New years and births are promises of a new beginning, which is why I think of those born on January 1 as special. My imagination of New Year’s Day babies is that they enter the world with cheeky smiles. I believe that somewhere in the pre-world where humans choose their orí and date of birth, some selected January 1 just so that the good fortunes we pray the supernatural forces would direct our way in the new year get folded into their arrival. If this myth is true — and who can say otherwise? — then, it explains why Toyin Omoyeni Falola, the Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair Professor in the Humanities, born exactly 70 years ago today, lives out the promises he personifies.

As a historian, social custodian, cultural ambassador, raconteur, and aesthete, Falola is the synecdochical mouth to which his autobiography titled, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt, refers. A Nigerian once addressed him as Your Intellectual Majesty! That was a remarkable turn of phrase, and it captured his expressions of the life of the mind and the awe we hold him.

On his birthday, it would therefore be expected to talk about Falola as a quintessence of intellectualism, an exemplar of a mind with vitality. One could speak from today till tomorrow about his vast accomplishments as a scholar and administrator. There is no shortage of accounts of his towering scholarship and unparalleled contributions to the global academy. Shall we begin to talk about the tomes of interdisciplinary research he has published in hundreds of books, essays, journal articles, websites, and other formats? Or, do we start with counting the myriad instances when he astutely innovated spaces of value around Africans’ research that would otherwise have been marginal in the global academy?

For a man who has nourished scholars of different generations, one must also speak of the many hands of the people he has pulled up through his moral and intellectual investments in them. That is why I am choosing a slightly different path in my praise of him. Rather than talk about his wide-ranging intellectual works, I would also relate aspects of his personality from my close observation of him.

One of his most remarkable aspects is his work ethic. Having worked with Falola on several occasions, I have seen how fast his mind works and how much he pushes himself to work. There is no stopping or slowing down for him, and there is no keeping up with him either. In terms of research output and the ability to work across a broad range of disciplines, he is unique and an enigma. He once told me that some people asked him to reveal the source of the power he uses to write so much.

He has been my teacher and mentor (and a lesser-known fact is that we are both from the same agboolé in Ibadan). We both met through our respective books on Ibadan sometime around 2009. He had read my book, Under the Brown Rusted Roofs and asked to meet me when next he came to Nigeria. When we met, he gave me a copy of ‘A Mouth Sweeter than Salt’ too. The book was — and still is — one of the most remarkable childhood memoirs I ever read. For someone who grew up in Ibadan, the book felt true to me. Falola’s skilful alternation between his roles as his own biographer and a professional historian illuminated the life I was living in Ibadan at the time, in ways that abstracted my own experience for me.

While I was introduced to Falola’s wisdom and wittiness through this book, one of my most striking memories of our meeting was the walk we took from Ring Road roundabout to Kakanfo Inn. We were four on that journey — two other colleagues from the Obafemi Awolowo University also came along. On the way, he stopped a few times to buy something from — or just bargain with — some vendors. One of those he stopped to talk to sold groundnuts, and both she and Falola would soon engage in a lively chat that sent the three of us accompanying him reeling with laughter. The scene made an indelible first impression of him on me. There was no hint of pejoration on his part; it was all just repartee by two people exchanging witty words in their Ibadan dialect. Over the years when I have seen Falola among distinguished academic audiences, my mind would replay the scene where he bantered with roadside vendors. In the wise that Falola has maintained his connection with his local community, even as he climbed higher and higher in the world, he embodies the spirit of Ibadan as a place where the high elite intellectual culture seamlessly combines with the popular and organic. Like Apostle Paul in the Bible, who became all things to all men, his talent includes this ability to be at home with diverse people and relate to them in a convivial and humane manner.

