Book Review: Toyin Falola’s A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

[Note: Reprinted for archival purposes; first published June 8, 2008]

“I am no more than an observer who saw more than enough, heard more than necessary, and listened to an excess of words.”

–          Professor Toyin Omoyeni Falola, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir

And so the other day, time came again to take me away from the tedium of my daily existence off to the tedium of travel. Orlando Florida. I am headed in the wrong direction. I should be headed home to Nigeria. I yearn for the salt-sweetness of my homeland. I so badly want to surprise my mother Izuma, princess of the stout bushes, with my lean frame easing into her happy space. I am headed in the wrong direction away from my mother’s grin but life goes on. There is a conference waiting for me, offering an excuse to escape familiar stresses. The airplane awaits me, bird that will take me in its beak and deposit me in kitschy places. The airplane! The airplane never ceases to amaze me, this thing of wonder. I always board a plane with great respect and awe. For me, the miracle is not that the airplane was invented; the miracle is that someone was foolish enough to be its first passenger. Gulp! Besides, I don’t enjoy traveling anymore. It is too stressful. Who needs the hassle when one can read up on these exotic places on the Internet? Time to go but my laptop Cecelia would not go with me. Overweight and middle-aged, she has become cranky, balking at being groped by alien hands at the security booth. So I took a surrogate laptop to comfort me in the warm reaches of my cold hotel room. Big mistake.  I should have frog-marched Cecelia with me to Orlando. In my hands, Cecelia’s surrogate choked with shyness and simply refused to turn itself on despite all my entreaties. My Blackberry tried gamely to keep me connected with the Internet and the world, but my Blackberry is no Cecelia. Far away in the suburbs of Washington DC, Cecelia lay in my bedroom, my world trapped in her ample bosom. Without Cecelia and the Internet, I was miserable beyond the telling of it.

Orlando! Stuck in a resort that celebrates anti-intellectualism, I thanked the gods of my ancestors that I took a book with me, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir by Professor Toyin Falola. I bought the book a while back because this pretty spirit loitering around the watering holes of the new world without walls, that coven without wires called the Internet, asked me to read the book.  I don’t know her name; her pseudonym is an avatar, but she is a spiritual sister brimming with soul and intelligence and the other day she asked me: Have you read Toyin Falola’s A Mouth Sweeter than Salt? And I bought the book, meaning to read it sometime, but my life is crazy, there are only so many books you can read in a lifetime. And so it sat on my coffee table, waiting for my daughter Ominira to pick it up and read. On my way out to the airport, spying the book on my coffee table, I swiped it and shoved it into my reading bag.

A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is an evocative narrative of Falola’s world as a child in Yorubaland. In this book we follow Falola as he navigates a most mystical labyrinth of a world that will never be. The closest book that I can remember in terms of richness and depth is Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood. This is not so much a memoir but a rollicking history lesson told by Falola with all his might. If I was a dictator I would decree that every African must buy this book and read it. This boy soldier offered us a long peep into the rich dark corridor of a patriarchy. For this book, Falola employs a folksy narrative richly spiced with Yoruba parables and sayings; the audience is seated stitched to seats, rapt in attention. It is a quaint old paradigm – Falola is the charming sage on the stage waxing eloquent before an attentive audience but it is so effective.  His narrative weaves in some metaphysics and playful hints of Soyinka-esque ruminations emerge. Falola’s memoir hearkens to a time in life when thoughts were spare yet deep – a time when people were not really poor, but enjoyed a clarity of choices:

“I was rushed out of my mother’s womb by war songs, the last war songs that the Ibadan army sang over and over again.” (p5)

It goes on and on as reams of gentle erudition wash over the reader’s eyes like pretty waves:

 “My discovery is not like that of David Livingstone, who claimed to have discovered the Victoria Falls when it was actually Africans who showed him the place, later named by his fellow citizens as one of the seven wonders of the world. Neither was mine similar to that of the European explorer, Mungo Park, credited with having discovered the River Niger in the 19th century, a river that Africans had used for centuries to travel and fish, and one whose long banks had made many settlements flourish.” (p 7)

