In A Mouth Sweeter than Salt, Toyin Falola brings to ebullient life a vanishing universe of orality in Ibadan, southwestern Nigeria, during the height of colonial consolidation. That world is rich, evocative and filled with poetry, nostalgia and nobility. The world of western literacy intrudes rudely in this seemingly somnambulant world as a piercing blare of lights into a self-contained microcosm.
Colonialism did not seek to understand or communicate with this fading indigenous universe. It was much too arrogant and too distant to even acknowledge it on its own terms. Instead it sought to denigrate and destroy every characteristic that defined it; its myths, spirituality, institutions, social practices, values and customs. Colonialism turned its back on all of these and much more and then many of its misbegotten offspring became afflicted with the curse or at least burden of ambivalence which when dissected for what it truly is becomes more than just the malaise of indecision.
Positioned upon the cusp of a turbulent yet receding age, Falola is able to capture the spirit of the enchanting and inimitable novels of D.O. Fagunwa, a universe filled with embodied as well as disembodied spirits, ogres inhabiting multiple spheres and earth-shaking events propelled by the ostensibly simple as well as grandiose tussle between good and evil.
Colonialism and western modernity did much to extinguish that unique ambience which amounted to a deep and irrecoverable loss of collective identity just as different knowledge systems, values and customs were either lost, fundamentally altered or watered down into harmless replicas.
In moments of undeniable confidence, the multivalent oral world Falola evokes turns and twists in sharp, precise bursts but at other moments, it also drifts like wisps of smoke flagging off the disappearance of that very same world.
Perhaps even more than Chinua Achebe, Falola successfully delves into the heart of an indigenous African language, Yoruba, to revive its bounce, magic and innate rhythmic cadences. Achebe had complained in an interview granted to The Paris Review that the missionaries who translated the English bible into Igbo had murdered the fluidity of the language and had come up with a wooden version of it. In essence, written Igbo had been transformed to an unyielding bureaucratised relic of the original spoken dialect.
Yoruba, in Falola’s hands, meanders like tributaries away from its primal source to sing of its ancient glories and those of uncorrupted earth. When one senses the unfettered flow of a re-vitalised language even within the dominant strictures of a hegemonic idiom, one also feels the jubilation of the ancestors in connecting with the resumed current of life; for the spoken word is life and life feels most free when it emanates from the deepest, warmest bowels of language.
Ibadan, the city of Isola (one of Falola’s numerous names), developed from being a war camp in the 1820s and was deservedly blessed with many renowned warriors. And in order to understand this historic city and its indigenes, it is necessary to know what Mesiogo means: “Mesiogo is a combination of two words pronounced as one, actually two words that should have been hyphenated in order to prevent confusion. Mesi is “to reply,” but it is more than that; it is to be very quick to reply. Ogo means “a fool,” someone stupid. In combination, Mesiogo communicates an ability to reply quickly to a fool, with actions and words that will communicate or disguise intentions” (p.73).
Proverbs, for the Mesiogo, represent the wings of conversation. Proverbs are not only replete with conceit, irony, delightful contradictions and conceptual resolutions; they are also repositories of folk wisdom, historical truths and powerful cultural markers. As such, they define and constantly refine the limits of collective identity. Falola employs them liberally: “White teeth do not mean the mouth would not smell”(p.165), “her tongue was a horse and she knew how to ride it” (p.168), sounds proverbial, “ a man dashed to the floor by affliction should expect other insults to follow” (p.181), “he who marries beauty can marry trouble” (p.186), “ a village cock knows not to crow in the city” (p.190), and “a roaring lion kills no game” (p.371).
Yoruba folklore is incomparably rich and riddled with fables about abiku, emere, ogun owo, awure (some of which will be explained later), etc. The appeal of Falola lies in deftly conjuring that enchanted world to life. When that precarious world manages to breathe, modernity comes across as a brutal, drunken destroyer and as an insensitive substitute for a largely concealed universe of speech and belonging carefully arrayed by meaning, metaphor and symbolism. Modernity is, to be sure, homogenising in its basic tendency while Falola’s world embroiders and celebrates alterity and all the other subdued attributes that ostensibly undercut modernity’s unparalleled dominance.
