By Olayinka Oyegbile
(In Praise of Greatness: The Poetics of African Adulation; by Toyin Falola, Carolina Academic Press, 2019)
In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind – Edmund Burke
It is only the deep that can call to the deep, so goes the saying. It takes greatness to recognize what is great and laudable. For there to be life and life more abundant, there must be those who believe in life and living. Life is not lived in a vacuum because nature abhors it. If a vacuum exists, nature finds a way to erase that vacuum and create something in its place. If you are great, it does not cost you anything to recognize and acknowledge greatness.
Wait for an elephant to die and you will see various forms and sizes of knives and cutting implements with which those who want to take from its mammoth meat would assemble to carve out their portions. Approaching and delving into the 1, 035 pages of the book In Praise of Greatness – The Poetics of African Adulation by Prof. Toyin Falola is like coming to carve out a sumptuous portion of one’s share from the carcass of an elephant. The sheer poetry and profundities with which the book is laced is enough to last a lifetime!
The breath and the coverage of the book is daunting and makes the reader to wonder where the idea sprung from. It is a pot-pouri of ideas, praises, adulations and tributes to great souls that have traversed the world. The writer in his acknowledgements confesses “I cannot remember when the idea of this book first occurred to me. Its gestation period has been long: The writing, in its bits and pieces, has taken place over many years.” This is easily noticed in the richness of the book and the thought process. But it must be emphasized that although it may not have been written at once or conceived as a one volume book, that does not however take away from it the richness and the quality of thoughts that are embedded in these pages.
Broadly broken down into twenty-one chapters under different categories and sections, the Prologue opens with greetings in what Yoruba call Iba; a sort of adulation and salute to the owners of the world so as to ensure that one goes well and fares well. In it the writer engages in the praise of his own origin and pays obeisance to his progenitors asking for their blessings in what he is engaged in. That done he delves in to the heart of the matter: The first chapter on greatness takes a look at biographies, heroism and memory. In doing this he takes the reader into what makes heroism, history and biographies important to existence. According to him, “memory affects us all, especially when it comes to preservation. Memory also leads individuals to innovation and adaptation for the future.”
The second chapter deals with orality and the poetics of praise and cognomen; a variety of praise in Yoruba that talks about a subject’s origin and lineage. It explains how biographies use cognomens to emphasise important everyday situations.
In the third chapter he analyses the preservation and upkeep of culture which he describes as “agenda of a dominating force acting on the invaded cultures.” He avers that forces of colonization have dominated the African narrative with their own skewed views of the race and therefore the need to seize the initiative to rewrite what has been a jaundiced view of the world.
The next chapter taking a cue from the one before, documents the key figures who shaped and contributed to the reshaping of the present interpretation of the past. In these pantheons are great Africans such as Prof Ali Mazrui, Prof Ade Ajayi, Prof Tekena Tanumo, Prof Joseph Atanda, Prof Adu Boahen, Prof Ogbu Kalu, Prof Akinwumi Isola and a host of others. This chapter is a mini biographical section that readers who wish to know more about great personalities would find very enduring and useful.
The chapter on Public Intellectuals is a lucid effort to throw the searchlight on this segment of the society that have served and continue to help the society to find its way and charts its course through their sterling efforts. The klieg light is not however only on those who are academics, the writer lists both the late Abubakar Gumi the revered Islamic scholar and the late entertainer and broadcaster Gbenga Adeboye in this category because of their influence and reach while alive. Of course, the Nobel laureate Prof Wole Soyinka and Mazrui also featured here.
Among the Living Legends, whose definition he gives as “A star or famous person in his or her field of professional endeavour” are Profs Kassahun Checole, Kenneth Harrow, Akwasi Assensoh, Mahmood Mandami, Nimi Wariboko etc.
In writing about Literary Figures, the author, deservedly devoted it to Prof Femi Osofisan, who this writer often refers to as Africa’s most performed playwright because his corpus of plays is often produced and staged in all corners of the world. In writing about Osofisan, Falola says “Femi Osofisan is a man of many facets… One common trend in all these aspects of Osofisan is his desire to fight for the marginalized masses and to create a better society for all to live.” But this is not only about the playwright, the writer also pays tributes to other literary figures.
This monument of a book is going to be a reference material for students of Gender Studies and feminists of all shades as it has a strong representation of the studies of women and their contributions to the society. In chapters titled Female Imagination and Success for Women, Falola deploys his intellectual acuity to recognize their contributions. Prominently featured here are Abimbola Adelakun, a journalist, columnist and intellectual, Profs Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, Oluyemisi Obilade, Gloria Chuku, Nwando Achebe, Gloria Emegweali and so on.
As I stated earlier, in this carcass of an elephant, there are other parts and sections that a reader would find enchanting to read. To do justice with a review of this monumental work is a herculean task, what Falola has covered in these pages are mammoth and it is no doubt a very rich magnum opus that would be useful for students of literature, history, philosophy, religion (orthodox and traditional), in fact, all students in the humanities; it is a very useful resource book that all readers would find their own part to read and imbibe. I agree with Andrew Barnes, a Professor of History at the Arizona University who in writing about this book says “We live in the age of Falola”. The Professor of History Professor of History and University Distinguished Teaching Professor, and Humanity Chair, at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, has written a book that would command attention and recommend itself for as long as humanity continues to read.