New years and births are promises of a new beginning, that’s why I consider those born on January 1 special. My imagination of New Year’s Day babies is that they enter the world with cheeky smiles. I believe that somewhere in the pre-world where humans choose their ori and date of birth, some selected January 1 just so that the good fortunes we pray for the supernatural forces to direct our path in the new year will be incorporated into their arrival. If this myth is true, then who can say otherwise? Then he explains why Toyin Omoyeni Falola, the Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Professor of the Humanities, born exactly 70 years ago, lives the promises he embodies.
As a historian, social custodian, cultural ambassador, narrator, and esthete, Falola is the synecdochic mouth to which his autobiography entitled A mouth sweeter than salt refers. A Nigerian once addressed him as the Intellectual Majesty of him! That was a remarkable turn of phrase, and it captured his expressions of the life of mind and the awe we have for him.
On his birthday, therefore, it would be expected that Falola would be talked about as the quintessence of intellectualism, an example of a mind with vitality. One could talk from today until tomorrow about his vast achievements as a scholar and administrator. There is no shortage of tales of his towering scholarship and his unparalleled contributions to global scholarship. Shall we start talking about the tomes of interdisciplinary research that he has published in hundreds of books, essays, journal articles, websites, and other formats? Or do we start by counting the myriad instances in which he astutely innovated value spaces around the research of Africans who would otherwise have been marginal in global academia?
For a man who has nurtured scholars of different generations, one must also speak of the many hands of people he has raised through his moral and intellectual investments in them. That is why I am choosing a slightly different path in my praise of him. Instead of talking about his extensive intellectual work, I would also recount aspects of his personality from my close observation.
One of his most notable aspects is his work ethic. Having worked with Falola on several occasions, I have seen how fast her mind works and how hard she tries to work. There is no way to stop or slow down for him, and no way to keep up with him either. In terms of research results and the ability to work across a wide range of disciplines, it is unique and an enigma. He once told me that some people asked him to reveal the source of the power that he uses to write so much.
He has been my teacher and mentor (and a lesser known fact is that we are both from the same agboolé in Ibadan). We both met through our respective books on Ibadan sometime around 2009. He had read my book, Under the Brown Rusted Roofs and asked to meet me the next time he came to Nigeria. When we first met, he also gave me a copy of ‘A Mouth Sweeter than Salt’. The book was, and still is, one of the most remarkable childhood memoirs I have ever read. For someone who grew up in Ibadan, I found the book to be accurate. Falola’s skillful alternation between his roles as his own biographer and professional historian illuminated the life I was living in Ibadan at the time, in ways that abstracted me from my own experience.
While I was introduced to Falola’s wisdom and wit through this book, one of my most powerful memories of our meeting was the walk we took from the Ring Road roundabout to the Kakanfo Inn. We were four on that trip, two other colleagues from Obafemi Awolowo University also came. On the way, he stopped several times to buy something, or just to negotiate with some vendors. One of those who stopped to talk was selling peanuts, and both she and Falola soon began an animated chat that made the three of us who were with him laugh. The scene left me with an indelible first impression of him. There was no hint of pejoration on his part; it was all just a retort of two people exchanging witty words in their Ibadan dialect. Over the years, when I have seen Falola among distinguished academic audiences, my mind replayed the scene where she joked around with the street vendors. To the extent that Falola has maintained its connection to its local community, even as it climbed higher and higher in the world, it embodies the spirit of Ibadan as a place where high-elite intellectual culture blends seamlessly with the popular and the organic. Like the apostle Paul in the Bible, who made himself everything for all men, his talent includes this ability to be at home with diverse people and relate to them in a convivial and human way.
