Songs and Beginning to Remember (October 2022)

Today’s assembly is brought to you by the theme of stories and beginning to remember. It is also filled with musical references, which is where we’ll start. Time, time, time – see what’s become of me while I looked around for my possibilities, I was so hard to please, but look around, trees are brown, and the sky is a hazy shade of winter.

Thus begins a song written by Paul Simon, originally performed by Simon and Garfunkel and memorably covered by the Bangles. It’s possible that your lives have been so far unblessed by its musical and lyrical brilliance – in which case I recommend you rectify this later today – but it’s sufficiently well-known that I imagine at least some of you have come across it.

Time, time, time – that’s what’s coming your way next week and the week after. 384 hours of time undisturbed by instructions from teachers or the dictats of timetable. Discretionary hours we might call them – hours that you have control over. What will you do with that control, those hours? Will you squander the time looking around for possibilities and come back in November to find that the sky is a hazy shade of Remembrance 2? Or will you put it to good use? That last question, of course, raises the question of what is good use. During the summer vacation there were even more discretionary hours and even more possibilities, one of which was to enter the Wigoder Essay Prize competition – the winner of which receives some book tokens and has their name recorded on the honours board in the hall, whilst there are smaller prizes for runners up and an exclusive badge that all the entrants are allowed to wear. Congratulations to Tanbir, Callum, Valentine, Nic for their submissions, to Elena and Mayomi who were the runners up and to Aliya whose entry on the imperial and colonial aspects of the goddess Venus. A copy of that will appear on the student portal and I very much commend it to you, but today I’m going to pick up an idea from Mayomi’s piece in which she wrote about the blood diamonds of Sierra Leone through the lens of Kanye West’s song (in which he samples Diamonds are Forever, the theme from the Bond movie of the same name sung by Shirley Bassey). I think I have mentioned in the past that I enjoy intertextuality – it seems that this is going to be an assembly in which I freely indulge that passion.

The name Sierra Leone means Mountains of the Lions whose loud roar might be described by musicians or Italians as “forte”, a fact that I bring to your attention simply as a mnemonic for the fact that Sierra Leone is the fortieth largest country in Africa. Those of you who came to my lab talk the other week will know that I exult in knowing the countries of Africa in order of size and will not be surprised by this strange approach to memorization, but since there are a handful of you who unaccountably missed out on that extended piece of whimsy I’ll fill you in on the countries whose positions are easiest to remember. First is Algeria – both alphabetically and in terms of size; seventh is Angola, with the number 7 looking a bit like a fishing rod held by an angler; tenth is Ethiopia whose name has IO, looking like 10; nineteenth is Somalia, beginning with the nineteenth letter of the alphabet, twentieth is the Central African Republic, Ca matching the symbol for the 20th element, twenty-sixth is Zimbabwe beginning with the 26th letter of the alphabet; fortieth you already know is Sierra Leone; and then the smallest five are the island nations in alphabetical order: Cape Verde, Comoros, Mauritius, Sao Tome and Principe, and Seychelles.

Having learned this collection of facts (and feel free to quiz me later on the ones I’ve not included), I tried to learn about someone from each of these countries – an endeavour that foundered when I reached Mauritania and struggled to find someone with a story that struck me. I did, however, get Jacques Derrida and St Augustine of Hippo from Algeria; Fabrice Muamba and Barbara Kanam from the Democratic Republic of Congo; Al Mahdi from Sudan; Muammar Gaddafi and Eratosthenes from Libya and then I came to Chad. I should probably pause to let you know how to remember that Chad is the fifth largest country in Africa, at least partly because it shows you how strange memory can be. As you will recall, the second largest is Congo (technically the Democratic Republic of Congo but known to its friends as Big Congo), followed by Sudan, Libya, Chad, and then Niger. These all have 5 letters apart from country number 5, Chad, which only has four – a fact that makes it memorable.

Anyway, for Chad I came across Hissène Habré who was a horrible dictator from the 1980s who was the first ex-head-of-state to be convicted of war-crimes for the torture, murder and oppression that took place under his regime. That’s not a great example to remember a country for so I looked a bit further and found Rose Lokissim, an amazing woman who fought against his regime, was captured, imprisoned, tortured and murdered. She’s not widely famous – although her last recorded words are that even if she died in prison she wouldn’t regret it because Chad would thank her and history would talk about her. Hissène Habré’s Wikipedia page has 10 sections and 74 references; Rose Lokissim’s has four references and fits on a single page – the picture of her is a copy of a badly creased and damaged photograph. I tell this story partly because I hope you’ll remember her name – Rose Lokissim, freedom fighter from Chad (fifth largest country in Africa) and partly as a warning against judging a person's worth by their level of celebrity.

I also tell it to lead you into an opportunity I’d like to offer you, something to fill the time, time, time that’s coming your way. I’m running another essay prize competition over half term and would love to receive entries, emailed to me by 9am on the day we come back (Monday 31st October), 1000 words under the theme “Out of Africa” – something you can take in any number of ways, I’d love to read about people I’ve never heard of, but should have; I’d love to read your fictional stories set in Africa; to have an explainer on the Central African Republic (larger than any European country except Russia and Ukraine); or a piece of history; or some memories of family members who lived there; or, or, or. Pliny the Elder, the Roman writer and scientist, wrote “Ex Africa, semper aliquid novo” – out of Africa, there’s always something new. I look forward to you proving this maxim true.

What else should you do with the time whilst the leaves turn brown and the sky goes hazy? Well, the time we’re talking about is vacation time and those precious hours are there to be dedicated to three pursuits: reading, resting, and review. You should take some books from the library and read them – two or three at least; you should spend time having fun, socializing, sleeping in, relaxing with an enthusiasm that is generally impeded by lessons during term time; and you should review – look over what has been taught you this term, organize your files, complete the tasks you set yourself during your responses. Read, rest, review – and if you’re sensible you’ll do these in equal measure: to emphasise one or diminish another is to use your time less wisely.

I’m running out of my own time now, but I just wish to circle back to two of the writers that I’ve already mentioned and two more countries to fill up your map of Africa. Firstly Mayomi, who has, with other members of Tirah, been putting posters of people up on the staircases. One that drew me in was Fela Kuti – the originator of Afrobeat, musician and political activist from Nigeria, fourteenth largest country in Africa, easily remembered because N is the fourteenth letter. If you’re looking for something clever to say about him then I recommend commenting on his use of two baritone saxophones – one more than anyone else considered necessary. And then back to Paul Simon whose album Graceland was recorded in South Africa with Ronnie Cuber on the baritone sax (South Africa, by the way is the ninth largest country in Africa – which I remember because post-apartheid South Africa began in the 1990s). On that album, track seven is Under African Skies which contains the chorus “This is the story of how we begin to remember. This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. After the dream of falling and calling your name out, these are the roots of rhythm, and the roots of rhythm remain.” Stories and beginning to remember, the old that is strong will not wither, deep roots are not touched by the frost - but that line is from Tolkien and is another assembly, another story.