Journalism in the service of society

Toyin Falola at 70

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do something worth writing – Ben Franklin

Toyin Falola
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IT is a dilemma; where do you begin or what do write about Toyin Falola? A world-renowned academic that is at home with his academic colleagues as much as he is with the downtrodden? He does not display any sense of self-importance in some academics with modest achievements but with elephantine ego. As he clocked 70 on January 1, 2023, a surprising Zoom event without his prior knowledge was organized to allow his colleagues, mentees, students and the many whose lives he has touched to pay tributes to him.

The event was like a diary of who is who in the world as it was graced by many eminent personalities in the academia his immediate community, technocrats, politicians, businessmen, students, all and sundry.

My introduction to this great Historian was through his memoir A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt (Bookcraft, 2013). It was the title that attracted me to it. It is a story about his growing up in Ibadan and what influenced his life and the choices he later made. After reading this memoir, I wrote a review of it and in my copy wrote these words; “This is really a great memoir. Written in a language that smacks of poetry, songs, idioms and all. This is a book that has bloodied the nose of all those who think the study and teaching of History in our schools are not necessary. It is simply elegant and fascinating.” After that first encounter in 2013, I was hooked on his writings, and he has numerous of them.

This is a man whose area of study is History but has through his wealth of knowledge transverse all corners of knowledge. If ever there was any man who deserves to be called a professor of all-around knowledge, it is Toyin Falola who prefers to be referred to simply as TF. Not even as Prof! Talk of deep knowledge and humility.  Our friendship (?) got deeper in 2019/20. I had read his second memoir Counting the Tiger’s Teeth (The University of Michigan Press, 2014), in 2019 and did a review of it for The Nation newspapers. I sent the link to him at the University of Texas at Austin. After reading it he replied acknowledging the review.

Then in December 2019, he sent me a PDF copy of a book he had just written which was going to be presented to the public in Lagos. He asked me to be the reviewer at the presentation which captains of industry, technocrats and so on would be in attendance. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo was to b the chairman. Without hesitation, I replied to accept to do the review, especially with all the important people in attendance. The book for the presentation was Cultural Modernity in A Colonized World (Pan- African University Press, Austin, 2020), a detailed study of the life and times of Chief Isaac Oluwole Delano, one of the pioneer linguists in Africa. Unfortunately, I was unable to make the book presentation because the day slated was the very day I was travelling out of the country to the United States of America. When I got the email conveying the date to me, I was hesitant to let him know I was billed to travel that night. I thought it was a great opportunity to meet him and also do a review of a book by an eminent scholar in the presence of such a stellar audience. The venue was Victoria Island at 10 am and my flight was for that evening. I told him I was travelling to the US that night and would not mind doing it and leaving immediately.

He was very considerate and he told me on phone that he would excuse me from doing the review since I had a flight that night knowing the temper of Lagos traffic as unpredictable, he’ll not want me to miss my flight. I reluctantly conceded and was sulking. Then he asked “Where are you travelling to in the US?” I told him Texas. He asked how long I was going to stay and I told him I’ll be there till mid-January 2020.  “Will you like to visit me in Austin since you’ll be in Houston? It’s a few hours’ drive.” Who would turn down such an offer from an eminent academic?

It was the longest December to January for me. I prayed every day for January to come and for him not to change his mind. How do you invite someone you have never met physically to your home in the US? A Nigerian? With all the bad news about Nigerians?  January came and he called me on his return and pronto I was in Austin. He came to the bus terminal to pick me up. That marked the beginning of our long relationship. A relationship that transcends that of a superior or elder relating with a younger man of fewer accomplishments.

As many have wondered, TF is an enigma. I can attest to that. At his home in Austin, on the day I arrived there, he drove me around the city and showed me places and offered to be my official photographer asking me to pose and using my phone to take shots of me! Such humility. We left his vast study at home at about 1 am to go to bed. Around 3 am I woke up to use the bathroom and I saw the study lights on. I walked towards the study thinking of going to put it off because I remembered we turned it off before we went to bed. Lo and behold, TF was awake sitting and punching the computer keyboards! I was stunned. I turned back and went to sleep not wanting to disturb him. In the morning I asked whether he sleeps at all and he just smiled. The reception party he and his wife held for me in their home was attended by a cross-section of Nigerians and others from all walks of life. It’s a reception I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

TF is perhaps the most productive Historian alive today. But the most enduring and fascinating aspect of his life is that he has successfully become an academic without subject or discipline barriers. His two memoirs are brilliant literary books. He has written on language, linguistics, (Isaac O. Delano’s Dictionary of Yoruba Monosyllabic Verbs, co-edited with Michael O. Afolayan, Pan-African University Press, Austin, 2020), Selected Works of Chief Isaac O. Delano on Yoruba Languages, co-edited with Michael O. Afolayan, Pan-African University Press, Austin, 2020), philosophy, education, sociology (In Praise of Greatness: The Poetics of African Adulation, Pan-African University Press, Austin, 2019) and so on. There are many on others on history, the latest of which is Understanding Modern Nigeria: Ethnicity, Democracy and Development, (Pan-African University Press, Austin, 2021).

In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that there is no discipline, especially in the Humanities that he has not written about. It is therefore heart lifting to hear that Lead City University, Ibadan on December 12, 2022, proclaimed him a Professor Emeritus in the Humanities. A well-deserved honour. For a man that has written, co-written or edited over 200 quality books, TF has affected the academia in such a way that his record would be hard to equal or erase, and as Andrew Barnes, a professor of History at Arizona University in the United States once said, “We live in the age of Falola.” Truly.

I like to conclude this tribute with the words of TF himself. On his birthday he wrote a piece which was widely published in the media entitled: TF at 70: A Meditation on Nothingness. In that piece, he wrote these poetic lines:

With every new age, I attain

I am transitioning into nothingness

I have savoured the sweet, the bitter, and the sour of life

I have been called great, and I have sat with the greats

But, I am inch-by-inch, moment-by-moment agbalagba

Daintily transitioning into nothingness…


I have seen it all and have reached the peak

Bestriding all, agbalagba, I ponder:

What is left

But nothingness?

I say with all emphasis that TF, you are not “Daintily transitioning into nothingness,” you are transiting to greatness because your works would outlive you as the works of other great writers have outlived them. This is Falola Age.

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