• Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Toyin Falola and the layered concept of “ÌWÀ”

Toyin Falola and the layered concept of  “ÌWÀ”

“It is necessary to rediscover those values and build them into education and politics to make an alien system like ‘Liberal Democracy’ work in Africa.”

The other day you stumbled upon a Zoom event organised by the University of Malawi and hosted by the Africa Journal of Religion and Culture of that School. The lecturer was Prof Toyin Falola. The topic was ÌWÀ.

The figure of Toyin Falola has lurked in the penumbra of your awareness for close on forty years. It evokes memories of 1986, when you won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) prize for Literature with LONELY MEN. Niyi Osundare won the ANA prize for Poetry in the same year. And a certain Wole Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It was a heady time for Nigerian Arts. You joined a group of writers and enthusiasts to travel to University of Ife to attend a special evening of artistic outpourings to celebrate Soyinka’s achievement on the world stage.

The venue of the celebration was the famous Oduduwa Hall. The huge auditorium was filled with excited humanity – writers, critics, assorted members of the ‘arty-farty’ crowd, and, of course, students. The University, which would soon be renamed Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), had a justified reputation as the ‘happening’ place in Nigerian students’ activism. Students and lecturers wore the reputation as a badge of honour.

It was a free-flowing evening of poetry reading, poetic prose, and anti-government diatribe. The Babangida government, and soldiers in government generally, were unpopular objects of ridicule in this demographic, made up of left-wing intellectuals and their eager student followers. In the front row were easy-to-recognize notables such as playwright Femi Osofisan and activist GG Darah.

Speakers were called to the podium as the event progressed. Each seemed eager to outdo the speaker before taking potshots at ‘stupid soldiers in power’.

Femi Osofisan brought the roof down with his joke about ‘Who Wrote Macbeth?’ – a story about how an ‘action’ Military Governor of a State paid an unscheduled visit to a school, picked on frightened students at random and asked them, one after another – ‘Who wrote Macbeth?’

Every one of the students denied committing the crime, whatever it was. The governor then asked the teachers and the headmaster. They all denied being responsible. The punch line was when it was revealed that the governor himself did not know the answer.

In this heady atmosphere of Establishment-bashing, you were soon called up to the stage to give your own address.

It went badly straight off.

You wanted to talk about the critic Chinweizu, who was making insulting personal remarks against Wole Soyinka, under the guise of literary criticism.

It was the wrong topic, and the booing was immediate, and vigorous.

‘Don’t worry,’ you assured the audience. ‘I will soon get to the part where I abuse the President!’

You are not sure now whether you said the words, or merely entertained the thought.

That moment when you lost your audience became a great creative moment for you, because it brought, in a flash, the idea of BATOLICA – your next book.

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In the book, the crowd of radical lecturers and supercharged students decide to lock the gates of the University, form a revolutionary government, and proclaim the Independent People’s Republic of BATOLICA.

You would go on to write BATOLICA. Sadly, the book would be mangled in print by an uncaring publisher.

Somewhere in that heady weekend in Ile Ife, you ran into Toyin Falola, ‘TF’, introduced as a brilliant Historian and a rising star of the Humanities. Your interaction was fleeting. If you ever thought of writing historical fiction, he said, he was ready to help in painting the period-scenario.

PELEWURA was still several years away, but you thanked him for the offer.

Falola, with many eggheads of his generation, would later ‘Japa’ to the USA. He would become a major world figure across several disciplines in African Studies.

He is currently the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, and a much sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Culture to Political Economy and Religion in Africa.

At the Malawi event, he is wearing his hallmark hand-crafted Yoruba cap, and he is struggling with a dry cough.

The Yoruba word ÌWÀ, Falola avers, goes beyond the English translation of ‘Character’. There are several ramifications and several layers of meaning. It is at the heart of Yoruba social existence and worldview, just as it is prominent in other African cultures. So important is ÌWÀ as a defining concept that Uli Bier, a German who lived many years in Nigeria and immersed himself in Yoruba culture, built ‘IWALEWA House’ in the University of Bayreuth, Germany, as a place of study and presentation of African culture and art.

A failure to appreciate the value of ÌWÀ is at the root of much of the corruption and chaos in Nigeria and Africa, according to TF. It is necessary to rediscover those values and build them into education and politics to make an alien system like ‘Liberal Democracy’ work in Africa.

Social media, he continues, works on negative values, where an eleven-year-old boy may abuse a ninety-year-old elder with no consequence. He could understand, he says, Wole Soyinka’s pique at the recent tirade of disrespect directed at him. Cell phones are a vehicle for the erosion of parental and social values.

Academics and social activists must not just wringe their hands helplessly but take up the fight against the prevalent negatives of values and behaviour with a positive codification and dissemination of ÌWÀ.

Someone in the audience asks if ÌWÀ may be related to the East African concept of Umbutu.

‘Yes’, comes the answer.

Another person wants to know if idealising the past is not merely a retreat from present failures.

The reply is that neglected ancient values are needed to create a livable way of life and a political philosophy that can truly work for the edification and development of Africans.