One of his most remarkable aspects is his work ethic. Having worked with Falola on several occasions, I have seen how fast his mind works and how much he pushes himself to work. There is no stopping or slowing down for him, and there is no keeping up with him either. In terms of research output and the ability to work across a broad range of disciplines, he is unique and an enigma. He once told me that some people asked him to reveal the source of the power he uses to write so much. Truly, when our people cannot unravel a mystique immediately, they attribute it to some supernatural force. But in the case of Falola, one hardly blames anyone who sees him from afar and assumes that some otherworldly voice sits in the corner of his study and dictates his books. The amount of work it takes to do what Falola does requires almost superhuman abilities. There is no time I have visited him that he is not cooking up multiple works simultaneously. How he manages to put so many publications together without yielding the efforts necessary to nurture his various communities or honour other social commitments is worth studying.

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I must also speak of Falola’s generosity, and I have been a beneficiary. There are many examples to share, but I will stop at only two. The first is his book, In Praise of Greatness: The Poetics of African Adulation (Carolina 2019). He created this work to celebrate his colleagues, mentees, and other people who compose his communities. With his sweeter-than-salt mouth, he effusively chanted the oriki of people who had enriched our social and cultural life in their own diverse ways. Because I helped him source some of the archival materials he used in that book, I know the generous financial investment he committed to the work. To write that book took procuring hundreds of books, retrieving countless essays — some of which had become obscure — and recalling undocumented aspects of peoples’ lives, just so he could create a wholesome picture of each person. That project is not the sort of book one embarks on without a generosity of spirit and a willingness to lift others up. For a man who has even risen to the peak of his career, he could very well afford not to take on such an arduous responsibility, yet he did. Also, you must have read several of his online articles where he praises his friends and peers on their birthdays, while also celebrating the life of those who pass on. For a culture where we hardly write obituaries to mark the passage of people who leave this plane of existence to join the pantheon of ancestors, his intervention in that respect is always a thoughtful gesture.

Those of us who have been his students and mentees can also testify to how much he has used his personal and institutional resources to help our feet get grounded in the soil of the academy. In Austin, Texas, he has been a father figure to generations of students. His house has been a landing port for students from all over Africa who come to study at the University of Texas at Austin. His house has also hosted many parties for his students, from students’ graduations to baby showers.

The second instance I will share happened in 2019, when he was the keynote speaker at the inauguration of the Ogbu Uke Kalu Centre for Christian and African Culture in Uturu, Abia State. Falola did not just attend the event with a speech, he also came with cartons of copies of the book he had written on Ogbu Kalu’s works. The book, Understanding Ogbu Kalu: Christianity and Culture in Africa, was a homage to a fellow renowned historian. I was a live witness at the event when copies of the book were distributed among those present and some loudly commented on the detribalisation of a Yoruba man who had gone that far. But to construe Falola with a dubious Nigerian term like “detribalised” is to miss the bigger picture of his personality. He is simply generous, and he has become secure in himself to the point where he can loudly proclaim the accomplishment of others.

Those of us who have been his students and mentees can also testify to how much he has used his personal and institutional resources to help our feet get grounded in the soil of the academy. In Austin, Texas, he has been a father figure to generations of students. His house has been a landing port for students from all over Africa who come to study at the University of Texas at Austin. His house has also hosted many parties for his students, from students’ graduations to baby showers. The university has called upon him several times to host scholars and young leaders, especially from Africa. He and his wife, Dr Bisi Falola, are parents to many international students to whom they gave a home in a strange land. He has done so much to help others flourish, and he is worth celebrating as he clocks 70 today.

Finally, recall that I mentioned earlier that Falola and I come from the same agboolé in Ibadan? Ah-ha! I learnt about that connection sometime around 2013 in North Carolina, while we were attending a conference. The three of us — Falola, Professor Akin Ogundiran of the University of North Carolina, and I — had been exchanging stories about our Ibadan lives only to discover we were from the same agboolé! It was a surprising — and quite delightful — coincidence. I proudly wave my familial association with him like a flag of honour because it is worth the brag. Other than Ibadan people, how many Yorubas even boast of several scholars from the same agboolé? But thanks to one of our wonderful achieving scions like him, we Ibadan people beat our chests and stand in a class above everyone else!

Happy birthday, Prof. May you never be short of honour!

Adelakun teaches in the African and African Diaspora Studies, Department of the University of Texas at Austin.