Growing up in Nigeria in the years around independence provides good material for a personal memoir. These must have been extraordinary times, full of hope and expectation for the emerging new country. For a growing teenager though, the issues were closer to home. Toyin Omoyeni Falola, well known scholar of African history, has used his personal experiences to create A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt, a rich and innovative memoir, combining his growing up during that time with events in his community and the country as a whole. The resulting book gives the reader vivid insight into a complex society with its intricate traditions, in particular those of the Yoruba culture. Falola writes an easy accessible style, often addressing the reader directly. He demonstrates his narrative skill and an ability to impart local events with gracefulness and humour. He demonstrates how the use of proverbs, idioms and traditional imagery has remained part of everyday discourse by interweaving sayings into his narrative. “A proverb is regarded as the ‘horse’ that carries words to a different level, investing them with meanings…”.
Falola’s account suggests that, at the age of ten, he was already a curious youngster and an astute observer of people, relationships and events. His early fascination with trains led to experiences beyond his age level that were to influence his standing in his family and community. After an unplanned train ride and its aftermath that created upheaval in the family, he was transplanted to another branch of his family in a more rural sector of Ibadan, the city-state in Nigeria’s south-western region. Not having taken notice of the hierarchical structure of his polygamous family, he realizes only then who among his “mothers” was his birth mother. There he also learns to connect with the rich traditions of the local people who have maintained much closer links to their past than those in the urban centre. For example, like a young detective, he tracks an old woman who is different from any he had seen in the neighbourhood. When she finally confronts him, the outcomes are an important lesson for his life and future. These early influences shape his thinking into his adult life.
While the chapters stand as independent stories or essays, they flow together easily as a portrait of a person in his time and place. He merges the memories of his childhood with his comprehension of circumstances as an adult. Understanding of his roots and the culture instilled in him led him to study the cultural traditions of the Yoruba people and the history of the land. His reflections on how the two religions, Islam and Christianity managed to co-exist with the rich African traditions are as pertinent today as they were during the sixties. So is his criticism of the trend among the younger generation to denigrate their own culture in the face of western influences.
Toyin Falola’s A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt: An African Memoir was published in 2005 by the University of Michigan Press, and is available online at Amazon.