See your whole life spread out in freshly polished frames upon the mantelpiece
Like it were torn-out pages of the Book of Life.
Here, you are a baby, looking into the camera, wide-eyed with curiosity, the spit dripping from your hanging tender lower lip, fists tightly clenched, fluffy hair and skin very radiant and supple against the new Ankara material draped over the sofa in the sitting room to mask the layers of grey dirt caked upon its old fabric. I guess this is the first photo of your life, did I guess wrongly? Did your parents cheer you up, hoping you would remain still for the photographer after they have both propped you up with pillows, adjusting and readjusting until they both arrived at a consensus that this was the best posture for the first photograph of your life? Did you cry out in fear at the sudden flash of the white camera light? I guess you can’t remember anything of the day you took your first ever photograph.
I see you now, a toddler holding the kitchen knife stuck into a large round tray piled high with glossy jollof rice garnished with bits of fried beef. I can tell from the lone burning wax candle before the pile of rice that it is your one-year birthday. Mama and papa couldn’t afford a cake right? See, just like you, most of the little crowd of children gathered about you are less concentrated on the photographer’s camera than they are on the low table-I guess it is the centre-table in the sitting room draped with white silk tablecloth, blown balloons and pink ribbons fastened onto it with concealed silvery pins. Was that tablecloth one of the few treasures your stashed away in the very recesses of her cloth chest for only very rare occasions as this?- laden with the tray of jollof rice, a bowl of candies, a platter of cookies and bottles of coke. Ah! The bottles of cokes, they are now obsolete, they look too mundane, with the Coca-Cola insignia written across the bland bottle. It is nothing like the kind we now have in stores today. Why are most of the children showing off their teeth at once? Oh, I think I can tell, they are all saying ‘cheese!!!’ at the photographer’s order. I guess it was a special day for your parents especially, a day they had to show their love for you and a successful day it was. For many years to come after then, you still would look at this photo and know that your parents wished to give you of the best of the age.
This is a group photo, of gorgeously dressed people crowded orderly about a smiling couple getting wedded, a relative I guess. I see you, a boy now, holding onto mama’s hand on the fringes of the crowd. Your mama looks shy, her cheap head tie and wrapper standing out in obvious inferiority to the group of well starched and colourful garbs assailing the background. But you look proud holding onto mama’s hand, proud to be sharing a photo with grownups; uncles and aunties you stare at from a distance. I don’t see your papa, was he too busy as not to have attended this important occasion? Could it have been he was too short on money that he would rather mama went instead with what money he could spare for the occasion without the home going hungry?
Here, I can’t read the writings on the badges of your white T-shirts, your college uniforms I guess. You are posing in the picture with three other people, a boy and two girls in a school football field, the grasses brown and gone in more places than one from the arid dry season and the many hurried feet trampling on it in possessive pursuit of an inflated piece of leather. I know it is you because even though you have this air of trying to look tough, you still have that distinct forehead that reminds one of a ridge in an abandoned farmland long into the harmattan season. Is that your girlfriend beside you, the slim one? Is the boy next to you your best friend and the other lighter skinned girl next to him his girlfriend? I guess you hid this picture from the eyes of you parents, you feared mama will make a fuss and papa will threaten not to pay your college fees any longer, that you had devised wanton ways, ‘following after girls like a he-goat that caught the scent of a female on heat’. Where are they now, particularly the girl? Does she look as beautiful as she looks in the photo or has youth faded away to make way for the shadows of age to do its artwork upon her looks, altering its pristine features? Why didn’t you both get married? Aha!, I think I got an answer; one road led onto another and yet onto another until you both drifted apart like two canoes on the face of a lagoon on a breezy evening. I guess you kept in touch longer with your friend the boy than you did with the girl; the bond between men can never be compared with the web-like threads that bonds a man and a woman sandwiched between the terms of unwritten contract.
Mama, papa and two girls are flanking you on either sides, a sea of people in an array of colourful clothings in the background. I see a date scribbled in faded ink on the photo, 13-03- 1955. Was it the day you matriculated into the university? You are smiling, though your face looks oily with perspiration in the glaring brightness of the noon sun. Weren’t you feeling too hot in the thick, flowing matriculation gown you don with such pride, a bit too big your size, or did the joy of the day make the discomfort to little a price to pay? Papa is frowning shading his eyes from the sun. Papa’s face is lined with wrinkles like a hard-worn piece of starched chinos fabric. I recollect you once told me that papa was a lumberjack, it must really have been a job as dangerous as it was hard and yet paid too little. Mama is beaming with pride, she looks healthy though I can’t see her hands, I guess it must be coarse with scrubbing and washing, trying to scratch out a living, doing that much laundry in the guest house you once told me was famous in its time. Are they your sisters? I mean the girls in the photograph. See how they smile at the camera, proud that their brother was becoming a paragon, I guessed they felt hopefully assured of a path to toe behind the torchbearer. You never disappointed them in no way that I have heard of. Where are they now? You never mentioned them in the while we knew each other. Will they come for the funeral? How will I recognize them or will they be so kind to introduce themselves?
