He has been working since he was 15. Starting as a teacher, he became an architectural draughtsman at 17. But Sunmisola Smart-Cole is better known as a photographer and journalist, which were largely self-taught vocations. He also acquired the skills to barb and play the drums on his own steam. On his 75th birthday today, Nseobong Okon-Ekong captures snippets of his very stimulating life.
He doesn’t need prompting to talk. From the volume of chatter, a discerning mind can pick up several layers of didactic narratives. But you need all the patience you can muster in a conversation with famous photographer and journalist, Sunmisola Smart-Cole. The challenge begins with trying to describe him. For a man who has many parts and the debatable distinction of attaining excellence in all of them, you can only compartmentalize him at the risk of being confronted with irrefutable evidence of his serious engagement in another field.
I was aware of his tendency for bitter disparagement, so I arranged to get his Yaba home ahead of the appointed time. I got a hint of his mocking temperament when we spoke on the phone. I had tried to take the usual Nigerian latitude with time by saying I will be with him between 2pm and 3pm. He rebuked sharply. “My friend, when exactly are you coming? I don’t want to hear between this and that!” I was waiting for him when he drove in from church. I may not often be prompt, but I was on time, this time. He would commend this later and one little thing about me. He loved my shoes! Then he insisted I see his shoes. Calling on his cook, he instructed him to take me upstairs to his bedroom. Wow! I saw three rows of shoes. And my guide told me there were more in the wardrobe.
Spending time with Smart-Cole is a privilege to learn. And even though tales can be long and winding, with scattered sequence of events, it is a pool worth drinking from. An unschooled interviewer would end up listening and nodding in agreement all the way. He takes his precious time to answer one question and extends the frontier of the discourse with unsolicited gist. The good thing about this was that even though he was given to repetition like many 75 year-olds would, if one has the presence of mind, he would get more than he asked for.
You could come back to your question later, but he doesn’t like to be interrupted, for any reason. The admonishment was frequently unleashed like a whip of the cane: “Wait! Don’t stop me.” He had started talking as soon as he arrived. I was surprised to observe that he walked with a staff. He didn’t wait for me to probe. “I had an accident a couple of years ago caused by a crazy policeman who was trying to stop a truck on the Apapa-Oshodi Expressway. This is the third time I would drive my car in three years. I disobeyed my doctor.”
Definitely, the most traumatic outcome of that unfortunate incident is that he has not been able to work since 2013. On medical advice, he has been warned to stay away from his camera. This, to him, is like being confronted with a death sentence. So he has sought escape in writing. Recording his thoughts and impressions in words may have his attraction, after all he is the author of three books, but there is this enchanting love story between him and the camera. Last year, against better judgment, he covered a wedding. As it is common with photographers, he stood for over seven hours, taking pictures. Now, he is in a self-imposed penitentiary. “I am still paying the price for that act of disobedience.” No doubt, Smart-Cole has affluent friends who have taken upon themselves to make sure he lives in the same comfort that he is used to; what with a cook and driver to boot.
Although, he does not wear his Christianity like a badge, God has been good to Smart-Cole and he quickly admits that he signed on to a life of piety early in his teenage. “Occasionally, I smoked cigarettes when we went to the cinema. We would chew some mint to mask the smell on our breath. I do not drink alcohol and I have never involved myself in anything dubious. I am not about church. I am a practical Christian. I try to keep to Two Great Commandments-Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your might. The other one is Love your neighbor as yourself. I got into trouble in my local parish five years ago when I called for the removal of the Bishop. I ended up on his enemies list. I believe as an elderly person in church, that time I was 70, that anything that goes on in church or wherever, the older people who have seen it all should be able to speak up if not you will be committing a sin for not doing what God wants. My only alcoholic drink was at the age of 14. My last cigarette was at the age of 17. I then swore to God that I will never do anything immoral or criminal to make money. Instead let me die poor. Twice, I have been offered money by ministers in government to be their conduit, I refused. In Jonathan’s government, somebody offered me money to give him my company headed-paper in exchange for N45 million. Whatever he was going to type there, I do not know. That time I needed money like fish needs water. I have not had an income since March, 2013. In 1986, a lorry smashed my car and a bone chipped in my neck, not that I can’t walk. I have to use a walking stick.”
After confessing such a high moral standing, I asked him about his sexual morality. He paused for a while. I thought I had his back against the wall. But he made light of it by answering the question in a manner that left many possibilities on my mind. “I do not womanise but I like women and I tell you truth. And there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you don’t overdo it. It depends on who interpret it. I like women. I do not try to hide it. You can say that I am modest about it. I do not over do anything.”
He told me this story of a romantic escapade that nearly went sour. This was when he was still a bachelor. “Onikan had a Love Garden. I was caught there by a policeman once with a daughter of a traditional ruler. We were there, they provided bench and all that. The policeman said it was late at night. I had to give the man four Shillings as bribe to allow us go. When he asked the girl her name and she mentioned it, he said ah, that he had caught a big one. And I didn’t have money to pay my fare back to Yaba. Luckily, I had a friend on Military Street. I went to borrow money from him.”
