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Sunmi Smart-Cole: He who dares wins

It is said: “Seest thou a man diligent in his work, he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.” It is a dictum drummed into the ears and impressed upon the minds of children...

It is said: “Seest thou a man diligent in his work, he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men.” It is a dictum drummed into the ears and impressed upon the minds of children in schools of old as well as in the church. If Sunmi Smart-Cole missed J.F. Odunjo’s admonitory poem: “Ise ni oogun ise. Mura s’ise ore mi; ise ni a fi ndi eni giga…” he could not have missed the former when the Sunday School teacher would tell bright-eyed children gathered at his feet: “say it after me: ‘‘Seest thou a man diligent in his work, he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men. Do you want to stand before kings?’ To which the children would chorus Yeah! Sunmi Smart-Cole’s grandfather was vicar first at Christ Church Cathedral, Marina and later the first resident vicar at All Saints Church, Yaba, in 1942. Chief Odunjo’s poem can roughly be translated as hard work is the cure of poverty, it is hard work that makes for greatness and raises a man high.

Sunmi smart-Cole is a study in the indomitable nature of human spirit. The possibilities are inexhaustible with the right attitude. Sunmi-Smart Cole, society photographer, horticulturist, musician and promoter of public good, is an inspirational proof if this. Smart-Cole was born in Port Harcourt in 1941 into what looked like a life of privilege, full of promise. With a grandfather first resident vicar at Yaba, and before then pioneer Principal at Abeokuta Grammar and an educated father from Freetown; Sunmi could pass for a child born with silver spoon in his mouth. It turned out not to be so. There was reversal of fortune and his star became dulled. His mother struggled to see him through primary school in Port Harcourt. His dream was to go to secondary school and further his educational pursuits up to the university. He was brilliant, after all. But because his mother could not afford school fees and efforts to secure a scholarship to enter high school were unavailing, Sunmi Smart-Cole had to take up a teaching job.

Given the high educational standards of years gone past, Standard Six school certificate leavers were readily employed as teachers in primary schools in practically all parts of the country. Sunmi Smart-Cole taught in Primary 1 and 2 in Port Harcourt. Feeling being left behind by his peers, his irrepressible spirit got him relocated to Lagos in the hope that fortune would smile on him there. It was in Lagos the real struggle of life began and it was there he steeled his resolve to beat all odds, and break all barriers to success. He overcame one vicissitude after the other. A free mixer and warm-hearted fellow, it did not take him time to make friends in Lagos and get drawn into companies of like minds.

He got into music, and with friends formed Soul Assembly with Segun Bucknor as music director. There was also the Hot Four, the first Pop music group in Nigeria. He was a drummer. He trained as an architectural draughtsman and was often mistaken for an architect. He did the architectural drawing for President Albert Magai’s modest country home. He employed his skills in draughtmanship to write and artistically prepare concert posters for Fela Ransome-Kuti, later know as Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. He was a self-taught barber with a flourishing shop at Yaba, an enterprise he ran for four years. It was at this point his enterprise caught the attention of Sunday Times under the editorship of Sam Amuka more known today as Uncle Sam after upscaling from the celebrated Sad Sam. Sunday Times elaborately featured Sunmi Smart Cole the musician, the draughtsman and barber in 1967. It was from the barbing enterprise Smart Cole raised money to go to the United States in 1972.

There he enrolled in school in 1976 to formally study photography. A college that got hint of his skills in photography within two years invited him to come to exhibit his works. These attracted newspaper reviews the cuttings of which he sent to Sam Amuka in Lagos, who in turn drew the attention of Aig-Imokouede, to them. Aig-Imokouede was director of Arts and Culture, at the National Arts Theatre. He asked Smart-Cole to come home to exhibit his works. Sunmi Smart-Cole had planned to stay in America; it was Aig-Imokouede’s invitation that got him back to Nigeria in 1978 to exhibit his photographs. In the meantime in his determination to conquer the mountain, he imbibed the cardinal culture of a journalist which is reading, reading and reading—reading as LK Jakande was wont to say, anything in print. In the process, Sunmi Smart-Cole became exceedingly informed. He read Time Magazine, Newsweek and Reader’s Digest voraciously. He has read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation all over three times. Michael West Dictionary was his constant companion to enrich his vocabulary and listening to BBC to sharpen his diction. Today, Sunmi Smart-Cole is author of three books. He is working on the fourth which is his autobiography.

Of all his endeavours, however, none gave him fame, satisfaction, perhaps fulfillment as well and opened doors for him as a photographer. He was invited to The Guardian through the instrumentality of Eddie Iroh, editor Sunday magazine section and managing editor, to be the newspaper’s photo editor, later editor of Lagos Life and as his last roll call, managing editor. The consideration for appointing him editor of a title newspaper, Lagos Life, the first photographer to be so appointed in Nigeria, was that Sunmi Smart-Cole knows practically all the indigenous families of Lagos and their history and he had the photography skill to give their stories coverage and to speak volumes in a relaxing mood with some tinge of excitement. At ThisDay he was made photo director where he stamped his mark as a society photographer, feasting readers with pictures of the prime movers in Lagos and the city glitters as well as her vain glory. Riding on the crest waves of photography, Sunmi Smart-Cole has exhibited in five continents and 28 countries of the world. He accompanied former President Olusegun Obasanjo to the White House where he took pictures with President Bill Clinton. He has met President Fidel Castro in Cuba and Human Rights activist Jesse Jackson in the U.S. Back home, he had been invited to a function at which President Buhari was present.

Decent and ever so dandy, Sunmi Smart-Cole lives in a tasteful house ringed with flowers which invite with their fragrance and beckon with their variety of beauty. The mind can’t but race to the fact that he was a founding executive member of Lagos Horticultural Society with Air Commodore Mudashiru as patron. Let’s all rise and clink our glasses to toast a man who rose from a humble beginning to the pinnacle of his career and who has stood before kings and before Presidents. Step forward Sunmi Smart-Cole, at 80, a photographer of no mean stature, Jack of all trades and master of all. He aims at the sky, and I believe he is waiting for the next available space craft flight to take him to the moon.

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