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The Truth for a Portrait: Fiction by Philips Chidumebi

truth for a portrait
Photo by Aziz Acharki via Unsplash

Everything always stays the same. There is a morning and there is a night.  The potency of our minds hasn’t quite found its way around keeping anything from being different. Same shriveled leaves by the roadside, and the rusty billboard that has the image of the gap-toothed boy sipping from his can of soda and smiling rather cheerfully. A thin line of rust has wiped off his left nostril but he smiles anyway. Same group of women clustered at the end of the junction. It is rather hard to pick out their faces; they all look the same—tired but with eyes that will fight through the cravings of their skin. They will still be here tomorrow, almost like they never left.  Just like the women in the market, most things never change. People sell. People buy. Another must live and then another will die. The tranquility of this fact is certainly numbing—we will always find beginnings and endings. But it is always hard to prepare for the latter, nobody is ever ready.

Like that morning on my way from Molete. It was by the tin shop, the one with several worn out tins in piles like pyramids, always neatly arranged, yet incongruous to other items you would find on the street. As odd as the tins always looked, if anyone wanted to feel different from everything and everyone else, they would go close to the tin pyramids for shelter or to sift through their thoughts. I never really understood why the stack of tins appealed to anyone. But it was the only different feature along this dusty path with rustic buildings, rusty roofing, and the truth which took me a while to absorb — rusty dreams. There was a peculiarity about the faces there; they manifested different emotions, blending seamlessly. They would laugh and then become stoical in only seconds, and then laugh again if a random joke was shared. These people lived in the moment. Or maybe they were trying hard to live without the consciousness of the moments.

There was a tree at the far end of the street, a silhouette, if you stared at it from afar. The hilly path made it look as though it was sitting in the clouds. Just beyond the tree was the shoemaker’s shed. You would hear him beat on the shoes with his hammer all day long.

tokotokotoko, kumkum, tokotokokum

Further beyond the tree was the canteen, where the pounding never stopped. The pounding on the mortar, on the stony ground; there was always something to pound. The steady pounding blending with the shoemaker’s light tapping was a consistent reality for my ears. Yet, I was always attached to the view—to see such uniformity on close ends. As picturesque as these looked, the details could only be absorbed in some place other than my mind. Some place where there was no dialogue with inner voices. An appreciation I would rather have alone.

Nothing of this picture was lost once you gazed at the tree from the tin stacks.  Each detail remained in place, as though they knew they served a deeper purpose, and held a more significant meaning than the hanging, dangling and pounding.

That morning, close to the point where I would always offer my reflection for a very brief moment, there was a certain inclusion to this tableau. Right in front of the tree, in between the canteen and the shoe maker’s shade, was the shadowy image of someone, fixed to the spot, unmoving. I discerned that it was a woman. I stood still for a moment. I had looked on from that side of the road many times. There were the women with their pale headscarves and baskets of tomatoes by the edge of the road, close to the pedestrians. If you widened your gaze, you would see the decay, the chaos, and the urgency littered up; but that was all there was. The woman had to be lost in a train of thoughts, had to be seeing beyond whatever was left to see. With each step, the view was made only clearer. So that the black I had seen from afar, started to slip off to brown skin on a rather long body frame.  She had large round eyes, the black in them filling up the space where white should have been.  Her pointed nose had beads of sweat just under it. She was wearing a red kaftan that hung loosely on her slender frame and her hair was tied into a knot with stray little strands splayed over her forehead. A camera hung around her neck along with a black bag on her shoulder that looked rather heavy. As I approached her, it became clear that she was not going to move. She was almost as though in a trance. When I was beside her, I saw the assiduity that followed her fixed gaze. It cut right through the middle of the road, with the women on different sides; her gaze seemed to look through everything and everyone. As she stared, hardly blinking, it occurred to me that perhaps she was afraid of missing something, if she blinked too much.

“I can point out the way for you, if you are lost. You only have to tell me where you are headed.”

As I said these words, I suddenly became unsure if talking with this woman was the right thing to do. And as my doubts, my voice sounded croaky and low that I wasn’t sure that she heard me. At first, she kept gazing, lost to everything else. But in a very assured way, like she had been paying attention to me all along, she turned towards me, with a languid but easy flow.

”This is only a straight road, with no bends anywhere. Do you think anyone could ever look for anything here?”

”Pardon me. Only that nobody stops here for anything, the view alone doesn’t offer much. I am sorry if I distracted you.”

“Really?” She let out a light chuckle and looked at me with a cocked eyebrow. Perhaps this was the expression she used when she was actually listening. She fumbled in her black bag for something which soon appeared to be a pack of cigarettes. Still wearing strips of her recent chuckle, she pulled out a stick, placed it on her lips and turned towards me. The stick on her lips gave her a rather sagacious air.

“You know, you sound so sure that there is nothing good at the other end of this road. Yet, I have stood here for minutes appreciating the things that you’ve probably never tried to see.”

“I grew up in these parts and have walked this road countless times. I assure you things have always been like this.”