Falola is masterful at painting the most complex of relationships as in his relationship with his grandfather Pasitor. In the book he and Pasitor go on several trips in search of the mostly elusive (justice, truth, etc) but come across powerful chieftains like the late Chief Akinloye, African Big Men who have mastered traditional structures to suit their own self-serving needs. Out of heartbreaking defeats, his grandfather triumphantly bonds with him through stories about character, perseverance and honesty. My all-time favorite chapter is Chapter 4 (Mamas and Money) Just plain delightful is all I can come up with. And absolutely hilarious. This is Falola at his best – a child in awe of his surroundings. The historical context is deadly accurate. This chapter has to be the most vivid, most robust portrait of the dynamics of the extended family that I have ever read. It is also a rollicking ode to motherhood. His descriptions of the various mothers that gave him succor (and it appears, infinite albeit loving grief) are my favorite. Tart, wicked and downright hilarious. My favorite of all of Falola’s umpteen mothers was Mama Ayo. She had me laughing in my hotel room like a merry lunatic:

“Mama Ayo never had money to give, and running errands for her was mandatory and without compensation. Her tongue was a horse, and she knew how to ride it. With me, it was a rough ride, not to give her trouble as I had none to give, but to get her what she wanted – a quick errand. She could not read a clock, but when it came to an errand Mama Ayo knew when I had been gone too long and asked me to account for each minute. With her husband and others, the horse rode gently, taking her to safety. Whenever anybody praised her, I would become upset, annoyed that anyone would say something nice about her.” (p 98)

And hear this for initiative, can-do, and enterprise:

“No one asked me to fill out a form to indicate my mother’s name, which I did not know. Whenever anyone asked about my mama, I answered in the plural, “they are home.” I never acted or behaved as a child with one mother. When a crack appears in a wall, the lizard finds the opportunity to enter. The crack that I was looking for was the mama with generosity at a particular time, one who would give me more food. When the mamas did not coordinate their activities, I could have two dinners by judging when the food would be ready in two places. They had to give me food anyway.” (p 99)

 The book is personal; it transports me to a genesis, the beginnings of my childhood starting out at birth in Lagos, through “eba” kindergarten school and primary one in Ibadan.  The reader soon joins Falola in lamenting the eroding of the present into the past.

 Ise agbe nise ile wa

Eni ko sise a maa jale

Iwe kiko laisi oko

Ko I pe o ko I pe o

 Farming is our main occupation

Who ever does not work will steal

Education without a hoe

Is not enough, not enough (p 149)

This was practically our primary school anthem in Ibadan. We sang it every day and it has stuck with me. To this day, on certain Saturday mornings my kids can still hear me going at that song with all the lusty gusto that I can muster. Falola’s book takes me to many places where the heart remembers. I remember my grandmother and her unadulterated love for us. I especially remember the way things were as a boy during the Nigerian civil war hiding out in the village awaiting the outcome of the war. This reader remembers with great fondness the joys and strengths of the extended family system. I salute those who believed in it at the time and held my generation across the new river to the other shore. I hope that the generation after mine will be kind in similarly judging our performance. My memories of childhood are gently fading now, gently thrown under the bus by the fatty tissue of life’s issues and choices. The little boy in me hangs back, recedes downcast as the guiding lights of the middle passage refuse me playing rights with my past. I look back and I wave but the boy in me defiantly refuses to acknowledge me. Hands in his khaki pockets, barefooted he kicks stones and stories about, like they are soccer balls. He will play all by himself while I play at being an adult finally. He never leaves my eyes’ windshield; this punishment shall go on for a long time. I salute Professor Toyin Falola for this exquisite trip.

