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Boeke | Books > Rubrieke | Columns > English > African Library

''A Mouth Sweeter than Salt wonderfully entertaining and unobtrusively instructive''

Annie Gagiano - 2008-10-29


A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir (2004)
Author: Toyin Falola
Format: Softcover
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
ISBN: 9780472031320
Click here to purchase your copy from Kalahari.net.

Toyin Falola is a renowned scholar - famous for his wide-ranging work as a historian of Africa. I break the pattern of introducing fictional texts in this column because Falola's childhood memoir is such an irresistible, vivid and significant piece of writing. While Falola narrates his own childhood experiences, he is also evoking the birth and early growth of a brilliantly perceptive social historian - adding on to, but without violating the boy's gaze, the adult scholar's more developed analytical abilities, since he evidently understood more, later, of what he had seen and noticed as a child. Since his boyhood and its shift from an inner-city location to the city's outskirts and a closer connection with peri-urban village life in the primarily Yoruba city of Ibadan allows a gradual expansion and deepening understanding of familial and regional cultural practices and personages, at the time when colonial rule is ending and Nigerian independence is established, Falola's text is also a history of a beloved and influential city (Ibadan) and (almost incidentally) a history of political and economic transition in Nigeria. Both hybrid modernities and powerful, persistent cultural and spiritual practices are exhibited to the boy's fascinated gaze, and unforgettably recorded by the mature writer. Each chapter moves from observation to meditation, the first considering the importance and the many different meanings of "Time and Season".

Although the arrangement of the ten chapters of this memoir is primarily chronological, Falola has also selected and presented his material in terms of topical focal points. The first chapter begins with an attempt to pinpoint the narrator's father's birth date - expanding the discussion by considering the differences between communal and scientific data storage. A "simple" request for a date and a time opens the door to recognising the embeddedness of individual existence within the multiple cultural and historical secrets, myths and loyalties of a close-bound, extended family. Not to find (or to be denied) what you were looking for may lead to the unexpected discovery of a great many other and probably more significant things. In this still vibrant traditional community it is an accepted saying that "the educated man is a clown" (2) - a fool rushing in to break open and expose closely guarded knowledge of a different order. "As Africans were being asked about birth certificates," writes Falola, "they were moving into a different world, one in which the purposes of season and time are not always the same as their reality" (11).

The second chapter is really (implicitly and explicitly, like many other sections of the book) a hymn to the famous city of Ibadan, recognising with pride the reputation of its inhabitants for quick-wittedness and belligerence. The narrator notes that, unlike most other Yoruba centres, "Ibadan first modernized itself before settling for traditions" (35). The tradition that particularly interests Falola is the city's old insiders' capacity for ambiguous and skilfully manipulative speech. Indeed, the whole book is peppered with proverbs and witty sayings, such as "whoever thinks everyone is good has not traveled much" (45), or "it is hard to wake up a person pretending to be asleep" (51). Skill in speech in this society is, as the boy experiences and the man explains, essential to successfully negotiating one's way within this "highly stratified society" (52). Falola redefines diaspora as expansion from a strong centre (resulting inter alia in his own present residence in the USA) rather than dispersal due to the collapse of a deprived or weak area of origin.

Falola's adventurous boyish inquisitiveness leads him at a very early age to discover something of the world's wide possibilities and its multifariousness. Fascinated, like all the little boys around him, by the power and newness of the railway, he goes daringly further than anyone else by actually getting into a carriage and is (literally!) carried away - to another city. The delightful thing is that the boy is never frightened or worried, despite the obviously huge risks of his position.

