Sankofa — looking back to look forward

There is a Ghanaian Akan proverb associated with the Twi word “Sankofa” that summarizes why some of us write memoir. The proverb is: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates as: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” The word “Sankofa” literally means “to go back and get it.” I’ve only begun reading about this cultural concept since stumbling across the word “Sankofa” and following links to read more. I have not been to Ghana, but I’ve lived and worked in several other countries on the African continent, and I like to read about culture and history from different parts of Africa. The Sankofa idea spoke to me as a memoir writer.

I’ve been encouraged by the idea that it is good to look back and remember so that moving forward is well-informed. At the beginning of my Third 30, I’m reviewing my memoir pieces and thinking a lot about the writing group I led for five years when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I’m no longer there and the writing group is continuing under new leadership, but during those five years, our group wrote and shared hundreds of memoir pieces – hundreds of stories. I’ve gone back in my memories and retrieved more than half a century of stories, typed them into Word, backed them up, and printed them. And I’ve told people that one of my major activities in retirement (my Third 30) is to compile these memories into a book that will be a bit more organized than the 400 or so pages I’ve written so far. Some people seem confused by the idea that an anonymous person (not famous) would bother to write memoir. Others seem to think that writing memoir is narcissistic. I don’t at all believe that it’s a waste of my time to write about my life, especially now with more than half a century of perspective and with time to do so.

In fact, I was working full time during those five years of writing memoir with my writing group. So, it’s possible to write and reflect even when you think you don’t have the time. We all have stories to tell! Our stories are not narcissistic, or bragging, or self-serving. Our stories are our gifts to the future – who we were, what we did, and what we did with our lives. They are perhaps even more important simply because none of us are famous for anything. Our stories provide the personal insight and description and interpretation that may somewhere, sometime, somehow, make a difference to someone else – perhaps someone we couldn’t even possibly know.

It’s the stories of ordinary anonymous people that need to be told and preserved by those people themselves.

We all do have stories to tell. But most people never write those stories down, or type them out, or record their voices. My dad did, but not my mother, or my grandparents, or my aunt or uncle. Only my dad’s story remains, and it’s only part of his story as he never continued his descriptions past his early 30s. But at least I have his earliest years written in his hand — his memories and his photographs preserved safely. He told at least part of his story.

I hope to do a better job preserving my own stories for whoever might read them in the future.

This is a traditional symbol of Sankofa. The bird is looking backwards, taking an egg from its back. It symbolizes taking what’s good from the past and bringing it into the present “in order to make positive progress through the benevolent use of knowledge.” Says Wikipedia.


sankofa bird


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