Toyin Falola's Memoir A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt Review


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Toyin Falola's memoir, A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt, portrays one boy's views on the culture and customs of his county from his perspective as an active participant as well as an observer. From determining his mother's age to joining in the struggle to free an innocent man, Dr. Falola's journey growing up in Nigeria embodies the rich, diverse history that defines Africa.
The opening of the novel places the reader not in Falola's shoes as a child, but rather as an adult scholar attempting to procure information from his own family. This proves easier said than done as Falola takes us through the process of obtaining specific dates in a society that deems them irrelevant. By examining the difficulty that Falola has in this seemingly simple task, the reader begins to understand the way in which time and space are intertwined and weighed in Africa. This concept of "connections between words, space, and rituals" encompasses the way that Africans perceive the world around them - as a series of interrelated events rather than specific instances in time (Falola 224). This approach also stems from the concept that the family unit, the village, and the elders come before the individual in all instances, making a detail such as a birthday unimportant when it comes to the welfare of the whole. Introducing the reader to the complexities of African conventions, Falola expands their minds and challenges them to view the forthcoming narrative with untainted eyes.
The structure of the memoir immerses the reader in African culture by incorporating anecdotes, poems, proverbs, and songs. These elements combine to emphasize the importance of oral institutions and to convey the significance of understanding them, "One must learn proverbs…a proverb is regarded as the ‘horse' that carries words to a different level, investing them with meanings, enrobing the user with the garment of wisdom" (Falola 53). "As in this case and others that I witnessed, the leader must be gifted with language, making extensive use of proverbs, idioms, and cross-references" (Falola 133). While the verses add depth to the story, they often become cumbersome and superfluous. For example, when discussing the need to keep quiet in order to conceal the location of their musical group, the addition of the proverb, "You cannot light a fire when in hiding," is unnecessary seeing as the reader already has a clear understanding of the meaning of the text (Falola 243).

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Conversely, the inclusion of a proverb can lead to confusion and ultimately distraction as the reader spends their time trying to understand the proverb rather than focusing on the significance of the story. Such is the case in chapter six when Falola explains the social structure of juggling relationships with spouses and parents, "Only a foolish woman would love her husband to the extent of abandoning her own father and mother, spending so much time and money to buy a monkey that lived in a treetop" (Falola 160-161). In spite of occasional overuse and obscurity, many of the proverbs added insight to how Africans view different social institutions and how they communicate those views from one generation to the next.
As the memoir of a child growing up in Africa during an era of political turmoil, expectations exist that this novel will illustrate some of the incidents that led up to major historical events that changed the landscape of modern day Nigeria. The narrative lives up to this presumption by giving a clear chain of events that explains the societal shift from villages to cities, "It [villages] represented an abode of suffering: no electricity, no water delivered to the houses by hidden pipes, no cinema at which to see cowboys running and shooting without ever being killed" (Falola 195). Education proves to be a major factor in this transition, as the newly educated class demands higher standards of living and white-collar jobs. Falola is able to give a face to the topics and issues that we have been discussing in class. Little details such as how imported foods change the taste buds of students and "prepare them for a future that would enslave them in the global economy" (Falola 145). As a student who has eaten cafeteria food for many, many years this is a concept that I can identify with and allows me to see the subtle ways in which the Western world has tainted traditional African culture. Another major event, Pasitor's attempt to free Jakobu, leads the reader step by step through the escalating corruption of the government and demonstrates how it directly affects the lives of the citizens. However, while the reader can imagine what it looked like to live in Africa during these times of change and hardship, the memoir does not give any indication of what it felt like. The lack of emotional connections in the text was disappointing and it made it harder to connect on a personal level with Falola's experiences. In this regard, the book failed to live up to my expectations.
Falola's memoir places the reader in the midst of historical and cultural events by viewing them through the eyes of a young boy. This personal context allows the reader to better understand the atypical way that Africans view both time and space and their relationship to one another. While the structure of the story is occasional befuddled by arduous proverbs, the main points shine through in an unforgettable way. Much as Leku gave Falola the charm to remember, he passes on that gift through the eternal words of his memoir.

Falola, Toyin. A Mouth Sweeter Than Salt. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.


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