Song as an Indigenous memory aid

Much as I am not impressed by the source – elephant hunters are not my favourite people – this description is well worth reporting. The quote was sent to me by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, authors of the fascinating book, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. This book, I highly recommend.

The quote Elizabeth and Paul sent me is from a way less savoury book for my taste, but gives an incredible description of the way in which new knowledge is encoded into song by an Indigenous culture in Africa.

The source is The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter by Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, first published by London, Country Life Ltd. and New York, C. Scribner’s Sons in 1923. The quote is around page 58, depending on the edition and page numbering. The story is of ivory collection – too sad to include that bit here.

It was decided to return to our base through untouched country. The news was received with shouts of joy. It is wonderful how one comes to regard the base camp as home. Whereas, on our way up, the camps had been rather gloomy—disasters having been prophesied for this expedition—now all was joy. The safari chronicler became once more his joyous self and his impromptu verse became longer and longer each night. The chronicler’s job is to render into readily chanted metre all the important doings of the safari and its members. It is a kind of diary and although not written down is almost as permanent, when committed to the tenacious memories of natives. Each night, in the hour between supper and bedtime, the chronicler gets up and blows a vibrating blast on his waterbuck horn.

This is the signal for silence. All is still. Then begins the chant of the safari’s doings, verse by verse, with chorus between. It is extraordinarily interesting but very difficult to understand. The arts of allusion and suggestion are used most cleverly. In fact, the whole thing is wonderful. Verse by verse the history rolls out on the night, no one forgetting a single word. When the well-known part is finished, bringing the narrative complete up to and including yesterday, there is a pause of expectation—the new verse is about to be launched. Out it comes without hesitation or fault, all to-day’s events compressed into four lines of clever metric precis. If humorous its completion is greeted with a terrific outburst of laughter and then it is sung by the whole lot in chorus, followed by a flare-up of indescribable noises ; drums, pipes, horns and human voices.

What a wonderful way to build up knowledge bit by bit. Maybe we should learn history that way – chronologically adding each new event in song. So many possibilities!

A new book – Memory Craft

Great excitement! I have just signed a contract with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, to do a new book. The working title (may not end up being the real title) is Unlocking the Memory Code. Publication date is probably early 2019. There is a lot of work to do first! Edit: it became Memory Craft.

This book is all about using the most effective memory methods from across cultures and throughout time. It is all about how we can use these methods to enhance our lives every day.

One of my great pleasures is encoding layer upon layer in my new lukasa, designed to record the history or writing. Ironic, isn’t it? This beautiful object was made for me by Tom Chippindall.

The vast majority of the emails and messages I receive are about the indigenous memory methods and how we might apply them in contemporary life. The extraordinary memory skills of our ancestors have been gradually lost with the invent of writing and even more so with the prevalence of information technology. Many readers are concerned about this and want to redress the trend by using their memories much more effectively.

I am simply astounded every day by what I can memorise and the way I can then build on the knowledge which is so firmly grounded in the memory devices. I am able to see patterns and the big picture in ways which are just not possible without this basic knowledge at my fingertips. It is also wonderful fun!

Throughout the book I will look at the changes in memory techniques over the millennia and discuss the possible impact on education and on memory loss with ageing. Recent research in neuroscience explains exactly why the memory methods of indigenous culture are so effective. I will report on the science and celebrate indigenous intellect. I will also emphasis how much everything is to remember when it is brought to like through stories and vivid characters.

As indigenous and early literate cultures were masters of memory, so it is from them that we can learn the most. I am adding to the lessons from oral cultures discussed in The Memory Code to include medieval memory systems, ideas from the Renaissance and from ancient Chinese and Japanese handscrolls. I will also look at mnemonic tricks from contemporary times.

The topics to be covered in Unlocking will include the most successful examples from My 40 Memory Experiments which have now been adjusted to reflect the questions I am most often asked.

