Oral history is as good as its limitations: incomplete, changing over time, distorted, embellished, lost. It is time we wheeled ourselves to the 21st century.

Recently, my daughter, a final year university student, had an assignment on family genealogy. It was a surprise that she only knew one of my siblings by name. The first instinct, as an African dad, was to rage about how shameful it is that she does not know the names of my siblings. Fortunately, I restrained myself. If you think I am alone, put your children to the test. In addition, expand this to other family members by asking them the name of your grandfather/grandmother. One may even begin with oneself: Do you know all your nephews and nieces by name? In most African languages, the Yoruba as an example, we do not seem to have single words for an uncle, aunt, nephew, niece etc. You can only describe the relationship. It is that complicated. The Yoruba designate everyone old enough to be one’s father or mother as dad or mom. These days, spouses do not even refer to themselves by their names any longer; the prevalent descriptive is daddy or mommy.

I believe one of the reasons the western civilisation surpassed the African one is because of the written record. I recently had an encounter, in the line of work, with someone writing a book on his family’s genealogy, backed up with a genogram, and who has been able to trace the generations to the nineteenth century. Most of us are not operating in this tradition. Ours is deep in the oral tradition. We may or may not be able to forgive the past generations for not keeping records, but what excuse does our generation have?

The basketball season in the USA just came to an end and the football world cup is on. We hear day in, day out the records of goals scored from generations and how long the present players have to break such records. We can hardly say that of our record-keeping in Nigeria. Most people, especially of the Yahoo generation, the millenniums, as they are fondly called, probably do not know who Emmanuel Okala is, let alone that he was one of the greatest goalkeepers the Green Eagles…well, Super Eagles, ever had. Should we even begin to ask the number of caps he wore fending off goals for Nigeria? Moreover, where do we go for that information?

The culture of record keeping is not just about keeping records (which is important in itself) but it also helps with research and proper planning. It used to be that public figures in Nigeria’s past used to write their autobiographies where you garnered useful/historical information. Our generation, during our college years, were lucky enough to have the opportunity of reading such autobiographies as Zik’s My Odyssey, Awolowo’s Awo Enahoro’s Fugitive Offender etc. Babangida would not write about June 12. Buhari won’t write about his first stint as a military leader. We can also learn something through first-hand information about Abubakar’s short but important foray in the political arena. Chief Olusegun Obasanjo (Ebora Owu) has gold medals in this regard. When will Jonathan put something down for history? It is quite disheartening that, these days, we cannot find entries about certain figures in Wikipedia. And that is just on the political front.

Finding accurate statistics about economic and other activities in our beloved country is as scarce as finding water in arid land. Where do we go to look for information? The political climate is so polarising that one can only take with a grain of salt where the truth lies in-between what our leaders are saying publicly. The National Assembly cannot even make its budget public. The law makers’ allowances are shrouded in mystery! The budget is said to be “padded” – whatever that means!

The starting point for proper record-keeping would be for us as individuals to start with happenings in our surroundings. Start with your family’s genealogy. Obtain information and not only document them but share these with other family members. One would be surprised at how much information one does not know until you start. One hopes academic and political institutions would start doing something. It is an understatement describing it as ridiculous, institutions of higher learning in Nigeria this time and age not having a website where one can access information. A whole lot of higher institutions in Nigeria does not have any functional website.

Oral history is as good as its limitations: incomplete, changing over time, distorted, embellished, lost. It is time we wheeled ourselves to the 21st century.

Jide Omotinugbon, jideo18@yahoo.com, writes from Louisville, KY, USA.