One of his most notable aspects is his work ethic. Having worked with Falola on several occasions, I have seen how fast her mind works and how hard she tries to work. There is no way to stop or slow down for him, and no way to keep up with him either. In terms of research results and the ability to work across a wide range of disciplines, it is unique and an enigma. He once told me that some people asked him to reveal the source of the power that he uses to write so much. Truly, when our people cannot unravel a mystique immediately, they attribute it to some supernatural force. But in the case of Falola, one hardly blames anyone who sees him from afar and assumes that some otherworldly voice sits in the corner of his study and dictates his books. The amount of work that goes into doing what Falola does requires almost superhuman abilities. There is no time that I have visited him that he is not cooking multiple works at the same time. It’s worth studying how he manages to garner so many posts without making the necessary efforts to nurture his diverse communities or honor other social commitments.
I must also speak of the generosity of Falola, and I have been a beneficiary. There are many examples to share, but I will focus on just two. The first is his book, In Praise of Greatness: The Poetics of African Flattery (Carolina 2019). He created this work to celebrate his colleagues, trainees, and others who make up his communities. With her mouth sweeter than salt, she effusively sang the oriki of people who have enriched our social and cultural life in its various forms. Because I helped him obtain some of the archival material he used in that book, I am aware of the generous financial investment he committed to the work. Writing that book required acquiring hundreds of books, retrieving countless essays, some of which had become obscure, and remembering undocumented aspects of people’s lives, just to be able to create a healthy picture of each person. That project is not the kind of book one embarks on without generosity of spirit and a willingness to help others. For a man who has even risen to the top of his career, he could well afford not to take on such an arduous responsibility, but he did. In addition, he must have read several of his online articles where he praises his friends and colleagues on his birthday, while also celebrating the lives of those who have passed away. For a culture where we barely write obituaries to mark the passage of people who leave this plane of existence to join the pantheon of ancestors, his intervention in this sense is always a reflective gesture.
Those of us who have been his students and apprentices can also testify to how much he has used his personal and institutional resources to help our feet put ground on the ground of the academy. In Austin, Texas, he has been a father figure to generations of students. Her home has been a landing port for students from all over Africa who come to study at the University of Texas at Austin. Her house has also hosted many parties for her students, from student graduations to baby showers.
The second case I will share occurred in 2019, when he was the keynote speaker at the inauguration of the Ogbu Uke Kalu Center for Christian and African Culture in Uturu, Abia State. Falola not only attended the event with a speech, he also came with cartons of copies of the book he had written on the works of Ogbu Kalu. The book, Understanding Ogbu Kalu: Christianity and Culture in Africa, was a tribute to a renowned fellow historian. I witnessed the event live as copies of the book were distributed to those present and some commented loudly about the detribalization of a Yoruba man who had gone so far. But to interpret Falola with a dubious Nigerian term like “de-tribalized” is to miss the big picture of his personality. He is simply generous and has become self-assured to the point where he can loudly proclaim the achievements of others.
Those of us who have been his students and apprentices can also testify to how much he has used his personal and institutional resources to help our feet put ground on the ground of the academy. In Austin, Texas, he has been a father figure to generations of students. Her home has been a landing port for students from all over Africa who come to study at the University of Texas at Austin. Her house has also hosted many parties for her students, from student graduations to baby showers. The university has called on him several times to receive scholars and young leaders, especially from Africa. He and his wife, Dr. Bisi Falola, are parents to many international students who have been given a home in a strange land. He has done much to help others prosper, and it is worth celebrating as he turns 70 today.
Finally, remember that I mentioned earlier that Falola and I come from the same agboolé in Ibadan? AHA! I found out about that connection sometime around 2013 in North Carolina, while we were attending a conference. The three of us, Falola, Professor Akin Ogundiran from the University of North Carolina and myself, had been trading stories about our lives in Ibadan only to discover that we were from the same agboolé! It was a surprising and rather pleasant coincidence. I proudly wave my family association with him like a flag of honor because he’s worth bragging about. Apart from the people of Ibadan, how many Yoruba boast of having several scholars of the same agboolé? But thanks to one of our wonderful descendants like him, we people of Ibadan beat our chests and are in a class above everyone else!
Happy birthday, Prof. May you never lack honor!
Adelakun teaches in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.