For Professor Toyin Falola: Celebrating Our Stories…

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Writing is a mystery. Why do we think about things and write them down? Writing is a laborious, messy, painful, sensual, time consuming process. The poor soul drawn to this form of self-flagellation er self-expression may attract fame, more likely notoriety, but it is almost always the case that riches will not accrue from this disability. Disability? Yes. Many would consider the ability to write and engage an audience a gift, but one suspects that a typical writer would confess to a crushing burden, of sometimes having to stop any and everything to record something. Many times, that something makes absolutely no sense. The truly burdened or gifted writer is moved by an unseen hand to transport mind matter through the hand into words – of wonder and sometimes of inanity. It is what it is, a mystery. But in the fiction of our word griots lies the history of our people.

Africa’s owners of words have attained a new status as custodians of our history because the oral history of our clans cannot compete with the written. Warriors die with their stories and the living are left to re-tell the stories. Stuff gets lost in the re-telling, memory is a forgetful lover. Some of the best poets I have ever known died without ever writing a book. Many more will die. It is the nature of things. But then, there is no book robust enough to capture all of history. History is easily distorted, as Chinua Achebe reminds us with the East African proverb, “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” We know now that much of what passes for African history is defined by the (white) written, much of it distorted by the lenses of the (white) historian. It does not help that many African historians have fled to more nurturing societies where they unwittingly toil at writing and teaching someone else’s perversion of African history. What remains is remarkable only for its shoddiness and laziness of craft.

American history is deeply and apologetically Eurocentric and indifferent to those periods that make the majority uncomfortable. Indeed re-writing the right history of America will soon become a civil rights issue.   Every day young warriors of color swim mean seas, scale impossible peaks and ride on the roofs of indifferent trains into America (“illegal aliens” these beautiful warriors are called) and they forcibly change the landscape. You don’t see that in the history books of this country, because it is HIS-story, NOT our story.  In fifth grade my daughter Ominira’s class Ominira participated in a “field trip” called Westward Ho where they were required to reprise the rush West. As parents, we were required to walk behind them through brooks, streams, hills and all sorts of contrived hurdles designed to simulate the white man’s struggle to get to Nirvana. Nowhere was there mention of the fate of Native Americans and needless to say, the fate of black slaves was nowhere to be observed. I almost wept when in the evening, my daughter broke away from a dance to offer me “Santa Fe Stew and corned bread”, dressed in an apron and a bonnet. The conquest is complete and irreversible.

While we are being frog-marched to Babylon, we can at least sing ourselves our songs. Upon the death of Dim Ojukwu, many of us donned the flag of Biafra. One young Nigerian reached out to me on Facebook and asked what the flag was about. I told him. He asked me to tell him more about Biafra. I asked him how old he was. 35 years old. A man born in Nigeria in the 70’s told me that very little of Biafra was taught him in school. How can that be? After all these moons living far away from the land that cradles my placenta, I have become aware of the power of the historian. Many events have shaped my awareness. Dark were the days when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, dark were the days.  Civilization is a euphemism for barbarism, markers for those humiliating periods when the world went mad.

Many versions of our history lie in the fiction of our griots, from Ngugi Wa Thiong’o to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and finally to Professor Toyin Falola. Falola? Google Falola and your computer may crash from the umpteen hits. I will never forget reading his autobiography, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir which I reviewed here.  Falola has probably written dozens of books about the African journey. One of them, Etches on Fresh Waters, a collaborative effort in poetry with Dr. Aderonke Adesola Adesanya is a coffee table book with muscle. It sits my living room with pride, showcasing the dignity of our humanity.  Falola does not know it, but like Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Adichie, Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Lola Shoneyin, Chika Unigwe and others, he is an inspiration to many of us.  On this February, what we call Black History Month in America, I rise to salute you, Alagba Falola.