The city in which he boy finds himself after being kicked off the train for not having a ticket, is Ilorin:

Ilorin, the city of Afonja
The mouth is much sweeter than salt
Only the person with two mouths can live in Lagos
One needs four mouths to live at Oyo
At Ilorin, the city of Afonja
Only the person with eighteen mouths can survive. (64)

Here, too, there is an evident emphasis on and pride taken in skill and complexity of speech, and an association with Afonja (the military leader) of the Old Oyo Empire. Ilorin is a city on the rim of the Yoruba-dominated area, with a much larger Hausa and Fulani (ie Northern Nigerian) presence than the boy is used to. He does not starve in the strange environment, though, but is employed as the assistant of a beggar - a man who fakes blindness. When the boy (after what seems to be about a month!) approaches a mailman about sending a letter to his home, his truancy is exposed and he is forcibly returned to his shocked family: dirty and thin, but not otherwise much the worse for wear!

The exposure to the train (brought by the British colonists) gets the narrator thinking about the technological modernisation of the Yoruba cities and how his own father, an "English" tailor and radio repairer, had one foot in the "old" world and one in the new, and accordingly owned homes in both spheres. The city house had multiple lodgers, used pidgin as a lingua franca, and had (besides Yoruba speakers) some Itsekiri and Igbo tenants. So here, too, the boy's world was neither monocultural nor monolingual.

The boy's home is to him the source of meals - he can never get enough, sneaking into different "meal parties" to obtain extra food - as well as night-time shelter and assigned errands. Since his father died when he was tiny, the authorities at home are the "Mamas". He has no idea which of them is his own mother, only learning much, much later that she had left the home when his father died. He is entirely secure at home and at school (where he does well), but then he is obliged to move to his father's family's ancestral home nearer the older outer rim of the city.

It is 1963: he is ten years old and his father's will has only now been settled - he is to live with his father's brother's son, a police officer. Here, the only language is Yoruba, although English is the language of the school. What softens the blow of having to move from (as he at first believes) the company of city sophisticates to an existence among country bumpkins, is that he is an instant hero at the new school as a boy who can narrate Indian and American Western movie plots and who has an "urban glamour".

But young Falola soon discovers that the new location has its own sources of fascination. And it, too, is diverse, though in a different way: "Ode-Aje [the new area] was religiously plural, with more Muslims than Christians, and with ‘pagans' allowed to practice their religions undisturbed" (117). Here, there are "cults and masquerades, ... magic and witchcraft." The boys whom he befriends in the new place are associated with their clans, and (as the narrator beautifully puts it) "each had its reservoir of history, its long cognomen, and its pride" (119). The boy's new guardian practises a type of "open door" polygamy - divorcing several older wives over time and bringing new ones into the family's two-storey home. The boy Toyin begins to study the phenomenon of polygamy in its various forms. He sees that in some cases, the women can achieve power and independence from this basis, becoming wealthy traders and owning businesses and homes. Yet he observes, too, the anguish and trouble the practice often causes married women, and the bitter contestations that can ensue.

The nuanced way in which Falola assesses social and cultural forms can be gauged by the following description of one wife's experience of the sudden "introduction" of a pregnant rival (who is set to become "her" second wife): "The one [such event] I first witnessed was amusing when it happened, cruel when I thought about it, callous when I analyzed it, and brilliant when I put it in context, and it will appear gracious when I reveal the final outcome" (132).

He is also aware (and says bluntly) that "a strong male conspiracy has ensured that divorce and inheritance laws favor men and reinforce conspiracy" (135).

If "male superiority" is hegemonic in Ode-Aje, however, the boy Toyin knows that over half of his classmates thought their fathers "dispensable" and "regarded their mothers as their heroes" (136).

For boys at Ode-Aje, young Toyin discovers, the two means to power are either winning in wrestling bouts or excelling in verbal warfare. Since his relatively puny stature rules out the first, he concentrates on honing his verbal dexterity - this ranges from "insult competitions" to wooing a desirable girl (not that he is yet "interested in girls", but he will assist a love-stricken friend's wooing campaign). He also mixes freely with Muslim boys and attends religious celebrations with them, just as they join him at Christian events. "If the adults were eager to reach God," writes Falola, "we were interested in bonding with human beings" (143).