I am learning a foreign language (French) despite having failed dismally to do so at school.  I am using a range of methods to memorise vocabulary and grammar and going really well. And even taking on Chinese (Mandarin).

I have devised a system for memorising names and faces by adapting the concept of a medieval bestiary.

I memorise temporary lists when we are out birding, going shopping or given verbally using a visual alphabet, adapted from those used during the Renaissance.

I am continuing to memorise more details about all the countries in the world and constantly adding to my walks through pre-history and history. I use the field guide to the 412 Victorian birds from memory constantly as husband Damian and I go birding often.

I am attending art classes every week to create the most beautiful contemporary adaptions I can manage of the bestiary, visual alphabet and Chinese hand scrolls. I am becoming addicted to everything about art, especially watercolour. I am using a version of the Inca knotted string khipu (quipu) to record the history of art. As many researchers suggest, the khipu is really nearer to writing than a pure mnemonic device.

I am also creating a personal ‘winter count’ based on the stunning mnemonic skins of the Plains Indians of North America. The one pictured below if the famous Lone Dog’s winter count. I am astonished how little of my life I could remember chronologically until I started this project. How much will this object help me hold onto my identity into very old age?

And every day I train for the Australian Memory Championships. Being old (I’m 65) does not mean a fading memory. I can now memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 12 minutes – way down from the 35 minutes just a month ago. I can memorise long strings of random numbers in decimal and binary and many other useless but surprisingly enjoyable feats.

Life is very good and I have all the readers of The Memory Code to thank!

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Memory Workshops – The Orality Centre

The Orality Centre will run the first workshops using indigenous memory methods on Saturday 17 June 2017.  All details are on The Orality Centre site including the link for bookings. For further information contact info@theoralitycentre.org. Click HERE or on the image to go to The Orality Centre.

The theft of a Zimbabwean heritage

“… the feeling of realising that just because your culture had no written text does not mean they did not pass down large amounts of knowledge is revolutionary.”

The above was in an email from Fadzai which brought tears to my eyes. If she was the only reader of The Memory Code, it would have been worth all the work. It was a privilege to meet Fadzai and her daughter in London in February.

This is her story.

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This evening I made a journey from Watford (near London) to Birmingham and I decided to listen to an audiobook to alleviate the tedium. I am hoping to improve my ‘artificial memory ‘ and find usable techniques to permanently remember large amounts of information, not just party tricks like decks of cards. It was in that hope that I downloaded ‘The Memory Code’ (using Audible). I have just arrived in Birmingham, so am nowhere near finished but I felt I had to write to you. I am so excited! I am excited not only because what you write about could be of practical use, but also because you reveal some profound truths.

I am from Zimbabwe and have very little, and only surface knowledge of my culture. It was systematically destroyed, partly by belittling it. It has been drummed into generations that before the English came we were dirty, stupid, illiterate (not non-literate) savages. Our ‘witch doctors ‘ peddled superstitious nonsense, our dances showed us to be licentious and the missionaries told us many of our practices were demonic.

When my grandmother died she said to make sure nothing ‘traditional’ was done at her funeral to be sure nothing ‘satanic’ happened so she could make it to the Christian heaven. Now as I approach middle age, I find out that there is more to it. Now you write and show that the fact we did not write things down, or invent central heating does not mean we are stupid. We had our own ways. Sadly they are largely lost but as you say, our forefathers would have died out long ago if they were stupid. And the fact that I have the same DNA but not the same knowledge shows that it is not some sort of ‘instinctual knowledge’ as was explained to put us almost on the level of animals. …

One of my favourite books is called Tigana. It is of the fantasy genre and not likely to win any literary acclaim but it affected me deeply. (Sorry to give a spoiler!) In a magical war, one prominent city was defeated and most of its population killed. The true pain was that the entire memory of the place was removed from the consciousness of everyone else. It became as if the city of Tigana had never existed. The vanquished king and the few survivors had to witness this, and though once from a great city they were now considered to be vagabond itinerants. I feel empathy for the characters because those events seem analogous to Zimbabwe’s fate, and the fate of many other oral cultures. Because, as you pointed out, the initiated are gone, the stories, histories and knowledge is also largely gone, only intermittent patches of these survive in a limited form. …

