A Mouth Sweeter than Salt is the title of Toyin Omoyeni Falola’s memoir. Indeed, the notable historian who for many years has researched African history, especially the history of West Africa and the Yoruba-speaking people, is an erudite scholar and chronicler par excellence. His scholarly knowledge about Africa and the Yoruba people has earned him several awards both at home and abroad. His ability to wax eloquent and charm an audience with his scholarly works on the culture and history of Africa is impressive. The picture of Africa that he so masterfully paints presents the lives and realities of the continent quite eloquently and admirably. A man of undoubted cerebral reckoning, Falola has taken Africa literally concretely to all corners of the globe in the hundreds of scholarly works he has done in his career. He holds several scholarly fellowships and endowments, as well as awards for distinguished teaching. No doubt, Falola among many African historians is in a class of his own. Who would have thought that a man who had dropped out of school to fight as a local guerilla force in Ibadan would today stand tall in the Valhalla of great minds?
Birth and Education
Toyin Omoyeni Falola was born on 1 January 1953, in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria, to a father who was a tailor, James Adesina Falola, and mother who was a trader, Nihinlola Grace Falola. As a child, Toyin would accompany his grandfather who was a pastor, on trips to seek redress or justice for one person or another in their community. Right from early childhood, he had been exposed to the significance of justice, fairness, and truth in the lives of a people and the complex nature of those concepts. It was probably in pursuit of those ideals that young Toyin temporarily interrupted his education while in secondary school in the 1960s, to join a rebellion. The peasant rebellion was to protest what was seen by the group as excessive taxation and high-handedness by the government towards the farmers. Toyin was part of the fighters who stormed the Agodi Prisons and Mapo Hall to release prisoners held by the government. He, unfortunately, however, lost his grandfather during the crisis. Following the loss, Toyin was forced to change the trajectory of his career ambition when he switched to the humanities from the sciences. He had planned to study medicine but now had to opt for history instead.
He proceeded to the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife) for his bachelor’s degree in History and graduated in 1976. After working briefly as a school teacher, he enrolled for his PhD study in 1977 and completed it in 1981. Falola was a brilliant student and excelled at his studies as a result of which the History department at the University of Ife offered him a job as a junior faculty.
Toyin Falola started his working career first as an elementary school teacher. From 1970 to 1971, he taught at the U. A. M. C. Primary School, Pahayi, Ilaro, Nigeria. He then worked as a high school teacher at the Okebadan High School, Ibadan, in 1973. After the completion of his bachelor’s degree, he again taught at the Government College, Markurdi, in north-central Nigeria while completing his national youth service. He also worked for a while as an administrative officer with the Public Service Commission of Oyo State, Nigeria.
Falola enjoyed a fast-paced career progression in academics. He was offered the position of a Junior Faculty member with teaching responsibility while studying for his postgraduate degree between 1977 and 1981. When in 1981 he bagged his doctorate degree, Falola was promoted to the position of Lecturer II. In 1982, he received tenure and was promoted to the position of Lecturer I. In 1985, he was promoted to the position of Senior Lecturer, and by 1988, he had already been recommended by the department of history for full professorship.
In 1988, he won the Smuts Fellowship, teaching at the University of Cambridge, England between 1988 and 1989. Between July and December 1989, he worked as a Senior Research Fellow and Project Coordinator at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, Lagos. At the beginning of the year 1990, Falola started a new job as Visiting Professor at York University, Ontario, Canada. He taught in the university’s History department in the Graduate Program in Social and Political Thought and the Graduate Program in History. Having completed his time as Visiting Professor in 1991, he moved to the University of Texas at Austin as a professor of African History. He is currently the Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor in History at the university as well as the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair Professor in the humanities and a distinguished teaching professor.
Falola’s research interest is African history, with a concentration in West Africa and Yoruba history. He designs and teaches several general and innovative courses on Africa, African diaspora, historiography and methods of history. His numerous scholarly works have contributed to the body of knowledge on the history of the Yoruba and other West African peoples and ethnicities. He has authored and edited over a hundred books and monographs. A prolific scholar, he has also authored over 100 journal articles, book chapters, and reviews and attended numerous conferences. Falola is a well-sought-after international speaker at several academic and non-academic fora across the globe and has given numerous lectures on all continents of the globe.
Honours, Awards, and Fellowships
For his outstanding work and remarkable contributions to the study of African history and historiography, Falola has been honoured with several awards, fellowships, and titles. In the year 2000, the University of Texas at Austin awarded him the Jean Holloway Award for Teaching Excellence. The following year, he was awarded yet another award—the Texas Excellence Teaching Award for his extremely good teaching records. He would later win more teaching awards: Chancellor’s Council Outstanding Teaching Award (2003), Academy of Distinguished Teachers Award (2004), and Outstanding Graduate Teaching Award (2010).
He has also been honoured by other academic and research bodies outside his university. Some of the recent awards include the Ibadan Foundation Award in 2009, the African Studies Distinguished Global Scholar Lifetime Achievement Award in October 2009, the Nigeria Diaspora Academic Prize (2010), Career Research Excellence Award (2010), Distinguished Africana Award (2011), African and the African Diaspora Excellent Leadership Award and the Distinguished Africanist Award (awarded by the African Studies Association in 2011).
Toyin Falola was conferred with an honourary doctorate degree of Doctor of Humanities by the Monmouth University in 2007. At least, five festschriften and bio-critical studies have been published in his honour, two of which were edited by Adebayo Oyebade with the titles The Transformation of Nigeria Essays in Honour of Toyin Falola (2002) and The Foundations of Nigeria Essays in Honour of Toyin Falola (2003). Other titles of festschriften in his honour are Precolonial Nigeria Essays in Honour of Toyin Falola (2005) by Akin Ogundiran; Perspectives on African Studies: Essays in Honour of Toyin Falola by the duo of Akin Alao and Rotimi Taiwo; and Toyin Falola The Man, The Mask, The Muse (2010) by Niyi Afolabi.
Falola sits on the editorial or advisory boards of a number of international journals including The Oxford History of Historical Writings, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, International Journal of West African Studies, University of Lagos Sociological Review, Abuja Journal of Humanities, Notes and Records: An International Journal of African and African Diaspora Studies, among many others. In Nigeria, a conference named in his honour holds annually on university campuses with different thematic focuses in African studies. He is a member of a number of professional organisations, among them the Nigerian Studies Association, Historical Society of Nigeria, Nigerian Economic Society, The Nigerian Study Group, Ife Social Sciences Forum, Ife Humanities Society, African Studies Association, American Historical Association, Canadian African Studies Association, Saharan Studies, and others.
Falola’s research work aligns in the direction of the Ibadan School which leans towards a Nigerian nationalism that looked to forge Nigerian identity by making recourse to the glories of pre-colonial history. Typically, the school accepts and recognizes oral evidence that Western historians would often discountenance. The impact of Toyin Falola’s work is recognizable in its influence on the new directions that younger academics and historians today are adopting in their study of African pre-colonial history.
Toyin Falola is married to Olabisi Falola. They have three children from their marriage, Dolapo, Bisola, and Toyin. Their love affair which started during their days as undergraduates on the campus of the University of Ife continues to blossom even today.