Segun Toriola’s jaw-dropping defensive play against Singapore’s Ning Gao in which he successfully went through a 41-shot rally in the second match of the men’s team table tennis semi-final was, for me, a major highlight of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Nostalgic, it was. Coming of age in the 70s and early 80s, I saw Atanda Musa, Kasali Lasisi, Sunday Eboh, and so many other wannabe Ping-Pong aces do just that as a matter of regular play.
Indeed, coverage by the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) of a table tennis tournament was that much incomplete, without Walter Oyatogun’s gravelly voice doing the “what a rally!” call. In my early teens, the ability to take part in such a rally was a rite of passage for budding table tennis players.
For my 10-year old child, though, while Toriola’s performance was easily out of this world, my insistence that it was once de rigueur moved the experience into mythical territory. Akin, I thought, to my response, growing up, to claims that Teslim “Thunder” Balogun had, playing football, caused so much damage to the opposing goalkeeper, off a shot from his left boot, that no less a personage than the Queen of England herself, had sought to insure that foot.
Usually, between child and I, we would address such myths by googling them. And invariably, Wikipedia had some useful entry: on Pele; Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; Gerhard “Gerd” Müller; Eusébio da Silva Ferreira; Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns (vs. Roberto Durán); Sugar Ray Robinson; etc. Concerning that “thing” Augustine “Jay Jay” Okocha did to Oliver Kahn, there was ample YouTube evidence.
Imagine my chagrin, then, when my child informed me that there was no such evidence on all the table tennis personae that I had cited to corroborate the fact that Segun Toriola’s performance was only consistent with a national playing style. It did not take much googling to corroborate this! Alas, it was not just for Atanda Musa, Kasali Lasisi, et alia that there is no mention to be found on the web.
Moses Otolorin’s death, last week, was painful. There was no entry on him on the World Wide Web. I had to tell to my child what remained of him in my head. As budding footballers, his long-throws (for IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, and the national soccer team) we thought worthy of emulating. They conferred the same advantage, then, as a well-taken corner-kick does today. In addition, there was Christian Madu’s dribbling runs; Idowu “Slow Poison” Otubusin’s lethargic, yet effective dominance of the midfield; Emmanuel Okala’s towering presence between the sticks. Then, there were also the prize-fighters, Hunter “The Lagos Lip” Clay (one of the more glamourous boxers to grace these shores) and Mama Clay.
The list is a very long one. It is thus remarkable that in 2014, much of the memories associated with these eminent sports persons (and quite a number of equally distinguished other Nigerians in other walks of life) is a bit part of our oral traditions. In this context, sports institutions, too, like the IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Ranchers Bees of Kano, Stationery Stores of Lagos, Enugu Rangers of Enugu (of course) do not even run the danger of becoming “mythified”.
As myth, they would have found pleasant company with Bayajida, Queen Amina, Oluronbi, Sango, and others, whose utility in terms of our identification as a people remains very limited. Sadly, even this limited fate is denied them. Playing the EA Sports online football franchise (FIFA Ultimate Team) I named my three squads after these three Nigerian football teams, only to have my child ask “what these names were?”
Informed that they were once very popular Nigerian football sides, the youngster wanted to know how much association football is played in Nigeria. Only then, did I fear for how we have played fast and loose with the national memory.
Upon further reflection, I am strongly persuaded that we may have been willing to forget so much, only because we have learnt nothing over the last 54 years. The infantile nature of our institutions, our processes, how much do they owe to these unrecovered memories? It would seem to matter for today’s definition of “modernity” that a people’s tradition is fact-based, rather than erected around the myths that oral traditions so willingly supply.
If this is the case, how much of our collective memory ought we to seek to recover? As much, I would wager, as is necessary to help with the lessons that our new realities instruct.
If the experience with my inquisitive child is anything to go by, then we would need to properly catalogue all that we remember.