My maternal grandfather was a minister in the Dutch Reformed church, and as you can imagine of a minister’s daughter, my mother brought us up in a very religious way. … The family apparently adopted their surname some generations prior, when they adopted Christianity, to signify ‘they had now overcome death’. My paternal grandfather’s father (I believe) was the first to embrace Christianity. Their previous surname means ‘many deaths/many funerals’. There was apparently a curse on the family wherein for generations, the firstborn son of the family would always die as a child. My father, their firstborn son, was named ‘Tichaona’, which literally means ‘We shall see’. As in ‘We shall see if adopting Christianity lifts the curse’. He is still going strong in his sixties. My father’s survival was taken as evidence of the power of Christianity and cemented my Grandmother’s Christian faith and led her to funeral request. Many in Zimbabwe ‘hedge their bets’ and have both traditional and Christian rituals for funerals and it is a point of pride in the family that she did this. I never got to know her, unfortunately, even though my middle name is her name. We lived abroad for many years, and when I met her as a pre-teen, she had recently suffered a stroke and I was scared of her. I avoided being near her and she died in my late teens. I am deeply ashamed of this now, and although I have forgiven my younger self, it will not bring back her stories. She named my father’s first born son. My brother’s name is ‘Tinashe’, it is almost a talisman, warding off the evil eye and any curses, as it means ‘We have God here’.

I only speak Shona as a second language and often find it hard to understand. My parents did this with the best of intentions, they felt that by not teaching me Shona they would be putting me and my siblings at an advantage. My mum and dad would speak to each other in Shona, we would join in the conversation in English, speaking to each other in English. I know they were well-intentioned, but the result has been that I am a stranger in the Shona community as well as a stranger in the English one and am a perpetual observer, with no place that I ‘belong’.

Listening to your theory about Stonehenge and the oral mnemonics has opened up something in me. I cannot express it. The trendy phrase ‘paradigm shift’ feels a bit inauthentic, but the feeling of realising that just because your culture had no written text does not mean they did not pass down large amounts of knowledge is revolutionary. I once watched ‘Roots’ where Kunta Kinte had a genealogist recite a long list of his African ancestors, but I understood it to be some sort of ‘trick’ or ‘quirk’ not suggestive of a system of retention of knowledge.

Some general Zimbabwean cultural information you may find of interest if you do not already know it.

Totems:
One tradition we have retained is that of ‘totems’. Even modern Zimbabweans know what their totems are (mine is ‘heart’) and they are passed down from father to child. The significance is not clear, but it creates an ‘affiliation’ between people of the same totem, which crosses family or ‘clan’ loyalties. Special permission is needed to marry someone of the same totem and people are not supposed to eat the thing their totem is. Easier for those of ‘Elephant’ totem, harder for those of ‘Leg’ who are supposed to eschew drumsticks, and leg cuts of meat! It is for this reason I don’t eat haggis and black pudding, as they apparently have hearts in them. I claim ignorance as a defence when it comes to sausages and burgers!

