A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir

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.

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