Falola’s book is easily the most comprehensive treatise on patriarchy that I have ever read outside of Chinua Achebe’s books, Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. In a certain sense, this is also about life as war, about the plight of children, child soldiers born into a war of cultures that they did not ask for. In many ways, I would argue that Falola’s memoir is a legitimate story of a surviving child soldier. The book offers robust opportunities for a wide ranging discussion on several topics; from patriarchy, the decision tree branches into several other topics each touched upon with great depth. What a treat.  Falola’s views on the current dispensation – the move from patriarchy, the shift to nuclear families and on feminism could also be glimpsed. Falola does not invest much in political correctness and it shows Regardless this is not a mere hagiography of a halcyon past; it is living history because he carefully plots and recreates how things were, how things are and the reader is left agape at how a people can bastardize well founded cultures and traditions for the perverse benefits of a few.

 “From the evening to night and at every moment, Yoruba culture was being displayed in ways that were different from what occurs today. As I have enjoyed the lived culture, embodying many aspects of it, I have also grown to become the narrator of a past that is no more.  The real shock to me is that what I saw at Ode Aje, whether it was a marriage or death ceremony, money raising or debt repayment, has disappeared or been modified so substantially within a period of thirty years. I have read about profound cultural changes in centuries long gone, but I never knew that a similar process could occur within a life span, within my own generation, which is a project in the making. I have never fully recovered from the shock of change and the agony of revisiting a past that has been violently reshaped.”  (p 162)

Of all the characters in the book and they are legion, I was most struck by Iya Lekuleja, Leku the old woman. The mystery of the relationship between Falola the boy and Leku the diviner is simply awesome. I read with rapt attention, hushed with the veil of a certain mysticism each time Falola entered Leku’s room. The mystery of that place renders the English Language a wretched vehicle for conveying its depth. It is a big shame because with the dying of the oral tradition things are not being passed on in writing. It is almost as if our world started when the white man’s letters came ashore.

At the tender age of nine, Falola develops a near-tragic fascination with trains (Ibadan is a central railway hub). He ends up inside one all by himself and he is so enthralled he does not get off the train until he is forced out by a ticket collector at Ilorin. I have a nine-year old boy and my jaw dropped as Falola describes his survival on the streets of Ilorin far away from home, conscripted into child labor by a beggar. He would become a “stick boy” for this “blind” beggar.

 I knew what a boy was. I was one. I could not combine the stick and the boy. It was my first job in life. ‘Stick boy” was an occupation, a great job for that matter. The job started immediately. The man, tall and able, would pretend to be blind. I would hold a stick, with him at the back holding the tail and I holding the head. I led, and he followed behind, whispering to me, giving me directions where to go, telling me to move to a person sitting quietly in front of his house. The blind man would beg, offering prayers. I would repeat the prayer or offer my own. Alms would come, we would give a short thanks, and quickly move on to the next person who might not be so king. I would collect the alms and pass them on to him. He never missed my hands as received the money; he never missed his pocket as he put it there. At the end of the day, he would give me my allowance. This was easy to understand. (p 67)

 Falola is no shrinking violet. His book is rife with opinions on a wide range of subjects like divorce and feminism. The book soaks you in the varied world of herbalists, diviners, charm makers, priests and priestesses and a thoroughly fascinating world of cults, masquerades, magic and witchcraft. And in polygamy we find politics in everything, including sex. In Chapter 9 (Seasonal Pleasures) any lie that Nigerians are inhibited when it comes to sex is laid bare (no pun intended). This chapter is a long oriki to sex. It is an interesting take on phallic symbols, sex and sexuality among the Yoruba. It would make for a very interesting debate because it comes across as overly male-centric, expressing the feelings of the man, some would say in a most vulgar manner – sex as conquest.