Family Roles:
Within a family there are the same roles as within a western family; mother/father, child, spouse, grandparent, aunt/uncle. However, for a woman ALL of her sisters’ children are also her children, and for a man ALL the children of his brothers are his own. You are thus to consider the children of your mother’s sister or father’s brother as your own nuclear siblings. Your ‘aunt’ (mother’s sister) is your mother and your ‘uncle’(father’s brother) is also your father as much as your own parent is. It is even considered bad form to make distinctions, in the way a parent would be frowned upon if he says of a child he had raised from birth ‘that’s not my real child, it’s only a stepchild’. The interaction is as is usual between a western mother-child, siblings etc. The interesting part it’s the other side. If a man has a daughter, his own sister is considered an ‘elder sister’ to the girl and her role is to be a guiding force HOWEVER, never to disclose ‘secrets’ to the child’s parents, so similar to the sanctity of a priest’s confessional, or a client-solicitor privilege- This role is ‘Tete’. A woman’s brother has the same role for her sons and is called ‘sekuru ‘grandfather’- even though he is an uncle. With a girl and ‘Tete’ (i.e. her father’s sister) as they are ‘sisters’, Tete’s children are her children and they address her as ‘mother’, even though in English they are ‘cousins’. So for me, Tete’s children call me ‘mother’ but they call my brother ‘uncle’. It can get quite confusing but is taken very seriously. It can often cause offence when diaspora Zimbabweans return and do not express the ‘proper affection’ for a ‘child’, who to them is a cousin, or veneration for a ‘grandfather’ who to them is also a distant cousin. It is in fact a very empowering role for women. When one acts in the capacity of ‘Tete’, for example, you have authority over a man who may be chronologically older or of higher social standing. This is usually exercised in family disputes, marriages etc. Conversely, one gets to be a ‘grandchild’ and cossetted even if you are elderly, and your ‘grandfather’ is some decades younger than you. It allows people to wear different ‘hats’ at different times, and to take on different perspectives at the same time. Three factors are leading to its demise. Firstly, Urbanisation and distance – I do not really feel sisterly affection for second cousins I have rarely seen but am genuinely touched that they will be elated to see you and (sometimes literally) kill the fatted calf in your honour. Secondly is that some roles have been deliberately misinterpreted leading to abuse. One relationship exists which is ‘junior wife’. It is intended as a ‘protective’ role but has been exploited by some paedophiles. Thirdly, it is the general lack of understanding of the meaning of the roles and their function, together with westernisation which has led to many of them falling into disuse.

Witchdoctors:
As you rightly pointed out, the initiated are now few and far between, if at all any still remain. Into the vacuum left by these elders have come charlatans. Confidence tricksters who prey on the superstitious and charge high prices for ‘spells’, ‘good fortune’ etc. and are eschewed by anyone educated. Anyone who has studied the power of placebo can well understand the healing function they could have had. And the in Europe, the old wives’ brew of willow bark tea for pain was eventually synthesised into Asprin and I have no doubt the healers did similar things in Zimbabwe. An aunt once put some sap on a wart my brother had and it fell off a few days later!. I watched an episode of ‘Call The Midwife’ which I generally enjoy very much. They were in 1960s South Africa to help the poor, ignorant and helpless people deliver babies and treat disease. When pictures such as these are painted they do not take into account that traditional practices were wiped out, and the structures which would have addressed these problems no longer existed. The creation of a cash economy meant that people now needed (and wanted) to participate in the western economies. Men had to work miles away in the mines and in the cities. The girl who would have been trained to be a midwife was now a housemaid somewhere, and her garden-boy husband would have been the one with knowledge of how to dig wells. Deprivation and diseases caused by cramped living conditions which would not have existed for their ancestors are now considered part and parcel of being African.

Great Zimbabwe:
The thing most Zimbabweans have great pride in is Great Zimbabwe. It is from that the country gets its name and it means ‘Great house of stone’. It is an example of great architecture, and the function of some of the structures are still unknown. The remarkable thing about it is that the bricks have an interlocking structure, almost like Lego and have lasted for so many centuries, intact, without any sort of mortar, or cement. This type of construction has not been seen anywhere else. One hateful argument sometimes put forward is that the city must have been built by aliens, or non-indigenous people, as black Africans did not have the intellect to construct such a thing. In ancient times there was trade between Zimbabwe and the north. The name Shona, in fact means ‘Gold’ in a western language (I think in Portuguese?) and they were so named as they were producers of gold (and continue to do so to this day). In the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe there was found, tantalisingly, ancient Chinese pottery, suggesting interaction even with them.

