By Charles Kumolu
In today’s edition, ace-Photographer Sunmi Smart-Cole goes down memory lane by giving spectacular historical accounts of himself, the making of Lagos and Nigeria.
With the objective of narrating the contributions of Sierra Leonean returnees to the making of Lagos, he discusses people and places that made Lagos today’s melting point. Lacing his account with personal experiences and encounters, made Smart-Cole’s story worthwhile.
ON fame, power: HE is famed for telling even the most unlikely stories through the lens of his camera in appealing manners. For decades, he did that, presenting contemporary Nigerian and global narratives in ways that shaped the society.
Through his works, bridges had been built, fences got mended, cultures intermingled, nature and man dialogued, memories were captured, hopes were restored and kept alive. Though he is certainly not the only photographer of his time, his journey as a socialite barber, musician, journalist, environmentalist, and alumni of Foothill College, Los Altos, California where he studied photography, placed Sunmi Smart-Cole ahead of others.
These endeavours which gave Smart-Cole fame, prominence and even power, saw him becoming so connected to the elite of the past and present. With such robust experience, it is not surprising that Smart-Cole, who was born of Nigerian and Sierra Leonean parentage is so grounded on most historical accounts of Nigeria’s evolution. This, the septuagenarian, whose boyish looks can easily get anyone jealous, displayed at an encounter in his Lagos residence.
The meeting revealed Smart-Cole the historian, which perhaps may only be known to a few. With the crux of the interview being the roles of Sierra Leonean returnees in the development of Nigeria, precisely Lagos, Sunmi as his friends call him, discussed his life and many subjects about Nigeria’s historical development.
Commencing with a story told by Chief Femi Okunu, which he wanted to expatiate, Smart-Cole said: “Femi Okunnu said so many things about Lagos that nobody is disputing. He said there was an influx of Tappa people from today’s Niger State. And he said that his great grandfather was an Oshodi on his mother’s side. He said they were great Islamic scholars but he did not mention that the Tappa people were sanitation workers. On TV Continental, I called them sanitary workers. He also said the descendants of freed slaves came from Cuba and Brazil. And he said Sierra Leonean returnees came to Nigeria. A lot of Saro people (the name Sierra Leonean returnees are called in Nigeria) lived in Olowogbowo in Lagos.
“The Tappa had their own quarters, the Brazilians had their own quarters. The man told us that people from Tappa were great Islamic workers but he did not tell us the real work they did. He said Brazilian returnees were good artisans, which is true. They built the Catholic Church on Catholic Mission Street. But he did not mention any line of work done by the Christians, who were mainly Anglicans and Methodists. For instance, a certain Dr. Adeniyi Jones returned to Nigeria as Curtis Crispin Jones.
Chief Okunu mentioned the Tappa but didn’t say much about the Creole and Brazilian returnees. He said Brazilians were artisans but one of them was the first millionaire in Lagos. These people were listed in the Red Book of Africa, a book written in the 20s. And most of them, who were listed, were of Seira Leonean returnee stock. I am not saying that he lied. It is as if he decided to belittle the Creole and their contributions to the development of Lagos and Nigeria as a whole. A Saro man called John Theodore Colcrick was the man, who designed Yaba and Ebute Metta. These were the first parts of Lagos that were designed. He was a Civil Engineer and Town Planner. He had a team of engineers and town planners. One man called Mr. Little was given the job of designing Sabo Market. Money ran out and the man was so annoyed, he said the project must go on and subsequently used his own money to complete the project. It was the cleanest and the most planned market in Lagos.
“The first Director of Education in Nigeria, Dr. Henry Carr was a Creole man. The first Nigerian to build a hospital, Dr. C.C Adeniyi Jones was a Creole man. He came to Nigeria and decided to do something about his Africaness. He picked up an African name because of the way he was treated in England. He could not even properly spell the African name he picked up. He had two daughters. One married Dr. Henry Doherty another one married Engineer Williams. There are more people of Seira Leonian descent in Abeokuta. Okunu is a brilliant SAN but I am not happy when people don’t tell the whole story about issues. It is as if he decided to belittle the Creole and their contributions.
On Sierra Leonean returnees
“He left a village in Freetown called Hastings to study in England. He was an apprentice to a Professor of Medicine and Surgery. One day he went to look for his result on a Saturday morning, he was stopped by a gateman, who refused him entry on the assumption that a black man can not study medicine. The white man thought he was from the West Indies but the white man said he would accompany him to check his result because he does not want him to steal anything. When they got there they found out that he came top of his class. With that type of racism, he decided to return to Africa, precisely Freetown. Some of the Sierra Leonian returnees then did not even stay in Lagos, they went to Abeokuta. So if you hear about the Cokers, Smiths, Fowlers, and others, they are of Seira Leonian stock. I have an aunt, who was Miss Robin. She is still alive at 95. Adeniyi Jones’ first job was to work as a doctor for the government.