You have your hand draped over Mama’s shoulder as she smiles at the camera. You are smiling too, the sunlight glints off the lens of your spectacles. How come you became bespectacled? Was it with too much reading or did your body sort of protested the change in climate and diet? You are both sitting on a bench in the open yard in front of the house, you and mama. A chicken is pecking close to your sandaled feet, surrounded by her brood of tender-looking cream-feathered brood of chicks eager to peck where mother hen pecked. Is this when you came home on a visit from Western Europe? Did you feel so attached to your roots after your visit that you wanted to abandon your academic job in Austria? Has Papa died then? You told me he died in an accident, that a tree fell on him and squashed his ribs. You said the broken ribs pierced an internal organ and that he died a month two weeks before the necessary papers were done for his transfer to a hospital in Austria where you were doing your postgraduate program while working on that job shoveling tallow fat into wheelbarrows in the soap factory. You said you hated the job, but you had to pay your way through your studies. Did you tell anyone else that you were somewhat relieved Papa had died earlier before you had dipped into the money you had borrowed to facilitate his coming to Austria? I guess not, it was too callous a thing to say, I remember how you searched my face for any expression the night you told me. I said nothing, I felt nothing, I never judged you even though I didn’t tell you.
You are bearded now, in a group photograph with some men looking to care not much about their looks. I guess you have become a professor now, or were you still a doctor? You are all standing before a university block, I can make out a rusty signpost “Faculty of Natural Scien…” in the background. You said you had made the move to come back home to do your bit in nation building. You said you got restless with the little work and more tribal politicking being peddled in the university’s academia. You said the country was like a bus slowly rolling down a slope too steep to favour a reverse. You said you never knew where exactly the slope ended, but with the elevation of the terrain, an abysmal end wouldn’t be too bad a guess.
Your photographs are finished. This is the much I could find as you wished. You never told me they were this few. Were you simply camera-shy or did you lose much of your photographs from travelling too much?
Someone once told me that pictures speak volumes. They would have told so much of your life that you hadn’t told me in the little time you had from purring over those volume written in Dutch. They would have answered a whole lot of the questions on my mind, questions you cant give me an answer even though you lie this close.
I have done the much you asked me to do. I have laid out your life in photographs, I have dressed you up in the calico bags of the ancient natives, but I couldn’t bring myself to lay you in a cheap coffin and I don’t beg your pardon. I have called no drummers, hired no cooks, deposited you in no mortuary, given out no invitations except the very few you asked I notify. I have laid you in your coffin beside your photographs in a circle of flaming candles as you demanded, you said it would aid your communion with the cherubs- which I guess are invisible. The grave has been dug in the open yard, the hired hands are sitting idle waiting resting upon their shovels in idle gossip, waiting for sun down when you would go down with the sun. You said you never expected your children to be at your side, that they were a lost African generation, adopted sons and daughter of mother Europe.
I have done my bit for an older friend (though I wouldn’t wish you for a father, you really are sloppy with the role). I have given you nothing other than a listening ear and the willingness to do your bidding upon your death, and in return you have left me a “small fortune” – this penthouse, and all the revenues accruing from your intellectual properties- too much for my youth and inexperience.
I remember that rainy night you knocked on the door of my room. I was startled, a professor knocking on his undergraduate student’s door in the dead of the night. You looked poor and depressed, you told me the tuberculosis had eaten far into your lungs, that you weren’t ready to put up the fight anymore. You have refused to see a doctor, preferring to imbibe in wine and your favoured Havana cigarettes in the evenings on my small balcony.
“Death will come eventually, so why put if off till when you are weak and older. Why not face it when you were stronger and more prepared?” you had asked in stubborn defiance. You refused to go back to your apartment after that evening, saying it contained elements of a world you are fed up with. You refused to talk much of your days overseas -those were the parts of your life I had yearned to hear you narrate. I must confess to you that your continuous presence put Fiona off my place- I don’t think you would remember her, but she was your student too- and we have drifted apart.
Even though I wouldn’t want to admit, you have acted the role of a father considering the short span of tutelage and the inheritance. I didn’t let you know how much I had idolized you from a distance before that rainy night you knocked on my door. I have followed after you in leaving my hair uncombed and being less of a dandy, but after our time together, I guess yours isn’t a life to emulate after all. It is a hollow one, existent elsewhere, alienated from the real world of men and beasts, devoid of all natural emotions and instincts, made all the more insipid by rationality and idealism.
I will remember you, and I will tell of your life more meaningfully than as it is; spread out in photographs.