Talking about Yaba in particular and Lagos in general brings out the sentimental and the sensual in Smart-Cole. Perhaps, the Lagos State Government, should, like the United Nations, consider endowing persons like Smart-Cole with the honour of being classified as a Living Heritage. His recall of events, persons and places in Yaba and Lagos is a good commentary on the state of his mind-an amazing feat for a man whose formal education stopped at the primary level, but went on to edit a title in one of the most successful media houses in Nigeria, rising later to the designation of Managing Editor of titles in that group of newspapers. “I am mostly self-taught. I started teaching after my primary school. In order to learn to speak the English language, I read the Bible back-to-back, three times (not for spiritual purposes). I listened to the BBC radio religiously. I read publications like Readers’ Digest, National Geographic, Newsweek and Time. You can call me a news junky.”
His television was tuned to BBC that afternoon. Before I left, he flipped it to a sports channel showing a football match.
More than anything, it was a silent underscore to his humble antecedents in journalism, which he started as a sports reporter by keeping the acquaintance of Mr. Fashina-Thomas, who was then reporting for Daily Times under Peter Osigo. When Fashina-Thomas moved to Happy Home, the lifestyle magazine that gave birth to The Punch, Smart-Cole moved with him. And the rest, as they say, is history which cannot be accommodated here.
Smart-Cole explained his fascination with Yaba since 1962. “This is the most central part of Lagos. Except for the 10 years that I lived in America, I have spent the better part of my life in Yaba.”
Yaba is where he had his barber shop, which was sponsored by Chief Adetunji Soyode, the paternal grandfather of Dolapo Osinbajo, the vice-president’s wife. Yaba was home to the band (in which he was the percussionist) he co-founded with Segun Bucknor. Before his life-long sojourn in Yaba, Smart-Cole had lived with a cousin, Galbrina Bright who worked at the Federal Palace Hotel and lived on Falolu Road in Surulere. “Believe it or not, ‘my first home was a single room in a ‘face-me-I-face-you’, using a communal toilet, with about four or five rooms on one side, making about ten families who may have three or five children. At that time we had night soil men. Nobody dared abuse them. Even calling them ‘Agbepo’, they could come and spread excreta on you. And if you really get them annoyed, they will pour it in front of your door. I had to taste that kind of life. Only the well-to-do or civil servants were lucky to get housing in Apapa, Ikoyi an GRA- Ikeja. But going to GRA Ikeja was like leaving Lagos because Lagos stopped at Jibowu and Moshalashi near Fela’s house. Fela used to live at No 14A Agege Motor Road. After that, you had Western Region and they had signboard, saying you are entering Federal Territory. And you won’t believe that all male citizens of Western Nigeria were forced to carry their tax receipts in their pockets because tax officials will grab anybody and say ‘show me your receipt’. Some of them will outrun the policemen and cross over the only signboard. There was no line of demarcation except for that sign board. So they will just run across and face them and tell them ‘come and catch me’ in Yoruba. Of course, they didn’t cross that signboard.
“When the colonial administration fashioned Yaba, it was called Yaba Garden City because a lot of the people here were either young civil servants or professionals who had just moved out of their fathers’ houses on Lagos Island and so they had to come here to buy land for 500 Pounds per plot. The very first place called a stadium in Nigeria, the first time the word was used in a sporting ground was at Sabo-Yaba. They had City College, Zik’s press where the newspaper was produced and printed. That’s where Chukwuma Bamidele Azikiwe became managing director of West African Pilot at the age of 21. Next door, Mr. Philip Louis Ojukwu had a private petrol station. He didn’t sell petrol but his lorries came there to tank up and then leave to distribute goods across the country.
The Ziks Athletic Club had people running and playing football, they had their stadium. The walls of that stadium still stand there. And don’t forget, people praise Ike Nwachukwu for being a good speaker, having a good diction. Do you know his foundation? A school called Ladi-Lak in Yaba. That’s where he went to school and then City College, before he became a journalist and later joined the army. That Ladi-Lak has trained a lot of people. You had a Yaba people of West India descent who had returned to Africa, they had returned home. Like, we had the Boardman, Pete Grave, the father of Mrs Adefarasin, the mother of Paul and the pastors. She is also the sister of Boardman, the sister of Mrs Anyaegbunam and sister of Mrs Araka. So we have three sisters married to three lawyers who later became chief judges of their various states. There was Mrs Francesca Emmanuel. Her grandfather John Phildore Nelson-Caulrick, was in charge of engineers. He was the town planner who designed Yaba. Some people when they hear Little Road think it got its name from being narrow. There was an engineer Little. His own assignment was to design Sabo Market. Caulrick and other engineers did not name the street after themselves. There is a street people called Maye. It is named after the first doctor who settled in Yaba. In those days, people that moved to Yaba were civilised, they used to have gardening competitions. I made sure that everybody in this estate has some kind of greenery because that’s how civilised people live. In my opinion any civilised person must love nature, animals and be kind to children and old people. There was a man called Peter Henry Moore.