First mental hospital in Nigeria
“They got him to set up the first mental hospital in Nigeria which is the one opposite Yaba Bus Stop. After working for a while he decided to begin private practice by setting up the first private hospital in Nigeria. He owned the land behind City Mall at Igbosere. When Lagos State was created, he had died because the hospital was operating before 1920. He had a home there where he lived which he called Priscilla Hall in honour of his wife. He saw how Africans were being treated by the whites in Lagos and was uncomfortable with it. Blacks could not live in Ikoyi because the British practiced what whites practiced in South Africa.
Segregation in Lagos: “The church of the whites was at TBS which was called Race Course and that was where yhe Governor General worshiped then. Apartheid was practiced here but one Sunday morning, the son of Herbert Macuualy, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, TOS Benson, Adeniran Ogunsany and others went to where the Governor General used to and sat there. When the white Vicar came he asked what they were doing. Azikiwe asked if he wanted to send them out of the House of God. When the Vicar reported to the Governor-General, he said they should be left alone. It was from that moment that segregation stopped at the church. That used to be Gen T.Y Danjuma’s church until they decided to change the name from our Saviours to Saint Saviour.
The segregation was so obvious that at that time Ikoyi Club was only for whites. Island Club was for blacks. The first black man that lived in Ikoyi was Dr. Ajose and he was given honorary white status because he married a white woman. That was why they allowed him to live there. The second person was Dr. Samuel Marua. He was the chief medical officer of Nigeria before Murtala/Obasanjo took over. Immediately they took over, they asked the man to leave Ikoyi within seven days, he didn’t stay long before he died of heart attack. Though people think he poisoned himself.
Honorary white status
Dr. Azikiwe and his friend, Adeniran Ogunsanya applied to join Yoruba Tenis Club which was for mainly Yoruba people, they accepted Ogunsanya but did not accept Azikiwe because of his tribe. But three days after Zik was sworn in as Governor-General, they offered him free membership which he declined. At a time, the whites invited Ajose, Dr. Samuel Marua, and Dr. Tunji Adeniyi -Jones to join Ikoyi Club. Adeniyi Jones rejected it and called it tokenism.
First millionaire in Lagos: The first millionaire in Lagos was called Candido da Rocha. He owned 12 Kakawa Street where he sold water because he had a borehole then. The second millionaire was Ojukwu’s father. The brother of a man they called Rotimi Williams is a Saro man. The Daniyis, Williamses and Eric Moores are the same family.
On journalism, growing up: “I started journalism by following journalists to the football field in 1964. I grew up in Yaba where we had the Abebes, Murray-Bruces, the Soyedes, Ojoras and the Ibrus, who relocated from Somolu. The Ibrus relocated to Yaba. I am a founding member of Lagos State Horticultural Society.
I planted all the plants on this street even at the places that are not close to my house. I did that because I like nature. I don’t take alcohol. I had my only alcoholic drink at the age of 12. I don’t drink soft drinks. I don’t eat red meat. I eat white meat and fish. I try to eat right. I had a barber’s shop. In the old days the late Justice Aka Basorun, Ishola Osobu would come for come to my shop for a 30-minute haircut but would spend two hours trying to convince me to become a socialist. Both were lawyers. My first name is Percy Sunmisola Smart-Cole. Many people don’t know that my mother was half Igbo, half Rivers. But I can’t speak the language. In Port Harcourt where I was born the lingua franca is Pidgin English.
It is the same English that is spoken in Sapele where a lot of Serra Leoneans settled. They taught the Warri people pidgin English. It is derived from Creole. A lot of them, who were mining engineers, went to Jos. Some went to Calabar. There are more people of Saro descent in Abeokuta. My grandfather went to Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone. My grandmother was Miss Smart. In this Lagos, there are many Coles. There are Aboyode Cole, Gorgeous Cole, Adeyemi Cole and Cameron Cole. All settled in one area, Ologbowo. Most of them are Anglicans while others are Methodists. Fuorah Bay was much older than University College Ibadan. At that time the degree from the school was regarded as that of the University of London.
On Lagos: Today political office holders have houses everywhere. It pains me to know that things have become so bad in Nigeria that someone would go to a Polytechnic where degrees are not awarded and the person will be awarded a Ph.D on a Saturday afternoon. These are politicians, who have houses everywhere. But it was not like that in the past when only rich politicians, who were traders like Okotie-Eboh had a house on Moloney Street.