The Common Good
February 2006

I Hope You Never Forget

by Molly Marsh | February 2006

Today's scrapbooks don't look a thing like our grandmother's albums.

Precious memories, unseen angels sent from somewhere to my soul,
How they linger ever near me and the sacred past unfold.
— J.B.F. Wright

When Joshua and the Israelites were nearing the end of their long journey to the Promised Land, the whole caravan stopped next to the Jordan River for the ancient equivalent of a “Kodak moment.” Per God’s command, 12 men, each representing a tribe of Israel, took 12 stones from the middle of the river. Joshua placed the stones at Gilgal, saying, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you...” (Joshua 4:21-23).

With the right technology, a group photographer might have arranged the Israelites in front of the stones, those in the back row with their arms around each other, their sweaty clothes and weary smiles conveying to future generations the exhilaration of the moment. Lacking photo albums, the Israelites instead relied on the 12 stones to help them remember this direct experience of God’s deliverance. The stones prompted the sharing of memories that in turn became a source of identity for those coming after them.

Although our modern-day versions of memorial “stones” come in more creative, and portable, forms—journals, videos, time capsules, audio recordings—we seem partial to scrapbooks and photo albums. The nearly $3 billion “scrapbooking” industry is ample evidence of our desire to remember and be remembered (that, and the power of marketing): A small empire of product suppliers, Web sites, magazines, “scrapper” forums, and even a television show (Scrapbooking, which airs on the DIY network) produces a constant stream of tips, ideas, and materials for preserving—and “enhancing,” as one retailer describes it—our memories.

Instead of slapping photos in an album, we frame them with gorgeous shades of marbled paper and write our captions in metallic ink. Toothy babies, prom dates, and graduates smile from beneath ribbons, beads, and vellum, attached to acid-free paper with glue dots and jewel craft wire. Five hundred years from now, archeologists uncovering these particular artifacts will conclude that we were a pretty crafty—and perfection-seeking—bunch. Oh, and happy.

But future scholars will learn a different, fuller story in the “scrapbooks” they find in Uganda and other countries with few resources to fight HIV/AIDS. These books—created with nothing more than a pen, exercise book, and maybe some photos and known as “Memory Books”—are written by parents or caregivers (usually women) dying of AIDS. They contain special memories and family history for the children they won’t see grow up. Some of the books also include practical details, such as wills and funeral arrangements.

The project was started by a retired British social worker in the early 1990s and brought to Uganda later that decade. It is used most heavily there—primarily by the National Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda (NACWOLA)—but people in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya have also adopted the idea. NACWOLA estimates it’s helped about 1,000 people complete memory books, each of which requires maybe $3 worth of materials (a substantial amount of money in areas where many live on less than $1 a day).

For some of the 12 million African children orphaned by AIDS, particularly those orphaned at infancy, the scrapbooks will be one of few ways they can learn about themselves and their history. Parents are encouraged to write about their children’s births and how they were named, the family’s faith traditions, what their kids liked to do, and who their grandparents were and where they came from.

“Our family, which is known as Mbari ya Wangombe, came from a village called Kihuyo in the Nyen District of central Kenya,” writes a mother to her son. Her memory book is excerpted in Henning Mankell’s I Die, But My Memory Lives On: The World AIDS Crisis and the Memory Book Project. “I hope you never forget when you were involved in the launch of Network of People Living with AIDS. You presented flowers to the American Ambassador Bushnell. I also presented a red ribbon to the ambassador to mark the good work of the HIV/AIDS campaigns.”

Using the most humble of materials, this mother records her deepest concerns: “Because I love you so much I want you to take close note of these words: ‘Keep away from AIDS.’ You know this already because you have seen what this disease has done to others and to us. But if you appreciate my love, you must obey me on this matter.”

These scrapbooks, like their more polished and glitzy cousins, are intended for a small circle of people, primarily direct descendants of the creators. The content and meaning they contain will be most important to them. But these books are also important social documents. The Israelites had a ready answer for the question, “What do these stones mean?” When our children ask what these memory books mean, and why so many were needed, what sort of answer will we give?

Molly Marsh is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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