He had first of all settled in Calabar, he came here as a civil servant. He lived at the corner of Queens Street. He used to win most of the gardening competitions and yours truly used to go and help him weed his garden. The first horticulture society started in Yaba and they had a place called Botanical Gardens in Ebutte Metta. Talking about Yaba people, we were totally different from people in Ebutte-Metta. People that lived in Ebutte-Metta were not civilised. Don’t forget a lot of them were Yorubas, the Saros and all that. And in an average Saro house, you will see godliness and contentment. Most of them had pedigree, they didn’t commit crime, the kind of things people are doing these days. There was a family in Yaba-papa, mama and all the children had been to prison. We had Adekunle police station named after Adekunle Wright who was also a Saro man. If you went to that police station to complain that your house was burgled, the police would first of all go to that family to check every room. If they don’t see what they were looking for, they will now go somewhere else. And we didn’t have burglary proofing in our homes. Taxis ran all night. There was no armed robbery. There was no way you lived among those we were talking about that some of their lifestyles won’t rub off on you. A lot of them went to church. We didn’t have fly by night church like the born again churches. We’ve always had the Roman Catholic Church, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist.”
For a significant period of his life, Smart-Cole admitted that he was insecure as a result of lack of formal education, but a certain female acquaintance who later became a judge admonished him and this restored his self-confidence.
“At the age of 17, I started training as an architectural draughtsman. I actually qualified. Many people assumed that I must have attended a trade school. When they asked me of my certificate, I will just tell them that they would have seen my drawings, I will bring it the next day. I didn’t know how they would feel if I had told them that I was not trained. I was always neat. I dressed and spoke well. The first company that gave me a job without asking for my papers was a British and German company. About a month later, they said they needed my certificate. I told them the truth that I was mostly self-trained. The person who taught me actually taught me the rudiments of architecture. I told them the truth and they gave me two weeks to quit. Before the two weeks elapsed, I was going for lunch, then I saw Mr. Steve Rhodes. He was a Lagos boy and his father was a judge. Himself and a man called Ayo Vex rented a whole floor and I was given the job title artiste and road manager, instead of artiste and repertoire manager, because I could not read music. I was road manager for Fela. He was managing Fela and others, putting them in clubs and collecting 10%. So we road managed Fela, Victor Uwaifo and others.”
Expectedly, Smart-Cole’s living room is a mini-museum for the display of antique musical instruments, telecommunication equipment and revealing paintings and photographs. His drum set occupied a pride of place. It was difficult to decide if he valued the cameras above the drums and piano over the cameras. His photographic equipment sat like royalty on two separate seats.
“I have always loved music. From light-hearted music, soul music, sometimes a little bit of European and American pop but mainly American soul music. Jazz is number one for me. I am a jazz drummer and I have been privileged to have played with top class musicians. What we mean by sitting-in, you are not a member of the group but you are in the audience and they say they want to invite Sunmi Smart-Cole to come and play percussion. I am working on a fourth book, that I wanna call ‘Lagosians at Play’ but the other book which is a major one is going to be my autobiography. I’m privileged and blessed that anything I touch or sell goes well. I became a teacher at the age of 15 because I couldn’t go to secondary school. I never had a day of secondary school education. I met one of the BBC African Service presenters, Pete Mayers. I designed his home which he built in his mother’s country in Venezuela. He had a swimming pool on top. It was over the bedroom. So if you are lying on the bed, you could see the silhouette of somebody swimming. I have the dubious distinction of having designed the Ikoyi club golf pavilion toilets. I designed the country home of the late Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, Albert McGuire. I still do something everyday to improve my mind. I used to go through UNILAG Consult to teach those who need photography for their disciplines, say architectural students, mass communication, town planning, survey and geography students. They used to pay me N500 for each lecture but everytime they say 45 minutes, but it would go on for two hours and nobody was tired. I organised the very first jazz music festival in 1965 at Kings College Hall. Art Alade who was having a full-time work paid for most of the expenditure. A man called Sidney Moss of Indian descent but a very good piano player. He was a printer. He did the printing of the posters free of charge with his friend Kunle Maja. Art Alade and the Jazz Preachers, Wole Bucknor and the Afro Jazz Group, Fela and some Kuti Quintets, and we had the Modern Jazz thrill. That’s me drums, Segun Bucknor on piano and a man called Don Amaechi on Bass.
“It was a failure because we didn’t have people. The Principal of Kings College at the time Mr. P.H Davis refunded the five Pounds that I paid for the venue. So we played music for fun. In Sierra Leone, I play with a group called the Jazz Disciples, in Nigeria, Jazz Preachers.”
As much as he loved to relive his past, Smart-Cole was conscious of time. Noticing that the interview had dragged on into the night, and another journalist was waiting to interview him, he abruptly told me ‘Your time is up!’