I have spent more than a decade investigating one photograph. I put it away for a few months and bring it out again. Never failing to be rewarded with some new insight in response to my protracted wooing. I realize I am aging into the pixels. I could so easily have looked once or twice and decided I had seen and understood all there was in the image, but I am interested in understatements on understated people and the minutiae of the undergrowths of working-class family life.
A certain portion of an office dinner party has broken off to arrange themselves to be photographed. They sit and stand compliantly in honor of some seemingly well-practiced official, societal hierarchy. A few minutes earlier they were probably wandering around the room, making small talk and laughing, eating small-chops, when a diplomatic whisper lured them to a quiet corner for the photo op. They were surely selected and pulled aside because of their relative “importance” in a room full of guests. I love the way each man’s cap in the photograph is doing what it likes. I’ve convinced myself that for this reason alone, the Nigerian was a more autonomous personality in the 1960s, before the madness of war. I have to be honest and say that every single Nigerian in the photograph was Yoruba, and so using them to define “Nigeria” as a whole is far from accurate.
My grandfather was the Permanent Secretary and Controller of Agricultural Services, an agency responsible for forestry, produce inspection, animal health and fisheries in the Western Region of Nigeria. This was a time when Nigeria was governed in three then four main regions.
My grandparents are the charming couple front and center, proud of their hard-earned affluence. They are seated because this was their shindig, one among many. My grandmother was always the best turned out person in any room—a petite ageless couturier whose international passport triumphantly bore the title “housewife.” Her gele in the photograph was impeccably engineered to tower, stun, and thrust if necessary. Her shoes and the retro pattern on the curtains behind the bodies point firmly to post-independence, pre-Civil War, pre-oil boom—in the middle of established cocoa wealth of mid-1960s Nigeria, where the fabric of our national “sakara” was often (admittedly) imported but unequivocally Nigerian in interpretation and expression.
A major part of the delay in putting the photograph away in any conclusive way is the mystery surrounding the identity of most people in it. Almost everyone in the photo sitting and standing are by now “late.” I have asked everyone I can think of to tell me who the unidentified people are, but no one can. They are late for the dinner party if you like, fashionably late in African style. The dragging-of-feet known as death. Lateness that equalizes all rankings and hierarchies, raises the valleys, levels the mountains. Everyone sitting and standing eventually lies down.
At the time the photograph was taken, no one could have imagined that the gentleman in the Safari suit on the right called Bola Ige—a Commissioner for Agriculture in the Western region, center of the political party called the Action Group before that, and later to become governor of Oyo State—would be assassinated in his home. His murderer has not been found.
My grandfather died of a stroke in his eighties. It rained softly that morning to mark his exit. My grandmother died a few years later. No one knew till shortly before my grandfather’s death that they were the same age and she had had to lie about her age to be allowed to marry him. She was seated in the living room one day and decided it was time to get up and go. Far right next to Bola Ige is Baba Ayorinde, my grandfather’s uncle, former Baale of Ekotedo in Ibadan, and the only person I ever saw my grandfather give dutiful attention to.
The only exception to lateness that I am sure of in the photograph is the stocky young man standing four places from the right, that delinquent cousin of my grandmother who would become Nigeria’s longest reigning head of state and president. Almost sixty years from that photograph, you are sure he is standing there quite determined to outlive others.
Don’t worry about those people who derogate our fashionable lateness by calling it “African time.” Aren’t photographs proof that the pause is intermission before something else? That all this aspirational rushing around is bound for lateness eventually. That everything we know about pace and time and the true significance of photo ops are misplaced.
Every loss this photograph shows has to do with bad timing, with foreign pace. Few Nigerian millennials know about old Western Nigeria, our green revolution, the cocoa boom, and the powerful currency of the 1960s that ran head-to-head with the pound sterling. They don’t know about the time when Nigerians wore our own clothes to any type of international event, cap perched as we like, on any class of red carpet, without explaining ourselves. They don’t know how the natural brilliance of procrastinators that blossoms in lateness was scuttled by the interference of white men and colonizers and civil wars and the piecing and carving up of land areas.
There is always some niggling particle of dust lingering on photographs. On this one, the smug caucasian couple with cigarettes between their fingers, marring the perspective with cultural incorrectness and smirking. How sublime it would be to be able to blow across the photograph and watch them skitter off back to the United Kingdom or wherever with their antisocial fumes.