JONATHAN AND THE OLD PHOTOGRAPHER
I was in my old office tucked somewhere in Garki, Abuja, when he sauntered in. He was clutching an old, tired card board paper and clippings. He, too, looked old, even if not tired. He had fire in his eyes, the fire of both contentment and excitement. 'I want to be contributing to your newspaper,' he said. 'I like your Memories Page, where you publish old, historical photographs' I asked him if he was a photographer. He smiled shyly. 'I have been in photography since 1965,' he said. 'I have a collection that stretches from the 1920s. I have photographs documenting our historical development.'
Now, what else is news if not this old photographer who has been plying his trade for over four decades? What news is bigger for a newsman than a man who tells you he had once covered great personalities, from the legendary Sir Ahmadu Bello to the military leaders, Yakubu Gowon, Emeka Ojukwu, Murtala Mohammed, Olusegun Obasanjo[as military head of state], former President Shehu Shagari, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha, you name them? And also, great events like the visit of Queen Elizabeth 11 to Nigeria, amongst others?
When you open the old pro's book of photographs, you are confronted by images of yester-years; photographs that tell almost forgotten stories; photographs that provoke smiles and draw tears. Men of today who spot grey hair and wrinkles, looking youthful, if not boyish in the black and white images before you. There are photographs of the titans, Awolowo, Zik and Ahmadu Bello, looking graceful and dignified as leaders of our nation; the civil war era and the bachelor-head of state Gowon as head of state; youthful Obasanjo and Babangida taking their oath of office as members of the Supreme Military Council, SMC, before the equally youthful Murtala. Indeed, you have several photographs that tell our story as a nation and as a people.
So, that was how it turned out that the old man who came to seek for a chance to have his photographs published in THE SUN would be the one being pursued for an interview. That's why today, I implore you to let's leave politics, politicking and politicians for a while. Let's for a moment forget the harsh economic realities of our country and the hungry Nigerians who stare at you from the streets in many parts of our nation.
Let's today toast to a man who, in my humble opinion, qualifies to be called a great Nigerian. To me, greatness must not be ascribed to you only when you are a public official, ex-president or ex-governor or ex-commissioner. The professional who has remained committed and true to his craft, without caring if he becomes stupendously rich or not, needs to be celebrated. Our heroes ought not to be only men of cash or material pedigree. Ordinary men also deserve a mention in halls of fame.
Welcome, dear readers, to the world of Alhaji Baba Shettima, the veteran photo man, who has over 50,000 archival collections. Pride in his eyeballs, Shettima tells you his photographs are his precious medals which he would continue to treasure till the end of his sojourn on earth.
'This is my life,' he says. 'I have no mansion, no limousine, no big account anywhere except these collections. I love them. They are all I've got.'
In a sense, Shettima's story is the story of Nigeria. He was born October 1, 1946, 14 years before Nigeria became an independent country. As a child, Shettima said he had dreams of a country that would be able to meet the needs of its citizenry, where many won't go to bed on empty stomachs, where the rich won't get richer and the poor, poorer. A country making giant strides in all facets of human endeavour. A truly great nation. 'We actually were truly great at a time,' he says. 'Before independence, life was good. We were happy as a people. We had fulfillment. Even during the independence era, we had little worries, because we had most, if not all, we needed.'
To underscore his view of how rosy things once were, Shettima reveals that what parents in Northern Nigeria, where he grew up, needed to do for their wards to have a proper education, was to enroll them in school. 'You send your child to school and government takes over. Government provided everything: uniforms, fees, even feeding. You just go to school and learn. There was discipline in schools. Teachers were feared and respected. Unlike today when the educational system has been completely destroyed.'
Shettima had his photography skill honed at the famous Barewa College, which he describes fondly as the best school for both the rich and commoners in the North.
'I learnt photography while at Barewa,' he says. 'I took it up first as a hobby. By the time I left Barewa in 1964, it had become more than a hobby. I got my first job as photographic assistant with the Northern region government in 1965.'
He would later attend the Kitson College of Technology at Leeds, United Kingdom for further training in photography.
Shettima says of his years in photography. 'It was exciting. I met several personalities. I worked closely with Sir Ahmadu Bello and later President Shehu Shagari. These are my two heroes. I admired Ahmadu Bello for his empowerment of the poor and the downtrodden; while I like Shagari for his simplicity.'
The old photographer also reveals that in his days much of the corruption in the media today did not exist. 'There was nothing like brown envelope then,' he says. 'We go to assignment, finish and go. What we were paid was adequate for us. As photographic assistant, my salary was 16pounds, 10 shillings, equivalent of N33. But you know, I hear things are different today. But you can't really blame anyone. Everything has collapsed.'
In his view, the collapse of social values in the country has everything to do with the get-rich-quick mania pervading the society. 'Anybody who starts work today wants to ride a car tomorrow. People are no longer patient.' One of the career highs of the photographer was the visit of the Queen of England to Nigeria during the Common wealth Heads of Government Meeting, CHOGM in Abuja. Shettima was invited to mount an exhibition of his works by the British High Commissioner. He tells you proudly: 'I shook hands with the Queen.'
You ask the old photographer to define photography, and he says. 'Photography is both an art and a science. The chemical components and the printing is the science, while the art is your dexterity with your camera.' In his days, he reveals, photographers were more rounded professionals. 'You took your pictures, develop and print them yourself. You have to be grounded in the art and science of photography. Nobody prints your photographs for you. You had to do everything yourself. Unlike today when there are all kinds of sophisticated cameras. You just take your shots and dump it in a laboratory. It wasn't so in our time.' Just as he is faithful to his craft, Shettima has been faithful to one woman. Even though he's Muslim who is entitled to four wives, he has chosen to swim or sink[metaphorically speaking] with one wife, a woman he married 34 years ago.
'I am happy with one wife,' he explains. 'It is not compulsory to marry four wives. The Koran says you should marry four wives if you are sure you can treat them equally. But you and I know it is not possible to treat four people equally.' Between his wife and his photography collections, which would he save in an emergency situation?
'That's an unfair question,' he says, raising his eyebrows. 'Well, you know nothing compares to life. So, I will save a human being first. But then, I will also seek to rescue my works.' Shetimma can't complain too much about the rewards from his craft. Through photography he has been able to build two modest houses, one in his Postikum hometown, the other in Abuja. And he is contented with them. He tells you: 'greed is the biggest bane of our country.' Indeed. Come to think of it: If we eliminated greed from our national life, won't we all have been better for it? Wouldn't our nation have been well of? Isn't greed the reason our leaders steal what they don't need? Isn't greed ruining our nation?
LAST LINE: About two weeks ago, President Goodluck Jonathan honoured Nigerians in different spheres of endeavour. Both the honourable and the dishonourable had the red carpets rolled out for them as they climbed the dais to receive national awards. In the list were political jobbers, friends and cronies of powerful government officials. Baba Shettima's name was, of course, not on that list, like many other quiet, hardworking Nigerians who have contributed to the nation.
When I wrote the above piece about three years ago, the late President Umaru Yar'Adua's media adviser, Segun Adeniyi, after reading the piece, sent me a text that he would ensure that the old photographer got his just rewards from his nation. It didn't happen for whatever reason. Now, President Jonathan has also forgotten to honour him. I hope one day he would have his day in the sun. I haven't seen Baba Shetimma in the past three years and didn't know him until the day he walked in and dazed me with his professionalism and commitment to his art which he has used to preserve our history. At 50 as a nation, the labours of people like Shettima ought not be in vain. Don't you agree?