Unquestionably, the myths and history woven in Ibadan’s antecedents possess epic resonance. The first leaders of the burgeoning settlement summoned a babalawo (a priest of Ifa) to offer revelations as to its future. The babalawo in turn demanded two hundred snails which were released in all directions. The numerous trails came to signify the rapid growth of the war camp into West Africa’s largest city in the nineteenth century the and global dispersal of its sons and daughters from the twentieth century onwards. Ibadan has also become a magnet for people from far-flung regions of the globe.
When Isola Oloruntoyin Falola was born, the significance of the event was well registered in his community. Prayers offered by all and sundry to Olorun, the supreme Godhead, to grant him “force, energy, vitality, power and drive.” Olorun was also entreated to bestow the new born child with other gifts besides. The prayers offered at Falola’s birth were communal in nature with the effect of binding him fundamentally to his community’s values and customs.
The wanderlust lodged in the hearts of the Mesiogo first manifested itself in the nine year old Falola who stole upon a train heading north towards Ilorin. At Ilorin, he disembarked and was quickly employed by a much older man who pretended to be a blind beggar. Falola survived for several days by serving as a pilot for the “blind” beggar until he was discovered by vigilant post office workers and promptly returned home.
Ilorin, in conceptual terms, is similar to the Mesiogo due to the ability of its indigenes to construct sentences with diverse meanings. The art of doublespeak is a much-valued conversational as well as actual weapon of choice.
Deceit and chicanery are ingrained in Ilorin’s making as a city. In the early nineteenth century, Afonja, the are ona kakanfo (the generalissimo) of the Old Oyo empire rebelled against the Alafin (the king). The Alafin plotted without success to have Afonja killed. Afonja, on his part, enlisted the support of Muslim jihadists from the north. The once powerful Oyo empire was repelled by the jihadists who subsequently rebelled against Afonja after which they took over Ilorin as the new rulers of the land.
Ilorin, as a result, became Islamised, prompting the crusading jihadists to venture southwards towards Oyo. The shrinking empire was able to resist the onslaught in 1840 until Christian missionaries emerged a decade later to spread the gospel of Christianity in the unIslamised parts of Yoruba land.
The traditional Yoruba cosmos apart from being gingerly held together by multiple myths, proverbs and gods, is also a universe of countless charms, incantations and transitional beings which have the power to paradoxically conceal as well as reveal its special cultural magic.
When Falola unexpectedly returns from his solitary trip to Ilorin, he is called an emere, “a child who could come and go at will, an unpredictable sojourner among the living” (p.124). An emere is not to be confused with an abiku who never hides his/her intention to depart from this world at a sudden moment. An emere, on the other hand, due to his/her secrecy prevents his/her parents from warding off death with the power of “the ase (verbal commands to ward off death), the ofo (spells to fight the messengers of death on the way to kill the child), and the ogede (powerful incantations)” (p.125).
As Falola writes, “an emere was a spirit in disguise, misrepresenting death as life” (p.126). The emere sought to perpetuate the cosmic tussle between Heaven and Earth in which death was decreed to be the umpire whereas an abiku longed for an existence in the after-life as opposed to here in the material world.
One way of observing modernity’s disruptive intrusiveness is in the age long African practice of naming. The European equivalent clearly was not in consonance with African traditions in which clan names such as in the form of the Yoruba oriki, local mores and belief systems are inflected with a depth and resonance that obviously no longer exist in the contemporary western conception.
Christianity and modernity generally failed to understand, let alone successfully translate, the nuances and complexities of African practices of naming. In Yoruba culture, each individual possesses an oriki which usually amounts to a series of eulogistic verses and epithets that ordinarily resist the abridged codification of first names and surnames.
In order to overcome this conceptual difficulty, modern authorities simply named some Africans after the villages or settlements from which they originated. Oftentimes names such as Ifalolawa had to be shortened to Falola to suit the modern palette.
African clan names are as elaborate and as impactful as epic poetry and modern naming traditions can only be but a shocking abridgement or vulgarisation of them. Names pay homage to forebears, re-kindle ancient ties with culture and language and energise personal and collective communion with the land in a cosmic continuum linking the past, present and the future. The power and practice of naming connote of all these and much more besides and isn’t to be considered as simple or to be equated with naming a cat or a dog. The act of naming necessarily enacts the profound ritualisation of existence in its grandeur and unfathomableness. It also entails the celebration of life and the heart-breaking phenomenon of death.