 The most hilarious story in book is when Falola and his friends set about trying to hook up a friend of theirs Sali with a girl named Risi. They would pen love letters reminiscent of the kinds of letters in the Onitsha Market literature of my childhood. Here is a ribald teaser; the “love letters” alone are worth the price of the book:

 “Oh beautiful Queen! The geography of your body is perfect. Your body is full of milk and honey, your fingers are richer than gold, your eyes see better than the moon and sun, your head contains more wisdom than the sea can hold water. Queen Risi is the model of perfection, accepted by the angels, created by God on a Sunday when He had no time for other duties. You are the last Queen created by God. Other women that came after you are servants of the king.” (p 179)

 The outcome when the boys are found out by their elders is almost tragic. What happened to Falola as a result of this adventure still gives me shivers – it would qualify as child abuse in Western societies. Read the book. All I can say is that Falola is a generous heart. With great affection he transcends major childhood trauma to paint a heartfelt and compelling portrait of an enduring relationship with various adults.

 Falola is first and foremost a historian and a remarkable one at that. If the prose sizzles, it is his depiction of the history of a place that time forgot that makes it so. On the new dispensation:

 There was nothing wrong with Yoruba food, but the new elites in power were making bread and tea more important than corn and beans, turning the students’ taste buds away from local foods and toward imported ones, preparing them for a future that would enslave them in the global economy. (p 145)

 The book’s most important selling point is that is instructive. There is so much that is new to the reader. I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the difference between the phenomenon known as emere as compared to abiku:

An emere… was… worse than an abiku. Unlike the abiku, who was honest with his intention to live in the world for a few days or months, the emere would not give any clues. So deceptive was he that he would show great promise and courage in order to prevent his parents and the diviners from preparing the necessary prophylactic comprising a rich arsenal with which to oppose death. (p 73)

 Falola is a man enchanted by and truly entrenched in the people and its customs. His childhood memoir is a rich stew of proverbs and idioms. However, in faithfully recording the changing of the seasons and the times, Falola sometimes adopts a historian’s attitude and it robs the prose of some crispness.  Also, sometimes, something gets lost in the translation of the sayings and the profound becomes obvious and trite; the sayings lose their robustness in a sea of English words:

 A twisted hand finds it difficult to grip well. (p 79)

 Rotten wood cannot be carved. (p 80)

But be patient, this book is fun. This is also an important book. I would strongly recommend reading it along with Professor Wole Soyinka’s childhood memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood. They complement each other very nicely.

As great literature goes, Falola is neither Wole Soyinka nor Ola Rotimi when it comes to dramatic flair and he certainly cannot light a candle to Chris Abani’s prose. But what he has is plenty, more than plenty.  Falola earns my respect as a masterful storyteller adept at turning stories into power. This story starts out trembling like a sly train but soon roars to life filled with Ogun’s fires. And man, do sparks fly! The beauty of the book is in its arrangement – in chunky hearty almost stand-alone chapters than can be devoured in no particular order. Then there are these five black and white photographs, all five of them tastefully grainy. These photos of childhood took my breath away. Like rider-less horses they take you to a time that will never come back. Each photograph is a story. Haunting are the pictures – priceless the time stamp of a time gone for ever. Ominira will read this book. Someone should put Falola on YouTube and make him read his book to us in Yoruba. That would be something. That would be something. Indeed.

Falola is right. Our world has changed and not all of it for the good. But life goes on. We welcome the new villages without walls, with strange names like www.barackobama.com, Facebook and YouTube, defiant celebrations of the spirit and spirited denunciations and renunciations of the weaknesses of the flesh. Life goes on. On earth, today is the Internet’s yesterday. And out on the Internet, the new town-criers blare out tomorrow’s news. On the Internet, tomorrow has already come today. Amazing. Today, my son Lion Cub steps out onto the driveway of our existence, grabs today’s newspaper and drops it in the recycling bin. The newspaper is worthless; we read today’s news on the Internet yesterday. Amazing. Ominira walks into my space her voice greedy harbinger of her wants: “Daddy may I use the phone?” I take one look at her impish face and we both start laughing. When did Ominira start using out landline to communicate with her friends? She is trying to give me the illusion of control; her generation has no need for landlines. Welcome new world, welcome old world. The more things change… Hurry, hurry, hurry, go buy Falola’s book before your world changes yet again.