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).