tiwa Savage, Teni, Zlatan and a few others, all in one tight box. Months later, when I returned to Lagos at the end of my service year, and an additional three months I spent in the house avoiding the landlord, the kind Mr Moffat, in a bid to prolong my stay and to keep away from the bedlam of Lagos, I heard the songs played at another bar. I knew then:  Memory had done its thing. Eka Uruk Eshiet, Tilla, cold beer, love in quiet places, and hot goat soup, were ships long but unknowingly tethered.

Music becomes, at its will, the primary agent of nostalgia. Nostalgia itself, usually the end product of memory, is as strong-willed as its forerunner. But perhaps, forerunner is not accurate here since it implies an end of a cycle, the termination of a journey, and the final handing over of a baton. Memory, subjective on its own, is a loop that continues to rotate at will, driving along with it a corollary of by-products. And so maybe the better word here to use is predecessor, in the most basic sense, implying some continuity. Nostalgia is but a predecessor of memory. And while I could easily have considered my own peculiarity for music as casual, normal, a thing everybody possesses, it was not. I have my own triggers.

For some, it is smell; a heady perfume scent they first smelled on a crush during their childhood days. For others, it is taste; the taste of a vegetable soup they ate the day the news came that an uncle had been crushed underneath the reckless wheel of a truck; or the sweet taste of akara their father fried. And usually, these memories are old, tampered with the hand of age. For instance, Flavour’s “Tene” ferries me on its back to the days in Etuk Uruk Eshiet — the intense solitude and quiet, the memories of lying face down on my bed on quiet afternoons, and smoothening gashes and scars on my bed sheets, the boredom that led me to examine my body hairs and leg scars I had ignored, and bathing outside under the bright moon and stars. “Tene” reminds me of the trees in the school where I taught English, of sand flies in the morning just before the arrival of the sun. It reminded me of the shared love with my partner who stayed a while with me in the house. It reminded me of reading Odia Ofeimun’s essay collections in empty classes by evening, long after lectures, and of eating milked popcorns and smoking fruit-flavoured cigarettes, and waiting for the arrival of the sand flies. Sand flies, too, became anchored ships.

Phyno and Teni’s “Ka Anyi Na Ayo” took me back to the ancient town of Nimo in Njikoka, Anambra, where I lived with my uncle, the village chairman, Shanka. It drew my attention to fetching water in barrows, to eating saltless rice and cold tomato stews, to reexperiencing family, to walking around the village with my uncle and the wounded — and consequently aggrieved — village Ekwe announcing into the quiet, rainy night that the men of the village were to meet at the ilo the next morning to investigate and judge his recent assault.

Humans respond differently to their suffering and woes, as much as to their memories. For some, there is a burgeoning need to reenact the past, to renegotiate it; for others there is a revulsion, a need to do away with or keep away from what hurts, to forgive. For some, there is both: the need to cudgel and cuddle. For me, it was the impulsive will to reenact, and if not, recreate, to forge again the past into the present, to seek the old in the new, to keep holding the anchor that bound; to never let go. 

A major ingredient in this exercise in reenactment was Coldplay’s “Peponi,” which I listened to while sitting with my partner the first time we stayed together. It was a day after she yelled my name from a moving bus. I looked back and saw her, she who would be my first true love, her head sticking from a window in the bus, watching me watch her. Memory was “Peponi” playing on repeat from her phone, a plate of fufu and afang soup between us, and a candle burning. “Peponi” was a brief, uncertain first sex, and an embarrassing morning thereafter. I would stay away from the song after the break-up almost a year later, but I would never delete it, could not bring myself to sever the rope that held the anchor. 


Christmas 2021, it was “Dior,” filtering from the harmattan air into my subconscious. My cousin Stephanie introduced me to Ruger. I was living with her in Water Lines, Port Harcourt, at that time. I also learned about the place called Rumuokoro, a word that sounded like stones rolling in the mouth, across teeth, like bad music.

Oftentimes, memories collide with each other, ships upon ships, causing such intense feelings of nostalgia in me; a yearning much too powerful to resist. When I encounter these spells, I end up crying or thrown into moods that last hours. For instance, I have found myself craving a reenactment of those nights spent at the mammy market in Nsit Atai. The market is a large section cut away from the NYSC training grounds. It is a gathering of stalls, cheap restaurants, and product shops selling everything from food, buckets, to fake service uniforms. The market also hosts tailors and shoe menders. Ironically, none of the shops (as far as I could tell) sold condoms. The mammy market in Nsit Atai sold fried yams, fruits, food and water, my second food course in NYSC camp when I was not eating from the kitchen. The restaurants always played Victor AD’s “Emoji” music video. The song was played along with others, which I did not particularly enjoy. Two years later, at a bar in Lagos, I would hear the song again, and the memories would come crashing with such brute force, driving me into a sour mood for hours. Memory has a life of its own.

Before discovering Ruger in Port Harcourt, I had returned to Akwa Ibom to visit the old places and to “reclaim my soul.” It had been almost two years since I left. I had saved enough money to spend on hotel rooms, gifts, and food. The school I had served in was empty, but the path into it was as I remembered. The school was set on an expansive ground, bound on the left by a row of classrooms, the assembly hall, school farm, staff room and the school library. On the right, there was the great football field where my partner and I sometimes sat on some evenings. In the field were tall palm trees from which the school harvested fat, sweet, juicy oil kernel heads which they sold and shared with us, and which we used to cook banga soup. I expected to see some of the pupils, but only the trees welcomed me. Feverish with a cold I caught in Uyo, I performed my short, rehearsed ritual of reenactment: I sat under a tree, and played “Tene.”

The entrance to Community Secondary School, Etuk Uruk Eshiet.

Eka Uruk Eshiet changed only by a fraction. The people, save for most of the corps members who were on Christmas break, were still there as I had left them. Mrs Moffat, the wife of the landlord, I strongly believe, had sent her assistant to watch me as I looked around the old house, and inspected the now-algae-ridden grounds. The blue drum which collected rainwater was no longer there. The women selling fruits near Tilla’s bar were still there, in the same spots, like time never moved. In Tilla’s bar, I found my old spot. I sat and watched the bar again with old eyes. I ordered catfish soup and beer, and Nseobong shrieked with delight when she recognised me. The storeroom no longer held corps members. It might never again. The stretch of spaces in the room had been converted into what seemed to be boarding rooms.

Tilla returned soon. He, too, had not changed. He ordered me a beer. I offered him my gift of wine.

The playlist, however, had changed. The songs were different now, familiar but oddly untethered. Empty. I willed and squeezed memories from them, but they held none. They stank of foreignness, of some hidden, unsaid malevolence.

“What happened to the storeroom, Tilla?”

“Hotel rooms now. Economy is bad. We need to make more money. Some of the customers use it when they want to relax.” He made a bad effort at winking. I understood.

“What happened to the old songs?”

He was drunk already, but I caught a few words from him. Later that night, he set me on a bike heading to Abak, where I found a bus to Ikot Abang, to my hotel. True, true; times had changed.

About the Author:

Nzube Nlebedim is a Nigerian writer, critic and editor. He lives in Lagos.

*Featured image by Anselmo Pedraz from Pixabay