Bonus – Conspiracy theory
I watched a documentary on Youtube, some years ago, I can’t remember the title. As you may know, the legend is that the Biblical King Solomon had a relationship with the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopians believe the queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian queen, and their religion states that she bore King Solomon’s son. In Zimbabwe, there have been for many generations African Jewish people. They observe many of the Jewish dietary and religious practices. There is an argument that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, some fled, together with the Ark of the Covenant to the Ethiopian Jews. They then migrated southward, ending up in Zimbabwe. The theory also argues that the Ark of the Covenant was in fact a large drum, carried on poles, and inside it was the ‘Holy of Holies. It was carried into battle and the sound of it being played struck terror into Israel’s enemies. This drum was at one point exhibited in the Harare National Museum. Some have argued that the misfortune that Zimbabwe has suffered is due to not returning this ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to Jerusalem.

You mention that ‘The key factor is the way indigenous memory systems ground the basic structure of information and then build it up layout by layer using all the range of memory techniques.’ I now wonder if the traditional childrens’ stories we have in Zimbabwe about ‘Rabbit and Baboon’ may be an element of this. You are right to harness the power of aural learning. We all know word for word the lyrics of pointless songs, anchored by catchy tunes. Using this capacity for useful information is something that should be embraced. The United Nations protects what it terms ‘cultural rights’ in its International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
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I greatly appreciated Fadzai taking so much time to write at length. I also appreciated learning more when we met.

So much has been lost. It is so sad that indigenous intellect has not been appreciated and the vast store of knowledge is now mostly gone.

 

Media descriptions of my work

I am finally home from the US and UK after travelling there for the publication of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books editions of The Memory Code respectively. I have a great deal to write as a result of the trip. All in good time!

It is always intriguing to read the way other writers interpret my work. Two of the longer media articles are worth referring to here.

Jim Rountree‘s article More Than Memory appeared in Australia’s most respected science magazine, Cosmos, in February. It is now available online. Not only does Rountree encapsulate my ideas in a more succinct way than I have ever managed to do, he also writes it beautifully as well. I am very flattered to have such a quality article about my ideas in such a quality magazine. (Click here or on image to go to the article).

The second was a long interview with Memory Athelete, Daniel Kilov. It appeared in the January / February edition of Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus and is now online at Daniel’s blog, Mental Athlete. (Click here or on image to go to the article).

 

 

 

Aboriginal affirmation at Coolum Beach

I was a guest at the inaugural Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writers Festival to talk about The Memory Code. I had no idea it would prove to be such an emotional time. The affirmation of my work by the Traditional Owners proved to be far more powerful than I could have expected.

coolum-welcome1We were welcomed to Gubbi Gubbi Country by Lyndon Davis and the Gubbi Gubbi Dancers. Festivals don’t start any better than this.

My time with Traditional Owner, Bridgette Chilly Davis (Dhdugga Kabi Kabi), was an emotional one for both of us and for the audience.

Bridgette talked about the songlines from the perspective of a Traditional Owner, what it was like to walk Country, to be in Country and to interact with the animals and plants in Country. She talked about the knowledge of the Old Ones and how it came to her so strongly when alone with them in the bush. She talked about the spiritual link, something I would not even pretend to be able to emulate.

I talked about the way that the songs, dances, stories and links to sacred places in Country act as an extraordinary memory aid to all the complex knowledge of the culture: animals, plants, genealogies, navigation, geology, seasonality and something I think I have greatly underestimated – the way it all links together. No animal is known without understanding its relationship to all the other animals and plants which inhabit that ecological niche and the seasonal cycle.

coolum-bridgette1 coolum-bridgette2

We answered a lot of questions from the audience, but throughout it was the connection to Bridgette and the Kabi Kabi knowledge which at times overpowered me. This is not the usual sensation of a science writer talking about a science book!

