By Tunji Olaopa
TF, like Professor Toyin Falola, is known all over the world, he has been gracefully inducted into the exalted and ancient circle of septuagenarians. And strangely, his modest self would not acknowledge or celebrate this momentous occasion with at least a seminal offering as we usually do. Sometime in November 2022, I brought up the subject of his upcoming 70th birthday: “What should we be expecting?” I asked. I had in mind the kind of elaborate intellectual celebration that heralded his 65th birthday in 2018. TF immediately responded to my query: “It will be in May 2023.” I was momentarily confused. But considering how disorganized and absent-minded he could be at times, I took the statement as some kind of mix-up on my part, hoping to return to the conversation seriously. But then, when I received the invitation a few days ago to chair this birthday event scheduled for January 1st, it was immediately clear to me that TF’s response to me was the usual distracting and evasive tactic to divert attention from a birthday celebration. his immense being. Well thank God it didn’t work! Didn’t Ralph W. Sockman, the famous American Protestant radio pastor, say that “true humility is the intelligent self-respect that keeps us from thinking too high or too low of ourselves? It humbles us by reminding us how far we have fallen from what we can be.”
The truth is that TF is the type of person who doesn’t want to put himself ahead of others. And all the more if the circumstances and occasions are not propitious. His sense of self is necessarily reflected in his understanding and care for others. This is the sense projected in the Yoruba proverb: Àìfinipeni, àìfèèyàn-pèèyàn, lará oko-ó fi ñsán ìbàntẹ́ wọ̀lú (“Lack of proper regard for others, lack of proper regard for people, is what emboldens the peasant to venture into town clad only in a loincloth.”) In other words, TF is not one to dismiss others in the service of self-glory or self-positioning. And yet the truth is that while tragedies, setbacks, and upsetting circumstances will always be a part of us; but crossing the 70-year mark, and especially for a well-regarded icon, will never happen twice. And neither will difficult times ever justify not counting the days of those who deserve it, so that we can order our feet to wisdom, as Scripture commands us.
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In the best sense of Yoruba cultural understanding, TF is a gbajumo of the most distinguished type. His larger-than-life stature is a function of many illustrious credentials, from the academic and intellectual to the sociocultural. This makes it very difficult to come up with a template that captures the multidimensionality of your being and contribution. But let me create my own template, insufficient as it is, with what I consider to be an apt description: TF knows books and knows people. Being born in Ibadan comes with a host of cultural endowments that connect TF not only to tradition and heritage, but also to the people. One needs to read both pieces of the autobiographical narrative—A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt and Counting the Tiger’s Teeth—to understand the historical trajectories of an Ibadan boy who grew up in a culture that values people—the people as clothing that wraps a person with iyì (prestige) and ẹ̀yẹ (honor). When the Yoruba say that Ẹni tí ò lówó a léèyàn (he who lacks money will be rich in people), they are talking about a strong dynamic of social relationships that solidly connect a man to his immediate and extended family, friends and colleagues, members of the community, and practically all of humanity. This is the framework of TF’s investment in people. That investment connects mentorship with a sacrificial propensity to bear the burdens of others.
This is how you understand the grueling regimen of travel, hospitality, care and attention that focuses TF’s attention on people. TF crosses various continents of the world for the sake of its commitment to others. This is the point where we must salute the courage of the woman, Yeye Bisi Falola, who dared to marry a man like TF. I suspect that she is the only woman who could have stayed with TF for so many years. Thus, behind and beside every successful man is a woman. But of course, Bisi Falola is not just any woman; and TF goes beyond just being a successful man! And TF’s investment in people also translates into a huge investment in ideas and speech. In fact, every encounter with people is an intellectual exercise. Let me throw in a question: what makes TF stand out as an intellectual and an academic? And what sustains his superhuman energy and productivity? Like your life trajectories, this question will also generate different answers. Let me privilege mine. And there are three that I see. First, TF is an agent provocateur and provocateur (agent provocateur) in the original and literal sense of that word. You should have found him on the US-Africa Dialogue listserv, which brings together thousands of intellectuals and academics from all over the world, or conversed with him in various instances. The breath of his ideas is too vast to trace. And so, one need not wonder why book after book and key lecture notes keep pouring out of the mind of a master ideationist.
And this brings me to my second point: the transformation of a historian into a scholar who spans the vastness of the humanities. Of course, the discipline of history has the credentials to provide the foundation for launching into other disciplines. What discipline does not have a historical trajectory? This is what his professorial endowment, as the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, recognizes: a scholar whose restlessness cannot be contained by the disciplinary constraint of history. From African studies to gender, Yoruba studies, governance, development and politics, and from history to education and the study of religion, TF has laid the foundations of humanities scholarship in Africa that has already translates into an intellectual legacy. And the worry and delight is that he has not put down his pen. This is a scholar who has a reputation for not sleeping! When you have a restless scholar who doesn’t sleep, and takes the humanities as his space, what you have is an enormous contribution to the corpus of thought itself.
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And then the last point. TF stands as the centerpiece of a series of networks, platforms and thought communities that advance ideas and views in the service of humanity and the rehabilitation of the African continent. TF is a master organizer. From gathering friends to help others in need, to organizing conferences, it fosters the juncture of discourse and community, and of theory and practice. The paradigm of the Africanization of knowledge goes beyond the imperatives of decoloniality and pluriversalism; it also implies remembering the benefits of cultural values to manage the stress of modernity. With TF, scholarship is a form of activism, from the individual to the nation and then to the development of the continent. Being a public intellectual is not just a mere designation; it is a responsibility for him, for example, to continue speaking the truth to power. And scholarship is much more about building the minds of others and legacies of all kinds. How, for example, could Yoruba studies not have a journal that meets that imperative?
Professor Oluwatoyin Omoyeni Falola will be remembered as an example, a pioneer on the rugged frontier of knowledge production and intellectual mentoring. Even though this generation of young Nigerians is one that you try so hard to understand, and are so against in terms of value dislocation, it remains a benchmark in terms of values that have been lost in the eyes of The so-called millennials and Gen. Z. TF represents a cultural framework of values that cannot be lost in the absence of norms. He is the very sense of an omolúwàbí that young people are forced to confront and engage in the ongoing culture war around the imperative of moral values as the foundation of Nigeria’s post-colonial predicaments.
TF is now a septuagenarian. For those who know him, as I think I know him, that reality can’t be terrifying for him, nor should it be for us. This is because, for Toyin Falola, each new phase of life is the opportunity for new beginnings, new books to write; some new ideas and views to push forward; some new series to develop; a few more people to guide to prominence; some good deeds to throw into space for humanity; and so on. So with TF, seventy is a new birth phase. But there are dimensions in the being of every man that belong elsewhere. It is written that while the horse may be prepared for the place of battle, the victory is God’s. And since the selflessness that TF personifies is the mark of the gods, I affirm myself in all the faith that I have, and I provoke the grace of the High to sustain you, for encouragement and abundant life, in health and general prosperity , so that for you Oluwatoyin Omoyeni Falola, the glory of your last one will shine so bright that you will not finish until you have finished your mission in this part of existence. Ase Edumare!
Let me end this article with a quote from TS Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we started from.” As one phase ends today and another begins, may there be many more starts with TF’s nod stamped on them!
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