The theme of social transition during the fifties and sixties subtly links the many strands and moments of Falola's narrative. At Ode-Aje, for instance, he observes his schoolmates' abandonment (in their future plans) of the traditional agriculturally oriented professions in favour of more "modern" professions. Girls, however, are seldom educated, and are expected to find "an occupation or a husband or both" soon after completion of their primary education, if they even had that (155). But the boy notices that women do often have unofficial power in a "band" with their own children, even in polygamous households, whereas divorced women, or dalemosu, are frequently successful in official or unofficial business ventures. The "laboratory of cultures" (161) at Ode-Aje includes a huge set of taboos, most of which exist for sound practical reasons.

But his deepest immersion in the more esoteric reaches of Yoruba culture occurs in Toyin's slowly growing association with a tenant in their compound, Iya Lekuleja. The first part of her name is the proper honorific for an older woman, but Leku (as he more usually refers to her) comes to represent his concept of female power and ancient earth-bound as well as spiritual knowledge. Leku, whom he initially mistakes for a ghost, is a solitary figure; as a purveyor of herbs and other ingredients for medicines and charms, she is awesomely knowledgeable as well as a distinctly frightening person. His fascination with and respect for her gradually earn him her strange friendship and a protective affection that does not exclude harshly punitive treatment, when deserved.

Leku is a remarkable presence in this text, and its most powerful female figure. An encounter with her which ends in some quite horrible curative and disciplinarian treatment of the narrator begins with his joining a school friend's campaign to win the affection of an older girl. This initially delightful, lengthy and detailed campaign involves, for instance, Falola's recollection of a communally composed letter to the girl in question, which opens as follows:

At school, July 10, 1964

Dearest Queen Risi:

I am one hundred percent certain that this letter meets you in a fabulous state of anatomy and metabolism. If so, eternal gratitude to our Creator. If not, I am the only doctor in town for the Queen. (179)

They end up in Leku's shop because, other wooing strategies having failed, they turn to the feared herbalist to obtain the ingredients for a love potion. Because of and subsequent to the boy's "treatment" by Leku, he develops an even deeper awe towards her and begins to grasp the secret, larger significance of her work.

Another dimension of social and political transition in larger Africa and Nigeria that is manifest in the Yoruba region at this time that this text registers is the growing gap between urbanites and rural people. Those who consider themselves "civilized Yoruba" (198) denigrate villagers and farm people exactly as insultingly as many racist Europeans express their contempt by infantilizing Africans. The boy has access to village life in Elopa, where his maternal grandfather lives. Since he is the old man's only male grandchild, he becomes his favourite and confidant. His grandfather is known as Pasitor, because he is a licensed preacher in the Anglican Church.

In the communal life of Elepo village, formal religions originating from elsewhere (like Christianity and Islam) rub shoulders with the ancient, embedded worship or Ogun:

The pathfinder
The master of iron
The lord of the universe
The lord of the grassland and forest
The controller of mountains and valleys. (206)

When a crisis occurs in the village, Pasitor (the Anglican grandfather) calls his congregation together to hear his sermon which, for all its fierce moralism and hellfire warnings, contains only veiled allusions to the focus of communal wrath: the village chief. Both a political heavyweight in the postcolonial dispensation and a powerful lawyer, the chief has shockingly abused his powers to victimise (by eviction) a poor local tenant farmer who is unable to pay the chief's (his landlord's) suddenly raised rental. Fiercely convinced of the wickedness of such treatment, intent on the ousting from the village of a family who has farmed there for generations, Pasitor ends the sermon by letting the women and children go home, while the men plan their resistance strategy. The women know exactly what is going on, though, and it is from them (initially) that young Toyin learns about the power and value shifts occurring in this society.

