MEMORIES WE LOST by Lidudumalingani Mqombofhi - Memories we Lost and Other Stories Study Guide

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About the Author

The author Lidudumalingani was born in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa in a village called Zikhovane.

Lidudumalingani is a writer, filmmaker and a photographer. He grew up herding cattle and moulding goats from clay and later grew fond of words and images.

He writes about music, art, culture and films for the Mail, Guardian and Africa is my country.

He has published in literature journals Chimurenga chronic and pufrock and the second short, sharp story collection Adults only.

He currently lives in Cape Town.

The Title

Memories we lost is a biography. The life of a sister seen by a younger sister.

The story is about mental illness and its effect.

It is first described as this thing that takes the narrator's younger sister. Over time it robs the sister of the ability to speak and remember hence the title Memories we lost. The title is a reflection of loss and regret.

The setting

The story is set in South Africa, indeed the author Lidudumalingani is a South African. A number of South African indigenous words are used in the story.

The plot

The story Memories we lost is about challenges brought by mental illness to the victim and those around them.

The mental illness is schizophrenia. It is a mental disorder characterized by many symptoms. It causes a breakdown in the relationship between thoughts, feelings and actions. There are many causes of the disease and hereditary is one of them. It's no wonder the disease runs in the narrator's family. The narrator's father was a scherophrene.

Events and actions in the story rotate around a sick sister. The sickness is terrifying and attacks without warning.

The narrator tells us that after the attack is over she would mumble a prayer and would embrace the sister for a long time. This suggests to the reader that the illness is horrific and painful. In one of these attacks the sick sister screams and disappears into, the night. All men and boys go out in search of her. The men or boys disoriented and peered shuffled in the dark and split into some groups as instructed by a man " Hours later they return but without the sister. It is the mother who returns the following day carrying the daughter.

In a different episode as the narrator is telling her sister a story, she is seized by an attack and knocks her head on the wall so much one so hard that she bleed profusely. An effort to shield her from doing this fails because of the abnormal strength that the sister has during an attack. The episode is so memorable to the mind of the narrator and says, "The smell of blood lingered after many sunsets had come; even after the rain had come "

The disease makes the sister violent and destructive. This is evident in a case where she flung a desk across a room smashing the glass window. In yet another moment of attack the ill sister pours hot porridge on the sister's chest causing her a lot of pain and harm. It is due to the disease that the narrator's sister drops out of school and cannot continue with her schooling 'This thing, this thing that took over her followed her to school and had to drop out ' This makes the narrator who loves the sister so much to absent himself from school. Eventually suffering the same fate The narrator spends much time with the sister playing eg drawing sketches. It is while narrator is in school that she learns about schizophrenia. She comes to understand that it is what the sister was suffering from. She further learns that there is not medication for the disease and has no cure. The medicine she was taking was of no help. The sisters secretly decide not to take the medicine anymore "The first thing my sister and I got rid of was her arsenal of medication "

Henceforth they buried all the herbs and the narrator demonstrated to the sister how to fake taking medication drinks.

Like any good mother, the mother has made many attempts to have the girl cured. She has used herbs, modern medication, prayers and even consulted.

The younger sister tries as much as possible to bring the sister to be her old self. In one such episode the sisters are playing in the rain. They are happy and the disease appears to have 'left' the sister " We jumped in the rain in that moment, my sister returned; she smiled and laughed. That day we began to form new childhood memories, filling the void left by one that had been wiped out "

The mother sees them in this state and she imagines that the disease was going to come again. She organizes for another ritual to cure the daughter. This time round she organizes for a Nkunzi (witchdoctor) from another village famous for baking people on a fire from cow dung and wood. The narrator is aware that effects of ritual is unknown as dangerous ritual and says "l had not heard anyone who had survived either " She could not allow this to happen to the sister. The both ran away to the unknown place. Just like the father before them the two sisters are escaping from their village and the people. The want to put enough distance between themselves and the home memories and secrets that stamp them as belonging to a family known for mental illness.

But at the end hope is on sight, for after walking the whole night they reached a town and a hospital in sight. They knowingly fifteen each other grip.



The narrator

She is a sister to the mentally ill sister. The narrator and the sister have no names because they symbolize or represent others like them who love and live with mentally ill relatives.

The narrator is loving or affectionate. She loves the mentally ill sister despite her state. This is unlike many families where the mentally ill have no one to take care of them. When the sister 'comes out' of an attack she is always there for her "The embraces I remember, were always tight and long as if she hoped the moment would last forever " There seem to be a very strong bond of love between the two sisters. 

The sibling's relation is loving and cordial. They even discuss their physical growth including the emergence of the sister's growth.

The narrator is curious inquisitive when she hears the mother and the uncle discussing the sister's illness in the morning she crouches near them to hear what they are saying. She is quite protective and protects the sister from the wrath of

Nkunzi a sangoma who 'bakes' patients with mental illness. They run away to another village. The narrator emphasizes with the sister. When called by an old aunt from the house, the narrator says, "we hugged tightly, my sister and I wiped each other's tears " She is inseparable from her sister, "the only way to have me turn away from her would be to cut us apart "

The narrator is courageous because she walks throughout the night with the sister alone in the villages as they are fleeing even with the dogs barking. She is religious and prayful. When the sister came out of an attack from mental attack she says "I stretched my arms out in all directions, mumbled two short prayers "

The sick sister

Most of the things we know about her are told by the sister.