Polygamy in the modern context has been squarely vilified and rejected as an unfit way of life. But in the traditional Yoruba setting, it isn’t always dysfunctional. In fact, it was often employed as a means of fostering wholesome communal living and ethos and served as an antidote to capitalist greed and heedless individualism in which progress is judged solely from the point of view of unqualified self-advancement.
Female power in an organised polygamous homestead was clearly demarcated. The iyale or the most senior wife convened meetings with her co-wives regarding the settlement of household disputes, organising the preparations of meals, household chores and the supervision of the children. So organised was Falola’s original polygamous home that he didn’t discover his mother’s true identity until 1963 when he was about ten years old. She had left earlier to remarry after her husband’s death and in lieu of her care, love and support, Falola had been reared by his father’s other wives and elder brothers’ spouses. When asked as a boy how his mother was he invariably replied, “they are home.”
After his father’s death when Falola moved to Ode Aje- literally compound of posterity- he realised his new playmates identified more with their clans and homesteads rather than with their parents underlining the communal ethos that governed, protected and cemented the community over and above the nucleated family unit. In Ode Aje, Christians, Muslims and adherents of Orisa spirituality mostly had more than one wife with only a minority who chose to be monogamous.
Under late capitalism and the prevailing notions of extreme individualism, polygamy is considered detrimental to family life and has come to be perceived as the destroyer of the communal bond whereas historically, it had been deliberately crafted to represent and enhance it.
Falola is marvelous in unobtrusively conveying the wealth of various forms of knowledge amassed and circulated in polygamous settings. Joys, misfortune, triumphs and defeats are collectively shared thereby lessening the burdens of the individual and each age grade- be it the husband’s mother’s older brother’s or sister’s- is in possession of specific kinds of knowledge and wisdom that they invariably impart on younger siblings and household members usually at a price; rigorous standards of discipline and obedience as well as good behaviour. However, this merely happens to be an instance where polygamy works.
At Ode Aje, the young Falola began to observe the bleak and unsavoury aspects of the practice which is likened to brutish survival in the jungle. At Ode Aje, the father is deemed to be distant, generally unavailable due to spreading himself too thinly and therefore readily dispensable as attested to by insightful Yoruba proverbs. The mother, on the other hand, is duly esteemed for possessing formidable reserves of patience, perseverance and loyalty.
Iya Aladie, who was supposed to be Baba Olopa’s- Falola’s father’s cousin- senior wife had lost her authority after a divorce. She had remarried and then returned to Baba Olopa after her marriage had broken down to be with her son. On her return, she wasn’t treated like a wife and had to plead for sex from Baba Olopa who was preoccupied with his younger and more desirable wives.
The vacuum created in the absence of a senior wife’s authority resulted in a measure of liberty which played out well for Baba Olopa’s patriarchal dominance to take root. And as Falola notes, “polygamy is like government: the forms and goals are not always the same” (p.215).
Indeed there is a “model of polygamy” that allowed women a considerable degree of agency, autonomy and flexibility. This is usually to be found in Muslim households where women were set up in business by their husbands and as they gained more economic power, they became increasingly concerned with growing and maintaining that power whilst the significance of their husbands might diminish conversely. If both the husbands and wives of this model of polygamy were astute enough, they could dramatically augment the entrepreneurial competencies and economic reach of the family.
There is a category of women called dalemosu. These are divorced women in transit who readily dispense with advice regarding the travails of marriage to other women and constitute a subversive margin at the very heart of patriarchy. In order to ensure their freedom from patriarchal structures and expectations, the dalemosu cultivate feminine wiles to deflect or blunt the unwanted gaze of masculine power.
In relation to the offspring of a polygamous home; “the success of children was not tied to the mothers who produced them… as no one knew the good sperm from the bad, the same penis that produced a thug produced a judge. The vagina was a messenger, with no control over what came out of it” (pp.224-225).
One of the most interesting characters in Falola’s narrative is an elderly woman, Leku, the short form for Iya Lekukeja who had introduced him to “the mysterious world of herbs and magic, secrecy and healing” (p.290). He had initially mistaken her for an iwin, a fearsome spirit that dwelled in the forest, caves, tree hallows, the sky and the underworld and which could be both benign or evil.
Leku sold a wide variety of herbs, roots, barks, animal specimens and medical portions for healing. Also included in her wares were charms for evil. Although Leku was not a diviner or charm maker with specialist knowledge to ward off witchcraft, sorcery and evil generally, she possessed an immense knowledge of traditional pharmacology. When she died, this considerable knowledge went with her to the grave as she had no apprentice to carry on with her trade.
