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A few days ago, my podcast partner and I had the delight of welcoming the historian Toyin Falola as the very first guest on our “Offside Musings Podcast.”
Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker in the Humanities and a Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin. If you know the man, you’d recognize that it’s no exaggeration to describe him as one born to be a historian. I wager, in fact, that had he not undergone formal training as a historian, he would still have found a way to become one.
Falola’s personal odyssey is a stupendous one. It is as dramatic as his intellectual career is awe-inspiring. Academics may well focus on the sheer fecundity of the man’s mind, evident in his intimidating oeuvre. Falola is listed as author or co-author of close to two hundred books. The books run the disciplinary gamut, with history as the mainstay, but stretching across literature, religion, music, film, and fashion, to name a few. You’d expect a man of such uncommon accomplishment to be slowing down, especially after turning seventy the very first day of January 2023.
Perish the thought! Falola is a believer in the ethic of staying active. He’s determined to keep working hard for as long as he can – indeed, until he drops dead. With that mindset, he has made what many a scholar would consider a scandalous bargain about how to spend the next five years of his life. He’s signed contracts with several publishers to produce more than fifty books within that span of time.
An intellectual who boasts such catholic breadth and stunning productivity might be suspected of trafficking in pamphlets and such like. Not Falola. His books pack heft. They routinely land at more than five hundred pages each.
Africa and its global diaspora is his turf. His scholarship has earned him estimation, no less by many of his peers, as arguably Africa’s preeminent historian. He is a sought-after speaker at conferences in the US, Africa, Europe, Asia and elsewhere. He’s been festooned with numerous visiting professorships and honorary degrees by different universities around the world.
How does the man comport himself? How does he wear his spree of garlands, honors and preferment? With a moving modesty and disarming charm. In person, and on the lecture stage, he looms large. Yet, he is unfailingly personable and approachable. He never comes across as one drunk on the effusive accolade. He’s a witty raconteur who howls in laughter about the absurdities of life, including his own.
Let me illustrate with a hilarious anecdote he told about a family meeting he was once summoned to. The subject? The elders wanted him to announce what salary he would pay each month to his half siblings whose destinies he’d “stolen.” In their mind, he could not have become so successful if he hadn’t used supernatural means to hijack his less fortunate siblings’ destinies. It was only fair that he made reparations to those he had ostensibly dispossessed by offering them generous salaries!
The mirth with which he recounted the story belied the undeniable gravity of such encounters in a country where superstitions are rife. What accounts for Falola’s sense of humor and humility?
Part of the answer may well lie in the fact that his path to the pinnacle of his profession has been rather unusual and unconventional? There was nothing cushy about his early life. Instead, his formative years were marked by difficulties that could hardly predict his present station.
A dropout from secondary school, he took to correspondence studies to earn his certificate. At one point in his life, he worked several low-paying jobs, including a stint as a bricklayer.
Even so, his gritty life did not deter him from having high intellectual dreams. In some ways, that tough-as-nails experience lent urgency to his bookish pursuits. In his year as a youth corps member, he was posted to Makurdi, Benue State to teach at a college of education. Discovering that the college had a well-stocked library, he designed to spend much of his free hours in the books’ company. Ensconced in the library, he read with a fever.
Over the last several decades, many top African intellectuals and professionals have relocated abroad. Many – perhaps most – of them had received some of their education in Europe, the UK, North America or Asia. By contrast, Falola’s entire educational training took place in Nigeria. In this specific sense, he strikes me as a minority. And, as an intellectual being, he can be tagged “made in Nigeria.”
At a time of profound unease about the calamitous state of education in Nigeria, Falola is an advertisement – along with many from his and other generations – of an inspiring epoch. Once upon a time, Nigerian education had bragging rights. The products of the country’s educational institutions stacked up well against their counterparts from just about any part of the world.
It is no surprise that Falola insists on rooting his scholarship in the soil and world that molded him. A man ever on the move, he strives to spend half of each year in Nigeria. It’s a way of imbuing his work with vitality, integrity and organicity. It is also his way of giving back to a country that shaped him, even if it’s become misshapen and unrecognizable.
Falola the scholar is, in his inimitable way, a sower of seeds. He’s famous for his generosity to fledging academics as well as established ones. A mentor par excellence, he constantly looks out for opportunities to collaborate with historians and other scholars trying still to cut their teeth. Why does he invest so much time to cultivate younger historians and intellectuals? His answer is pithy: “There’s no success without successors.”
Falola brings a historian’s calm, contemplative and probing sensibility to bear on the passionate, often-heated subject of Nigeria. Nigeria’s crises, in his view, arise from the common misconception that the possession of political power translates into governance. Nigeria is bogged down in the exercise of power, but with little acumen for governance. His analysis of the country’s current political ferment is fascinating and stimulating, even when one inclines to a different conclusion or nurses vehement disagreement.
It is a treasure, an extraordinary feast, to explore private and public matters with Falola, a man of towering gifts and insights.
Okechukwu Ndibe, better known as Okey Ndibe, (born 1960) an acclaimed Nigerian novelist, political columnist and essayist was born in Yola, Nigeria. He is the author of Arrows of Rain and Foreign Gods, Inc.
Ndibe has worked as a professor at several colleges, including Connecticut College, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, and Brown University.
We are honored that he brings his sharp intellectual depth and years of political activism to write for Life and Times.