She is mentally ill and because of this she is violent. She hauls a desk breaking the window in a class. She also violently harms herself by hitting her head against tree trump until she bleed. She pours hot porridge on her sister.

But she also loves and her relation to the sister is cordial and loving.

She is also secretive and emotional because she cries the whole night of the ritual but does not want the brother to know "...and she sunk her teeth in the pillow so that she would not cry.

The mother

She is determined. Her determination to have the daughter healed of the mental illness is admirable. She tries all forms of remedies including prayers, herbs, witchdoctors etc. We also see this determination when the daughter has a seize illness and runs away at night. All the men and boys return with the girl hopeless.

The mother comes far much later the following day after finding the daughter "...only returned home when the sun was up in the sky the next day, carrying my sister on her back.

She is a loving mother and her love is illustrated by the efforts she makes to make her daughter cured. She trys prayers, herbal medicine, modern medicine and witchcraft

She is paranoid fearful. On seeing her two daughters play in the rain she fears the disease might come back again, she calls the entire village for another ritual


The father

There is only a mention of the father. He was a schizophrenia just like the daughter is but nobody mentions it. He left one day never to come back.

He was this mysterious and escapist because he was running away from the village and the people.


Effects of mental illness

The author looks at mental illness and especially the effect on the victim and those living with a mentally ill person.

The mentally ill sister first loses her speech "The first thing that this took from us was speech " Pg 8. The sister is not coherent and speaks in a language that was unfamiliar, her words trembling as if trying to relay unthinkable revelations from the gods.

The disease has affected the thinking or the mental faulty of the sister in such a way that she cannot remember. Thus the disease takes away all her ability to remember "memories faded one after the other until our past was a blur"

Mental illness appears to have horrifying and dehumanizing effect on the victim. The attacks tear her apart so that when she regains herself she is totally different "Every time this nothing took her she returned altered, unrecognizable as if two people were trapped inside her.

The whole community is affected by mental illness. When the sister runs away due to the disease attack everybody is concerned and men.

The ritual to be performed by the Sangoma is attended by all the villagers showing it is a concern for everybody.

Mental illness

When the writer writes about mental illness the description is so vivid, It is as if you are right there with the victim. He describes this illnes, that the nameless protagonist calls this thing. Mental illness is a harrowing mindless and violent disease. It's not only the disease but the cure for the illness "The next day my sister would be taken to Nkunzi to be 'baked'. had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood and once the fire burnt red he would tie the demon possessed person into a section of the zinc rooting then place it on fire. He claimed to be baking the demons and that the person would recover from the burns a week later. I had not heard of anyone who died but I had not heard of anyone who lived either "The reader is saddened by the fate of those African countries who suffer fro mental illness, how they are caught in violent superstition.

The story brings out the reality in any African countries where ther are no facilities for the mentally ill. What serves as cure is often times cruel beyond telling of it. The mother does not understand why the same disease that afflicted her husband now afflicts her daughter. She doesn't know the disease is hereditary. People had come to believe that baking people from a fire by cow dung and wood would release them off demons. This leads death of patients rather than cure them "I had not heard of anyneo who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either "

Love and Empathy

Memories we lost is a troubling piece depicting the great love between two siblings in a beautifully drawn landscape. Memories we lost is more than a story about mental illness. It between siblings who show great love and feeling toward other despite their faults. The narrator organizes for her and her sister to flee not only she cannot allow her sister to be 'baked' but helps her to run from the village to escape the embarrassment as shame of the ritual.

Ignorance and superstition

The elders refer to the disease as this thing and say it is the work of the devil and demons. Narrator says, "None of them knew my sister; none of them cared " The villagers are ignorant of the fact that the disease as a medical condition and should be treated as such.

Stylistic devices


The writer uses powerful images with the writings that are inspiring. The mental illness is not called by the name but this thing to show how embarrassed and shameful it is but also to portray ignorance of a community. The team returning from the search is described as 'morphed into defeated men' and 'their bodies slouched as if they had carried a heavy load 'to show the fatigue and frustration after the search from the sick girl. The modern building and a hospital that the narrator and the girl see after a sign of hope that finally the sister might be cured of her disease. After the sister hits her head on a tree continuously and she bleeds, the narrator says the bloodstain remained visible on the wall long after my mother scrubbed it off; long after she had applied three layers of mud and new water paint. The writer shows how horrible the incident was and that it will never be scrubbed in the narrator's memory.

Use of symbolism

The disease symbolizes a nation that once suffered schizophrenia of apartheid and just like the sister the country is trying to understand it and cure it. The nation is trying to understand and heal a national disorder. After the night's sleep, the sister will wake up once the sun is up and walk again to somewhere. This symbolizes a better South Africa.

Use of satire

Both the community and the religion are satirized for instead looking for a cure the community goes for medication that is very dangerous like calling the Nkunzi to 'bake' a living person. This endanger the girl more than cure her.

Religion is also satirized because even after much prayer it is providing a solution.

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