Pasitor's moral courage and integrity make him the leading older male figure in the final section of Falola's text. He warns the wicked leader in a poem evoking death as the leveller and final judge: "Mighty chief, the grave awaits" (213). Revered as he is by his grandson, it is clear at the same time that Pasitor is an "old school" figure at a time when ruthless, competitive capitalist values are outmanoeuvring and fast replacing the old communal values. The detested chief, city-based but with extensive farmlands worked for him by poor tenant farmers, is all but inaccessible to the attempts at retaliation and protection of his victim by the latter's fellow villagers. Falola notes the opening of a huge rift between urban and rural people and between the powerful, rich, urban professionals and the poor, vulnerable villagers. The futility of his grandfather's struggle on behalf of the evicted villager does not make him any less heroic in young Toyin's eyes, however, as the boy begins to understand the significance of this attempt to preserve social justice (more clearly grasped, of course, by the adult narrator).

When the chief is summoned to a village meeting where they want to hold him to account, he arrives with a contingent of policemen. Arrogantly seating himself on a chair in their midst, he mocks and berates both the evicted tenant and his village supporters. The poor man is arrested on the chief's orders and taken away to prison. He is never tried; the story is simply put out that he had been growing marijuana on his rental land.

Before the heart-wrenching saga of Pasitor, the evil chief and the poor tenant is continued, Falola resumes the good cheer of the earlier parts of the narrative in a chapter titled "Seasonal Narratives", which describes the festivals of the area, particularly the no-holds-barred one-day annual carnival which celebrates the city's deity, the venerated Oke (the hill) around which it was founded, with music, feasting, public mockery of anyone and everyone, and especially in outrageously bawdy songs made up on the spot. Everyone takes part, including Christians and Muslims - a practice that (as Falola sadly notes) has diminished or nearly disappeared with the inexorable rise in fundamentalism and the triumph of modernity. The city's tolerance and balance of cultures and faiths is gone, but beautifully recorded in this account; citing the "Ramadan blues" (music and songs) and describing the Christmas jollity happily coexisting (in Falola's youth) with the worship and rituals of Ogun and other, ancient, local deities.

The final chapter of A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is titled "The Pastor's Ordeal" and records the taxing and humiliating experiences to which Toyin's beloved grandfather is exposed in his many efforts to get justice for his illegitimately imprisoned and scurrilously accused fellow villager. But the old man is up against a formidable and well-nigh impregnable foe in the figure of the village chief. His first strategy is to try and get another, more powerful chief to intercede on behalf of the jailed man. About the latter, the narrator tells us that

[h]is fortune was incalculable; his gift for deception was legendary; and his ability to foment intrigue was matchless. A master politician, his colleagues spoke of him in awe. (247)

But power solidarity ensures that an impenetrable wall is raised against the old man's appeal. He is fobbed off with arrogant, bare-faced lies and insulting contempt. The same pattern of heartfelt appeal and moral indignation rebuffed by the complacent fraternity of the wealthy and powerful recurs when Toyin accompanies Pasitor to an audience with yet another chief. It is the boy's first, vivid exposure to his society's political power structures; he learns unforgettable but very painful lessons as his understanding of the predatory mechanisms of class domination increases. What it also does to him, however, is to make the role of neutral observer of power abuses impossible for him. As the mature Toyin observes, these experiences "ensured that I would only [ever] take the side of the poor, not the chiefs" (254-5). And he realises as an adult that it was the chiefs in their ruthless greed who prepared the ground in Nigeria for the even more devastating grabbing and cynicism of the military rulers who would soon, even more devastatingly, be seizing power in Nigeria.

As a last resort, having discovered that the chief against whom he had attempted to enlist the assistance of a powerful secret cult is himself a member of it, Pasitor, on the advice of his second wife, turns to Leku and her guild of herbalists. Leku knows that the politicians are "cannibalistic" in not caring whom they destroy. While she ensures the old man of their spiritual support, she warns him that there will have to be a "big fight" and that blood will have to be shed - a prediction which the final paragraph of the text, in which Falola points forward to the 1968 "peasant rebellion" in which he would join his grandfather, cryptically confirms.

This is a rich and marvellous book, wonderfully entertaining and unobtrusively instructive, morally as much as politically and socially.