She reached for her camera, and with the cigarette still on her lips she beckoned for me to come closer. She scrolled quickly through several pictures. All I could make out from the hazy blur of rapidly flashing images were sets of teeth, brown skin and contours. As I watched, I wondered what it was that she wanted to show to me.  She stopped scrolling through the pictures, and I could finally make out a face. It was a woman, middle-aged by the lines that encircled her neck; her cheeks were saggy, so that they folded up just by the side of her lips. She was grinning and looking elsewhere when the photograph was taken. It was a happy picture. Her blouse was dusty and faded, her eyes looked pale, but she was smiling. She was happy. She was satisfied.

“Who is she?” I asked, wondering what it had to do with anything.

“Look closely, take into consideration what makes up our views. The totality of the details. Take a closer look now.”

I did. Behind the woman was a little girl in blue pants. She was dancing, from the way she held her hands in the air and with a smile on her face. Her mouth looked funny; she had obviously been singing when the shot was taken. Behind the girl was the familiar stack of tins. It came to me now. The clarity, the reason for this strange lady’s gesture. She had taken the picture right from where we stood.

“This picture was taken from this spot” I said calmly.

“Yet the first thing you saw was the woman smiling. That is what views are about. The first detail that comes is not always the truest. Till clarity comes to us, we never can assert our opinions. Nothing is ever true, till it comes.”

She told me her name was Aisha. She was a photo-journalist with Kulali. She travelled the length and breadth of Ibadan, taking photos for documentaries. The photos were supposed to tell stories themselves, to share emotions strong enough for any audience to connect with. They were supposed to split reality into separate halves; the first, the sincerity of detail the pictures offered, and the second, the wide space that remained flexible. The momentary pause that gave you the freedom to choose your emotions, just before a picture was taken. According to Aisha, that was how to make a good picture. A smile was supposed to be a smile, but then the cuts or wrinkles on the photograph, or perhaps the burn marks were also there for a reason. They were pivotal as they were contiguous to the line of details. They were the actual truth. She told me all these as we stood in front of the tree. The shoe maker was not mending any shoes that morning. A voice from his radio set read out the morning news. I could see the sparkle of the oil bald patch on his head as he sat in front of his radio, head bent, perhaps in an attempt to pay absolute attention to the broadcast.

“Where are you headed next? You should stay around for a few more days. I could show you the Mosque at the town square, the church too” I heard myself say.

“I cannot be in one place for too long…” She placed her hands in her hair and removed the ribbon that held her hair in place and everything came cascading down. With both hands, she gathered as much hair as she could behind both ears. A hand went into her bag again and this time pulled out a lighter. She lit the cigarette and shut her eyes, taking in slow drags. Her eyes fluttered open only when she was halfway through the stick. All the while, I watched intently. A strand of hair would fall down her face and she would pull it backwards, then it would fall again and she would repeat the same procedure.

“When I take pictures, I take a moment in someone’s life. A lot of things could change. After all, life has always remained subject to change. But the pictures I take….they are always the same. They will never change. I do not have to know everybody I take a picture of, but I know the memories I take with me, the still moment my camera affords me. Once I capture moments from anywhere, I only have to move on. It is the only thing I have to do.”

“Is it because your job demands that you always stay on the move?”

“How can I understand life enough to finally drop my camera?”

“So this will always be your life? The pictures from different corners of the country?”

She looked at me for a while, then a smile slowly crept up her lips. She checked her bag to ensure that it was closed. Then she threw one last glance my way.

“You will never understand me, at least not anytime soon. I have to go now.”

With that she walked past the tree, down the little road that led to the motor pack. Her red kaftan danced its own dance, swaying in different directions as she walked away. The redness of her clothing got smaller until it was only a shadow once again. And she was gone.

All of these happened several years ago, before I started to read Kulali every week; before I began to follow every single photograph from Aisha’s camera. The pages absorbed me into everything Aisha had said to me that morning; the pictures would put before me certain truths. The different faces and sounds that trickled into my ears. The loss that the gayest of attires could never hide; the tears that were never seen. Their dreams and fears would fill up my very hands, till I would have to put the magazine down.

I always hoped that this mysterious woman I saw from the tin stack would return sometime, but she never did. I wrote several letters to Kulali asking for Aisha’s postal address, but I got no replies. It was difficult to let go of the red kaftan, the black eyes, and Aisha’s strong opinions; her mysterious life even.

Then one day, through the pages of Kulali, I saw her. Her eyes, those large black eyes cut straight and through me as though she was glaring at me through camera lenses. There were wrinkles around her face and she was neither smiling nor sad; just a pale expression. She still looked like she was searching something out –- tired, but still seeking, still desiring. Then I took my eyes to what was scribbled below the picture:

With deep regrets we announce the passing away of a dear friend, daughter, sister and colleague Ms. Aisha Ramat, who died after injuries sustained in a motor accident. May her soul rest in perfect peace.


Photo by Aziz Acharki via Unsplash

Philips Chidumebi
Philips Chidumebi
Philips Chidumebi is a Nigerian writer, content developer and poet. In 2014, he was selected for the UNESCO Port Harcourt World book capital writers in residence program, and had his short story published in the Songhai12 anthology. He has contributed to Kalahari Review, African writer, YNaija, etc. He is currently writing his debut book which he hopes would be read as a memoir.


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