An unpredictable Sojourner

by Marcela Sulak

A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt. An African Memoir

As its title promises, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir is an excursion into an unfamiliar world and the mysterious aphorisms and proverbs employed there. It is both a personal memoir of the author’s transition from childhood to adolescence and a community memoir of Nigeria’s transformation from a British colony to an independent country. Getting acquainted with the narrator is like getting acquainted with his country; it takes some time, and there are liable to be misunderstandings at first, but the effort is remarkably rewarding and worthwhile. Both the man and the country come across as tough and tender, with an understated sense of humor.

The Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History and Nelson Mandela Professor of African Studies at the University of Texas, author Toyin Falola has written and edited over 50 academic books on subjects such as political economy, nationalism, violence, and religion. His strong academic background, coupled with the hierarchical structure of the society from which he comes, creates a narrative style that may be off-putting at first. The approach is almost pedagogical as he introduces the reader to the clash between the customs of the Yoruba who inhabit Ibadan, a major city in southern Nigeria, and those of the United States. In Toyin Falola’s rendition, the Ibadan of the 1950s is likely to appear mysterious to just about everyone, from readers in Texas to contemporary residents of Northern Nigeria; so the didacticism is not altogether out of place.

The memoir opens with Falola sending the reader—as he might a research assistant—out on a task. The task is to obtain the birth date of the author’s mother. The reader knows only that the mother was born before the birth of her cousin’s brother. After various, perhaps not-so-hypothetical conversations, the moral of the story becomes apparent, even if the birth date does not:

Like logs of wood placed on top of one another, time can be determined by the placement of one log in relation to the others. My mother knew when she was born—she was even definite that it was before the brother of her first cousin. Why should this not be enough if she did not have to fill out paperwork, apply for passports and visas to travel, collect welfare and insurance money? Her knowledge of when she was born was enough, indeed, useful for her time and purpose in life.

Thus chastened, we are prepared to enter the world of the memoir like children.

The first few chapters prepare the reader for the correct interpretation of the anecdotes, stories, and political conflicts that follow. They also contain beautiful observations about the bond between time, place, and communal relations:

A day may be so fragmented that there can be no confusion as to time or season. A wristwatch or clock is not essential to the understanding of this fragmentation; it only serves to ornament the habits already in place. Work merges with time; time and work merge with people, all combining in elaborate greeting forms that denote boundaries of time, season, gender, occupation, and space. It is important to know who comes into the world earlier than others in order to maintain social hierarchies and the order of greeting codes.

Names, too, embody history, seasons, and family relations, and they receive appropriate attention here. They also link old and new customs, as they join the recipient to gods of the ancestors and to their new incarnations in Christianity. (Generally, the southern part of Nigeria, which includes Ibadan, was Christianized, while the northern part became Muslim.)

This firm grounding and placement in the beginning of the memoir gives the reader a sense of what is at stake in forging a new nation out of the various blood-related clans and groups that occupy the land of present-day Nigeria. Creating a unified social, political, and economic entity disrupts the most mundane routines of community life. The reconfigurations of power that must occur touch even the childhood of the narrator. Nowhere is this more clear than in Falola’s discussion of names and rhetorical strategy. Just as the secret chants and potions of ancestral gods protect the community against evil spirits, so do rhetorical strategies protect a community from jealous neighboring clans, as everyone struggles to maintain autonomy and power. For example, in native dialect, the city of Ibadan is called Mesiogo. So are the inhabitants of the city. A combination of Mesi, to be very quick to reply, and ogo, or fool, Mesiogo means to reply quickly to a fool.

The idea is that the most successful person will master proverbs and will learn to be so ambiguous that a group of elders may be summoned to decide what was said and what was actually meant. As Falola writes, “The Mesiogo does not always see yes and no as avenues to express lies or truth. Lies are not the opposite of truth. Truth is not necessarily to be celebrated as a virtue when it can do more damage than lies.”

Words, though, are only one instrument of combat. There is also magic. While communities are struggling to maintain their independent economies in the face of a growing capitalistic system that reaches, through the British, into Nigeria, disrupting old hierarchies, Falola admires the most successful Mesiogo king of the time. The king refuses to move into a newly built palace, because the magic that insures his preternaturally long life is buried in the old palace. It is to his advantage to have others believe that, because he is a Muslim, he is simply more interested in traditional pre-modern history than in post-modernity.

As the Yoruban world of self-government breaks down, new kinds of weapons are necessary: money and British contacts. Indeed, the old revered chiefs can do nothing to combat the money and the alliances that corrupt chiefs and kings have made with capitalist enterprises. Luckily, these aspects of the memoir are conveyed through anecdote rather than through exposition, so that, as the content becomes more complicated and political, the narrative style is more pleasant and interesting.

As edifying as it may be to travel through Nigeria with an interpreter and guide, the most enjoyable and interesting parts of the memoir occur when the author seems to have forgotten the reader completely, and he recounts the fabulous and terrifying episodes of his youth with significantly less explication. In one of my favorite episodes, the nine-year-old Falola becomes so enamored of the new train that passes through a neighboring suburb that he gives up a month’s worth of breakfast money to hire an older boy to take him to see it. Not content to view the train from a distance, the boy returns alone, drawing so near that he unthinkingly boards the train. He ends up staying in another town for a month, working as a stick boy for a beggar faking blindness.

The significance of such a venture, undertaken with complete innocence on the part of our hero, is such that the boy is proclaimed an emere, or “a child who could come and go at will, an unpredictable sojourner among the living.” In response, the family changes the boy’s school and subscribes to Christianity, thereby permitting the unhappy boy to commune with God more, “so that he could opt to stay on earth.”

Poetry, prayers, name songs, children’s chants, and other lyrical pieces lay claim to large portions of the memoir, so the reader gets the richest, most multi-dimensional picture of Ibadan possible. A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt is also funny; the generous variety and array of proverbs, the misinterpretations that occur between thought and action, provide much of the humor. For example, one of the adult Falola’s friends, over-eager to obtain a political position, is tricked out of substantial amounts of money from a clever king because he has misinterpreted the king’s promise.

The anecdotes are selected to amuse as well as instruct, but never to make the narrator appear wiser or braver than he is. But most wonderful of all is how the personal, the communal, the political, and economic histories all intertwine. Every detail is attended to, from the intimate household arrangement of the family compounds to the types of crops that are grown and why. We discover the particular types of magic and herbs that are most effective for an adolescent love potion; we hear how a minister defies the chiefs to defend an innocent tenant farmer, and we are shown how to win a title from a king. The family and community members of Falola’s youth, seen through a child’s eyes, may appear mysterious and standoffish. But in the end, one senses their goodness, wisdom, and affection. A month after my first literary encounter with these people, I find myself still thinking of them, puzzling over them, and missing them.

Poet and translator Marcela Sulak lives in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST