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TF at 70: A Meditation on Nothingness

By Toyin Falola

 

On this day, I celebrate the day I came to this world

This day, family, friends, and colleagues rejoice

With me

Do they not know a year older means a year closer to the grave?

Do they not see my grey hair?

Do they not see the frailty in my steps?

Do they not see that I cannot read without a microscope?

Do they not see I am bound to nullity?

 

Plaques, trophies, accolades sing of my accomplishments

They cover my walls as clouds adorn the sky.

Children and coming generations may fill my house

But,

With every new age, I attain

I am transitioning into nothingness

 

I have savoured the sweet, the bitter, and the sour of life

I have been called great, and I have sat with the greats

But, I am inch-by-inch, moment-by-moment agbalagba

Daintily transitioning into nothingness…

Gradually…

I have seen it all and have reached the peak

Bestriding all, agbalagba, I ponder:

What is left

But nothingness?

 

So, my cloak of glory,

Shredded by experience

Is a flag unfurled as

I transition to nothingness.

 

            There will be no celebrations! No gift of objects or words will be accepted! Opportunities to say “Amen” to prayers will not be granted! No Du’a, raising of arms to the chest, and no opening of arms wide for blessings will be given. No recitation of Astaghfirullaaha Allaahumma ‘Antas-Salaamu wa minkas-salaamu, tabaarakta yaa Thal-Jalaali wal-‘Ikraam. (“I seek the forgiveness of Allah (three times). O Allah, You are Peace and from You comes peace. Blessed are You, O Owner of majesty and honour.”)

            Why? What came to my mind were ancient words from borrowed traditions across the desert:

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity.

                                                                                                    Ecclesiastes 1:2 KJV

 

Let us set the stage: the building of vanity!

 

Five years ago, a book of tributes was published in my honour for my 65th birthday, and I consider that a great endeavour to celebrate my person. I had no hand in how it happened and was surprised to see hundreds of people at the event. Nothing is more gratifying than hearing and seeing what others think of you and your accomplishments, achievements, accolades, awards, and distinctions. On November 17, 2021, forty years after I got my Ph.D. from the University of Ife in 1981, I received an academic Doctor of Letters (D. Litt.) degree as an expert in the global humanities from Nigeria’s top university, the University of Ibadan. It was a historic accomplishment for this institution, as it awarded the academic D. Litt. for the first time in its history. On December 12, 2022, Lead City University, Ibadan, proclaimed me a Professor Emeritus in the Humanities, a crowning glory.

With over thirty lifetime achievement awards, sixteen honorary doctorates, eight festschriften published in my honour, several essays and two thick books on my scholarship, seven teaching awards, five chieftaincy titles, book awards named after me, and numerous honorary conferences, I have been among the most celebrated figures in academia, both nationally and internationally. I do not take these honours and wishes for granted.

Prof Falola and ace cinematographer Tunde Kelani
Prof Falola

Birthdays are meant to be joyful celebrations filled with parties, cheerfulness, self-reflection, and age-induced introspection. Human beings will always have dreams and aspirations, whether achieved or not. This is true from birth to death. It is part of our evolution, and it defines who we are. Some may question my shortcomings at the age of 70. It is their right to do so, and I am at liberty to dismiss them. My side of the story in most issues is unknown and will never be known as evil is entitled to some pleasure before it burns eternally. I usually feel that I have never met anyone who truly understands me or the depth of my talents.

Most people know the day of their birth, but no matter how long they may live, few can tell the day of their death. Often, our legacy is what people remember us for. I am 70 years old just today, and though I hope to live long and age gracefully, death is inevitable, any time between today and an undefinable “tomorrow”. Books, lectures, presentations, journals, and interviews, not just about academics but also about past and present events, are among my accomplishments. I have goals, many of which I have already attained and others that I am still working toward. I have ten books in the making, enough for five lifetimes of careers.

 

Let us demolish vanity:

 

Today should be a day of celebration for me because I have accomplished a large portion of my goals and have demonstrated creative leadership in numerous well-established and new arenas. But on this particular occasion, I am forced to take a realistic look at whom I have become and what has become of my country of origin (Nigeria) and our mother continent, Africa. I have used my extensive knowledge in the humanities and other fields to further the cause of Pan-Africanism. I have spoken at conferences, where the question invariably arises: Can Africa achieve its Pan-African goals? How well have our democratic systems advanced?

The so-called Age of Exploration between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries was when the Europeans began to explore the world in search of wealth, trade routes, and knowledge. The impact of this period would permanently alter the world and transform the later centuries up till now. The Americas were built on violence and genocide, and millions of Africans were enslaved. During colonial rule, the use of forced labour and indentured servitude, mineral extraction regimes, and exploitative peasant agriculture impeded Africa’s development and resulted in contemporary migration patterns within and beyond the continent. Many have fled brutalizing colonial and postcolonial powers, reluctant to relinquish power.

To many of us in Africa, the inordinate intellectual legacies that the colonial masters left behind are not always apparent, even though they have been gone for decades. These legacies continue to influence information and knowledge, as well as how and what we learn, legacies that permeate the way our institutions operate, all of which impact and inhibit how our continent is evolving. For instance, Nigeria is a union of various ethnolinguistic groups with rich cultures, all of which had long-standing autonomous existence before colonization. Consistent and compatible social constructions, orientations, and beliefs had been established in these societies and communities and passed down across time and space through customs, practices, and musical pedagogies.

Based on this, one might concur that these various proto-nations could be regarded as autonomous nations with different histories and distinctive characteristics. However, how well this union has thrived under the democratic system since independence is a question many scholars have tried to answer in different works. However, the end of European rule and the rise of independent states did not bring about the expected growth, peace and justice. Decolonization also created nation-building, and the newly formed African states often faced tensions as they sought to impart a sense of national unity in their ethnically diverse societies within a global economic, political, and military order. But, even now, the reality is that our problems stem from our inability to teach successive generations these political processes. The problems caused by the inability to instil knowledge and transform economic processes in service of the legitimate development of these states have resulted in the massive migration of Africans to the United States

Migrations are part of world history, even if ours are driven by the politics of the belly rather than the much more lucrative politics of conquest. In the twenty-first century, the increasing rate of immigration from African countries has become a major concern in Europe. There is also the growing fear, which fuels xenophobic far-right parties’ paranoia, that the “African invasion” in Europe is gaining momentum. Africa is regarded as a continent of mass migration, driven by unstable politics, poverty, and conflicts. Africans are perceived as people “escaping” poverty at home and in search of survival in an American or European city perceived as “El Dorado”. Millions of Africans are ready to travel to Europe or the United States by any means or at any opportunity.

I have discussed African futurism as the most recent phase of decolonization. It is a creative movement that emphasizes the importance of Blackness and showcases the genius of our youth in combining technology and performance to reimagine Pan-Africanism in unique ways. African futurism adapts to new developments by embracing enlightenment, reason, and many other legacies and ideas that are in the best interests of Africa. It incorporates ideas and practices from different cultures. One of my goals is to integrate indigenous systems into the formal western educational model in diverse institutions across the globe. What do we own? Our cultures, languages, arts, tales, festivals, rituals, practical wisdom from the elderly, and much more. We must put what we have learned into practice as we play, connect, and create intentional communities. We must not lose our creative inheritances, as the failure to retain them will lead to future tragedies.

According to Thabo Mbeki, “One of the painful realities on the African continent is there is a sharply reduced commitment to Pan-Africanism. That sense of cohesion and togetherness that we must pursue the following outcomes has reduced drastically. I don’t know why Pan-Africanism has declined. It may be because our political leaders on the continent have focused on their own countries and responding to their national challenges. It is unfortunate the loss of pan-Africanist commitment. You see it in the functioning of the African Union”.

I have set foot in all African countries except one. Many I will never visit again, but the memory will remain. Most of my interactions with various African nations are devoted to developing research activities to improve and redefine individuals who comprehend and do not undercut the increased significance of their cultural values and identity. As a result, I have pushed for a liberatory scholarship for Africans in all forms and more Pan-African discussions and dialogues.