The most moving moment for me was when Bridgette told the audience “She really gets it! She really gets it!”. Members of the audience afterwards said they had listened to the Aboriginal stories and talk about Country many times but realised that they had not really understood that the connectives to Country was far more than just loving where they lived. My work acts as a segue to hearing what Bridgette was actually saying. How rewarding is that?

coolum-lyndon-davisLyndon Davis ran a session on Dreamtime story-telling talking about the Gubbi Gubbi stories and songs, all of them about Country, animals, plants, seasons and responsibilities for Country. One story tells of the way the pilot fish of the mullet leads the migration and must never be killed. The largest fish are left and the Maroochy River ran think with mullet. Of course, these laws are not respected by fishermen today and there are few mullet left. The timing of the fishing was linked to the behaviour of the sea eagles. The stories Lyndon told and performed all reflected the integrated pragmatic knowledge of our Aboriginal cultures. A second session with Lyndon was about the language and the way words reflect the behaviour of the animals, nature of the plants, calls of the birds and so on. And all is linked to place, song, story and mythology. Lyndon’s paintings also reflect the Gubbi Gubbi stories, in particular his use of the sea eagle and details in the designs.

coolum-daim-axe-helen-herbMy husband, Damian, is an archaeologist, and spent time examining an axe head with archaeologist Helen Coooke and Uncle Herb Wharton (for non-Australian, Uncle is a term of respect for Aboriginal Elders).

 

coolum-linda-kateThank you to the organisers for the invitation, in particular to Wendy O’Hanlon and Eileen Walder. Thank you also to the volunteers, especially Linda Morse and Kate Eagles.

 

Memory Code workshop

memory workshop

There has been a great enthusiasm from readers of The Memory Code to learn to create memory devices and implement them in their own lives. Twenty people gathered for the first workshop at Castlemaine Library on a Saturday morning. The goal was to learn two different methods inspired by indigenous knowledge experts.

The first technology was to imitate the memory board known as a lukasa from the Luba people of West Africa. Variations of memory boards are found all over the non-literate world. The first stage was to select pieces of wood which had interesting grain which could be used to enhance the visual location of each bead. Then about 120 beads were selected from a large selection, for looks and for touch. Each person chose the beads which most appealed to them. These were then glued onto the boards and left to dry.

library-lukasa-2 library-lukasa-3  library-lukasa-1

We then spent about half an hour creating a memory palace in the participants’ homes. They started encoding the countries of the world in population order to locations within their houses. One has reported back that she got the first 80 in within a week! The information about the countries in each location is infinitely expandable. See Memorising the Periodic Table for the method.

library-lukasa-6We then returned to the lukasas. Each participant had their own ideas about what information they were going to encode to their memory boards. These varied from birds, plants, Australian Prime Ministers and chemical elements to human anatomy. Each worked out the structure of the data they were using – some from sheets I had already prepared, some from lists or books they had brought. We have no elders to teach these things so have to rely on written records as the starting point. This followed the method I talked about in Memorising Birds.

The feedback has been fantastic. People have really engaged with the methods and discovered, as I have, that having information in memory enables you to see bigger patterns, to have the information readily available and ask new questions. And it’s so much fun!

See also:
My 25 Memory Experiments
Starting a Contemporary Songline
Memorising and Understanding History
Memorising Birds
Memorising the Periodic Table

Singing the land, signing the land

Singing the land, signing the land is written by Helen Watson with The Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and David Wade Chambers. Because the Yolngu community were so heavily involved, the content is an accurate reflection of the way they want their knowledge conveyed to the world.

This work was hugely influential on my thinking right from the start of my research journey. One click on the image and you will be there.
Yolngu knowledge

 

The launch is happening – June 30

The launch is now available for booking. The end of the long haul is really happening.

I will be giving a talk first on the memory methods and how to apply them in your own life.

launch-ad

So excited!