Indigenes of Ode Aje drew upon its formidable reservoir of esoteric knowledge, charm makers, olosanyins and babalawos to navigate the challenges of marriage and securing success. In order to win love, secret portions were made. Also, to prevent the loss of it, other powerful portions such as magun were concocted.
Falola once engaged in a scheme to make a girl fall in love with one of his school mates and made the terrible mistake of seeking Leku’s help. Leku reported the devious plan to his mother and grandfather but that was not the end of it. She had to enact a special ritual to purge his mischievous little head of evil thoughts. Part of the ritual entailed stripping naked before him and his family and washing her shriveled breasts and vagina into a bowl and then forcing him to guzzle its contents.
Leku lived a hermetic, ascetic and spiritual existence largely in silence or she could be found communicating with the gods, admonishing witches and extolling the virtues and healing properties of herbs. For Falola, even in the epoch of post-feminism, Leku remains a supreme figure of female power.
From another perspective, Falola’s description of the meaning, significance and symbolism of the annual Okebadan Festival is quite fascinating. The carnival is meant for the venerated Oke (hill) of Ibadan to shower its blessings on indigenes of the city. These blessings usually take the form of abundant rainfall to increase agricultural produce as well as human fertility. Rain becomes a metaphor for sex or sperm.
Indigenes indulge in ribaldry and vulgarity referring to male and female reproductive organs continually in a communal celebration of excess and fertility. The festival has the ultimate effect of binding indigenes to gods, ancestors and the elements that facilitate productivity and fertility in a grandiose public display of communion and celebration.
In Yoruba cosmology, concepts such as ayanmo, ori and kadara, which can be vulgarly translated to the western philosophical concept of determinism play a pivotal role in understanding the limits and possibilities of an individual. Another important concept is iwa (good character), which has the power to shape the course of an individual’s growth and prospects.
In Ibadan as in other parts of Yoruba land, history, culture and courage are highly valued generally. Early in life, boys begin to hone their skills at verbal jousting in which quickness of wit and a versatile and boundless imagination are well regarded gifts.
Even when Falola is portraying the material poverty of his childhood days at school, it isn’t the material conditions that stand out but the astonishing richness of the entire learning experience peppered with uplifting songs and hymns together with rigorous exercises in socialisation both formal and informal and the development of an assorted range of skills for the general preparation for life in an intricate and close-knit community. What the community and children lacked in material means was more than made up for in terms of emotional and cultural preparedness which ultimately paved the way for a more rounded human being.
As a boy, Falola was perceptively nicknamed akowe (scholar) – sometimes taking the lead parts in school drama productions. Having many mothers in his father’s household created a measure of distance that granted him an outsider status, a positionality that must have aided his scholarly vocation. When he left his home for Baba Olopa’s residence, his status as an outsider became sealed forever. As suggested earlier, this gave him a vantage point in which to undertake critical evaluations of social formations, navigate fractious political terrain and ultimately transform outsiderness into a source of both hard-nosed rationality and mental nimbleness. What others might consider as permanent banishment and emotional impoverishment are transformed into a capacity to reflect upon, and appreciate, a vast kaleidoscope of cultural norms and perspectives.
It is remarkable the way in which Falola burrows deep into Yoruba culture and cosmology and scoops up his finds in a manner that showers them with dignity and allows them to dazzle and shine. This is in spite of the fact he is immersed in several worlds; indigenous and modern, oral and written, the phenomenal and epiphenomenal or the known and the unknown. He has also managed to calibrate the modalities of each of these worlds without undermining the significance of any. However this fluidity can be taken as unforced truth- that is truth revealed without perspiration- and the absence of often necessary contradiction. In other words, Falola’s sentences sing and sizzle with the freedom of a lark making the world he so powerfully evokes, a monument of incontrovertibility.
The innocence and overwhelming simplicity of an indigenous world only peripherally touched by modernity is quite intriguing in which the connection between (wo)man and nature seem to reveal what is of utmost importance in existence: birth, life, work and death. The courage, flair and imagination with which one confronts each of these categories is what determines one’s worth as an individual. And ultimately the success of an individual is largely dependent on his/her success in strengthening the community. This reality becomes quite clear in the microcosms of Agbokoje and Ode Aje, Falola’s homesteads in his formative years.
