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.