As I reflect on what has become of our society and the degree of growth we have attained since independence, I see that Nigeria is not doing so well in terms of economic progress despite having remarkable natural resources and human capital. Even more frightening is that the nation has been selling its natural, material, and human resources elsewhere without preparing for impending disastrous consequences. Today, the continent is still largely a consumer economy; our resources are being shipped offshore in huge quantities, and the emigration rate of professionals and other workforces is skyrocketing. Even though I have accomplished some of my goals, Nigeria’s situation greatly worries me.

I may not know all the causes of the declining commitment to Pan-Africanism; however, when there are overwhelming personal issues, collective interests and issues may not seem as important. The Yoruba say, “Bi ina ba jo ni, to jo omo eni, t’ara eni la nko gbon,” (when oneself and one’s child are in flames, the flames on one’s body are first instinctively extinguished before tackling that on one’s child).

With the myriad problems facing each family, community, and nation on the continent, it is logical that there may not be enough space and purpose to protect the continent’s larger interests. What is Pan-Africanism to a person who has not eaten the whole day and is unsure of what the next day holds? What is Pan-Africanism to the displaced and those in fear of terrorism, banditry, and other untold hardships? If all these problems are happening in most countries in the continent, I believe that “to your tent, o Israel,” should not be too surprising for us to hear.

Personally, I am transitioning to nothingness, but for Africa, we should bring our core values and leadership system to benefit our society and develop in our own ways. Africa should usher in a renaissance. Pan-Africanism must be an ideology or be able to rise above our ashes and hardships to achieve that united front. We must move Africa away from the individualistic nature of development pursued by most African leaders. We need a united front to channel our progress and development as a continent. But simultaneously achieving this requires the commitment to make Africa as comfortable as possible for Africans, with legitimate opportunities for all. Nevertheless, African leaders cannot pause because of local issues. We must rise above our ashes and hardships to achieve that united front because the thief watches every time we let our guard down or go to sleep.

 

 

Modesty to the rescue!

 

Nothingness is a state of being, an imagination of futurism with realistic survivalism mapped out by Jean-Paul Sartre, that brilliant mind who distinguished between identity and “pure existence”. Written ten years before my birth, Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” generated a long debate. TF is not Sartre and not anywhere near his immense stature or ideas. My nothingness is to attain the status of egolessness, where silence replaces sound and privacy replaces information. The ears are sealed, the eyes are blind; the gaits become unwieldy, the self becomes meek; the body announces timidity, mouth asserts no reproach. Just look. Demure. Agree.

 

Oh, you, my fair person who wants to lead!

Are you ready to let go of pride?

Will you carry the burden of your followers and let them join in?

Will you let your love rule over your ego?

 

My dear fair person, leader of people!

Are you sure of the path you want to set your platoon upon?

Even when the sky is cloudy, and the path is enclosed in weed

Will your knowledge of Canaan not fail?

 

Oh, leader of men and women!

Are you ready to show us that you are a man?

That you have flaws

That you can fall, fail, and make mistakes?

 

You! Leader of nations

Can you feel the other man’s pain?

What will you do about it?

How will you sail your followers on a troubled sea?

 

Oh, leader of people!

Have you got compassion?

Where is your ability to break down hierarchy?

And infuse in your followers trust and reliability?

 

Oh, leader of states!

Will you withstand the pressure and negotiate

To save your people?!

Are you that “classy bulldog” heralding emotional intelligence?

 

You want to lead?

Breathe answers in actions to these questions

If you make a success of it

You, then, are truly the leader.

Nothingness is not about idleness. I will continue to take to heart the wise words of Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba:

 

This life is God’s farm, and no one sends anyone to his farm to sleep…

The night is so long; do not shorten it with sleep.

 

Nothingness is about the relentless pursuit of virtues, the elevation of sacrifices over rewards:

 

“When a heart lacks virtue and is filled with knowledge, the knowledge only increases its veiling. It is like a bitter tree that is lush, but the lushness only increases its bitterness…. But when a heart has virtue and is filled with knowledge, the knowledge increases its illumination. It is like a sweet tree that is lush and bears sweet fruits.”

— Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba

 

In nothingness is the secret of a new beginning, the audacity of knowledge to reinvigorate the metaphysics of life, and a quiet quest to receive the key to the afterlife:

 

“The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me,

your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever,

do not forsake the works of your hands…” – Psalm 138: 8

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