Falola’s excellent familiarity with -what in the western sense would amount to animism but should really be described as- traditional Yoruba spirituality, Christianity and Islam developed an already naturally inquisitive intellect. This background also reflects the profound creed of tolerance to be found in large parts of Yoruba culture which evidently welcome possibilities of accommodating multiple ethnicities as well as cosmologies.
It soon becomes apparent that capitalism and excessive materialism are destroyers of culture and meaningful rituals of existence. Material culture built largely by intensive capitalism frowns upon, and ignores traditions that prefer to move according to the patterns and seasons of nature. It is a tragedy that the depth of subsistence cultures is often lost along with the knowledge of communities that manage to thrive for a while upon an anti-capitalist paradigm.
In the fables, mores and histories of Ibadan are to be found the foundational myths and archetypes of the entire humankind; the mutually reinforcing relationship between (wo)man and nature, the dawn of spirituality and religion, the pantheon of gods, the cult of the ancestors and the primordial links between the living, the dead and the unborn, the ever-wondrous phenomenon of life and the agony and mysteries of death. There is very little of vital significance that lies beyond all of these but the ruthless advance of material culture has ended up evolving numerous distractions to blur what is important in life and the skewed perception of death. Even if their material poverty is considerable, the outlaying villages of Ibadan have much to teach about the grandeur of existence and the elemental simplicities that should attend to it.
Falola’s effortless excavations of arresting swathes of a vanishing oral world are a constant delight. The results ought to have profound effects on African history and literature. His power stems from possessing a deep knowledge of Yoruba culture and language and then he also has proficiency with the English language to navigate the conundrums of biculturalism and bilingualism. As Abiola Irele, the distinguished literary scholar notes, the mastery of a language isn’t merely what it seems but is also essentially about gaining entry into the mysteries of an entire civilisation.
For a writer or scholar who isn’t sufficiently culturally and linguistically proficient, the outcome is likely to be stodgy and uninspiring and in most instances, this would to be case; truncated and frozen portraits of collective memory as well as mutilated snippets of African reality. And not unexpectedly, such portraits rather than shed light on interesting currents of African life, history and culture only end up denying the existence of them, or at least, minimising their significance. Falola’s work totally discredits the validity of such misleading portraits.
The most gripping aspect of Falola’s work is the almost magical unearthing of a partially submerged world. The known world isn’t full of surprises once known. The work ineluctably shimmers with the promise of discovering a cosmos akin to Atlantis; a mythical, erased world existing outside the confines of the text, bearing its own attractive cultural imprint and history and which gloriously emerges suddenly within the ambit of a familiar language-English. Such an unanticipated appearance is truly remarkable in which Falola acts as a messenger between two apparently irreconcilable worlds; one a fast fading precolonial world and the other, the world of modernity together with its stark, transparent properties. The latter must know, name and codify that which fervently resists it.
It is tempting to place A Mouth Sweeter than Salt above even Things Fall Apart. The latter book unveils a rich and complex world that unravels under the onslaught of colonialism. There is thus a slightly unmediated undercurrent of loss and ruefulness that runs through it. But A Mouth Sweeter than Salt celebrates vast, unexplored reaches of culture that have managed to resist erasure by colonialism. The worlds of Agbokojo and Ode Aje are vibrant and redolent with wisdom, eloquence, language and symbolism. In these textured worlds, colonialism appears to be a minor and distant bureaucratic intrusion unable or ill-equipped to plunge into the often limitless depths of the culture; a culture layered intricately with history, language and imagination and which under the rusted roofs of historic Ibadan with its numerous unmotorable paths lies hidden from view with dust and debris as if to protect its delicacy under the brutal leveler termed modernity.
The universe Falola describes asserts itself without apology amid the sometimes disruptive waves of modernisation occurring all around it. It is a world that “the deaf and unseeing” would miss in pronouncing it as the absolute other, and negation of western modernity. It is a world that prompts hegemonic knowledge not only to deny it but also to destroy it. And this is both its tragedy and perhaps also, its greatest triumph.
The same/other dichotomy enforced by the colonial diktat which seeks to freeze the postcolonial subject permanently in stasis is deftly set aside for a different order of conceptual arrangement in which through the colonial lens, a concealed and partly unknown world rises and speaks in an autonomous language to the consternation and perhaps even despair of colonial ears.
Toyin Falola, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir, Bookcraft: Ibadan, Nigeria, 2013.