Decolonizing Memories: Takeaways from the Memories of Mogadishu Conference

By: Jack Xu

By Eliana Trinaistic, Social Impact Manager

The Memories of Mogadishu Conference (#MOM19), which took place at the Ottawa Art Gallery on May 4th, 2019, was curated by documentary filmmaker and second generation Somali-Canadian Asha Siad. The goal of the conference was to gather international speakers, most of them with strong ties to Somalia and Mogadishu, storytellers, historians, members of the library and archival community, as well as students of Somali origin to explore themes regarding the ways in which memories shape immigration journeys and people’s sense of belonging, and how a decolonizing approach to archives and (oral) histories can contribute to peace building and better integration in post-conflict societies. MCIS Language Solutions was one of the main sponsors of the conference; we contributed expertise to one of the panels entitled Global Conversation on Memory, Migration and Peacebuilding, provided simultaneous English to Somali interpretation, and sponsored Italian-Somalian writer, researcher, translator and poet, Shirin Ramzanali Fazel.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) defines migration journeys using a series of six distinctive milestones: beginning with the decision to leave a country of origin, crossing its border, retention in migration camps, reaching the country of destination, establishing a long stay in the country of destination, and eventually journeying back to the country of origin. If memories are consolidations of how our experiences are coded, stored and retrieved, then each of the six stages of this journey will not only create a multitude of memories depending on how complex or lengthy each stage is, but it will also be formed differently depending on the type of migration journey and the number of languages which contribute to facilitating the context of the journey.

If one is an economic immigrant, for example, one knows the date of one’s departure and thus has a degree of control over the time needed to organize personal affairs and part with loved ones. Memories of the first stage of the journey are often deposited in one’s first language, while the memories of crossing the border or migration camps might not be formed as these experiences are irrelevant. If one begins their journey as a refugee, however, the day of departure might be unknown, short term memories need to grow rapidly to include the maps of crossings, useful phrases to help manage the risk of encounters with customs officials and migration camps, and perhaps even details of a new identity. Their entire journey will be unpredictable, dangerous, and emotionally draining. Those partaking in it might want the memories to be deliberately deleted.

However, memory formation in relation to migration journeys does not end here. Once arrived, the process of memory consolidation (still a mystery as it contains information being pulled from various parts of the body and not from the brain exclusively) includes host communities with already established politics of memory or rules around what the community considers should be remembered and what is preferably forgotten. If personal memories align with the politics, integration could be effortless. But should they collide, one might choose not to speak about the past or to avoid these communities, risking ever increasing isolation and loneliness. The memories of migration journeys memories create a sense of belonging or alienation in new arrivals, depending on how intense the host community’s pressure on sticking to a particular type of approved memory is.

But, most importantly, the very essence of what is actually remembered might not even be determined by the intensity of your personal experience or politics but the very language you use.

A widely referenced study from 2000 by Marian and Neisser (Language Dependent Recall of Autobiographical Memories), in which Russian immigrants to the United States were given autobiographical memory interviews, found that memory recall is language-dependent. In this study, when prompted in Russian, participants recalled Russian memories or memories created in a Russian language context. Conversely, when prompted in English, they recalled memories created while living in the U.S. or experiencing things in an English based environment. These memory streams existed independently, in parallel, and depending on which cues or interview questions were used, sometimes very early memories were recalled (cues), or sometimes later memories (interviews). In short, for multilingual speakers, memories are language-context-dependent versions of the past.

The implications of these findings for archivists, oral historians, researchers, and the settlement and health sector, in fact for anybody investigating any aspect of a migration journey that includes multiple geographies, cultures and languages, is significant, because it greatly challenges the validity of the unilingual approach. Commitment to a multilingual approach is not only relevant for international migration but also for cultural archives within the borders of the same country. Consider for instance, Indigenous communities whose languages are only sporadically included in collection methodologies.

Certainly, for over a decade now, there has been a push to “decolonize” current archival and collection practices by introducing alternative concepts, such as Linda Tuhiwai Smith’ critically acclaimed Decolonizing Methodologies (1999). Many young archivists (see: Allison Louise Jones) are making an effort to rethink collection, description, and open access (e.g. adopting Indigenous museum curation methods, broadening the definition of what qualifies as archival to include Indigenous knowledge, developing Indigenous Knowledge Organization Systems). In library communities, efforts are also made to think about “decolonizing description” and to transform “finding and naming” practices by providing more horizontal taxonomies, Indigenous internships, and knowledge about Indigenous subjects. Nevertheless, we have yet to find a mandatory provision for language access (hiring Indigenous speakers) or language learning embedded with some of these new transformative practices.

One of the ways in which this change can be initiated is to start from the bottom up, using members of linguistic communities themselves as archivists. In the past, I had an opportunity to work on the Digital Archive of Oral and Visual Histories of Croatian — Canadians and although the project never took off (no funding) it helped to provide new context so that a similar project came to be funded a few years later. I am certain that every language group, if not every dialect arriving to Canada, would benefit from having its own archival practice rooted in its own language and managing its own stories of migration. The overarching goal, then, could be to contribute to a shared, multilingual, horizontal depository of all Canadian linguistic voices. We could easily imagine, further, the existence of multiple digital (oral and physical) depositories of all cultures and languages that have built Canada since the early days (“arrival stories”), cross-referenced with multiple archives of Indigenous communities sharing common geographies. By corroborating the evidence found in both streams, inclusive of English and French, we would be able to see the patterns of influence and story suppression that created the cultural and linguistic imbalance we are living through today.

Another strategy would be to engage educators and influence youth as potential custodians. We need much stronger, more robust history programs in our schools, especially in terms of bringing back the Indigenous history curriculum and Indigenous languages for all. By focusing on history of the land instead of the history of culture, we should be able to integrate equality, environmental stewardship, learning from the past and reconciliation as educational values to inspire future generations to participate in archive creation as a responsible process of validating the evidence of the past.

Finally, we need to decolonize migration memories by including the languages that created the context of their formation. Just as every research team includes evaluators, every research team should also include bilingual or multilingual speakers. They could be added to institutions, academia, government, and other sectors interested in public contribution and feedback as mediators of memories and culture. The responsibility here also lies with community leaders, who need to step up and make their communities relevant to researchers and policy makers.

Because these stories must be told, and re-told, and re-told yet again.

As the saying goes, if we do not tell our own stories, somebody else will.

And if somebody else tells our stories and does so in a language other than the one in which the story itself was created, how will we get the opportunity to unlock what we need in order to be able to understand, to embrace, to resolve, to forgive, and to find some degree of balance, peace and hope that our pasts can be reconciled?