...Redifining Journalism for Development

From bread-seller Olajumoke to blue-eyed Risikat, what happens after the photographers are gone?, by Mitterand Okorie


One of the trendiest topics on social media Nigeriana recently was that of Risikat Azeez, a blue-eyed mother of two reportedly abandoned by her husband for her and her daughters’ blue eyes.

We now know that her story wasn’t that simple. Some of us who have seen similar events play out in the past sat on the side lines and bid our time. We knew that Risikat’s true story was like a hot bowl of okra soup; if one did not lick it with caution, a mess would follow.

I came across the story by accident. I’d been carelessly browsing Instagram one day when I stumbled on a video of Risikat and her daughters in a photography session. I was instantly repulsed: not by the photographs, but by the idea of recording and publicly distributing a BTS (behind-the-scene) video of the shoot.

A woman being rescued from the ravages of poverty deserved more respect. Risikat spoke of spousal abandonment. Her husband, she reported, was a deadbeat father who abandoned her and their children to their fate.

Further, he was a superstitious spouse who blamed their blue eyes for the ill-luck and poverty that befell him. One could certainly not dispute the crushing poverty that Risikat and her children endured. The photographers who bought her case made sure of that.

But the BTS was poverty porn with a Harvard degree. The cinematography captured all of the essential moments: a crew moving in with heavy camera—with lenses longer than the second Niger Bridge; the make-up artists who’d come to beat Risikat’s face into supple radiance; the props and the flash umbrellas. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this was the movie location for Living in Bondage III.

I was alarmed watching this. This was no way to rescue a person whom poverty and abandonment had dealt a crushing blow. The photographers can argue that they were showing the world a beauty which had been neglected, but all I saw were people riding on the back of a trending story to popularise their own platforms. Very little discussion was taking place on how this lady would survive after all the photo sessions and the story fizzles beneath the rubble of Nigeria’s daily bedlams. You saw a lot of promises from emergency fans and notice-me sympathisers on social media, but we have seen this story before—and it wasn’t even this bad.

Recall a certain Olajumoke Orisaguna, the bread seller caught in the tail lights of Tinnie Tempah’s photoshoot in Lagos. She had photobombed T.Y. Bello’s photo set, but it was to be the start of great things for her; or so we believed. The picture went viral, and the usual motley crowd of emergency sympathisers questioned why a lady that cute sold agege bread. I love agege bread, and so never thought it was meant to be sold exclusively by ugly people.

Anyway, the buzz caught up, and BBC and CNN ran her story. Soon, several top brands announced ‘partnerships’ with her. But three years down the line, things took a downward spiral. Olajumoke’s husband spoke in the media last year, announcing his wife was in financial distress. In fairness to her, that was not what one expected a spouse to make public, but the husband sounded like one who’d been shocked by how quickly fortunes turn in Nigeria.

Some have cited her abandoning her former manager as the start of her woes; others have hinted on her marital fissures. It really doesn’t matter at this point which it is, the important question is: how come Nigeria’s grass-to-grace stories appear doomed from the start? I’d hazard a guess.

Because they are made in Nigeria. The Nigerian emancipation is a bit like our music: fast-paced and heavy drums, signifying nothing. Just dance and go. So too, both Olajumoke and Risikat are expected to enjoy their buzz, which is barren of substance, barren of everything. There is the part that without the skills to manage fame or success, the beneficiary may fall back to ruins.

Risikat is barely educated, a limitation occasioned by her poor background. Unfortunately, marriage did not help her escape it. And children even further intensified it, as her husband’s vulcanizer business could not keep up with Nigeria’s hyper-inflation. The man did not abandon her for her blue eyes. If anything, he married her for them. It may be a convenient story for those looking to earn Risikat some sympathy votes (I encourage sympathy in this case, but not one built on lies and prevarications), but how does that advance her long-term stability?

It is possible that the lady may wish to seek détente with her estranged husband if her economic fortunes improve, but busy-body do-gooders would’ve pulled that rug from her feet. More so, amid the buzz of a thousand pledges; all those proclaiming their desire to see her become financially independent, to see her children through expensive schools, how many will eventually make good on their promises?

Recall the little girl sent away from school over school fees in Sapele last year. Recent reports said the flood of pledges went unredeemed, though another account said the family was lying. Recall the man in Owerri who went around on a spelling spree, exploited for traffic and later swaddled with a makeover that failed to mask his mental ill-health.

Social media has produced lots of such sensations but, after the photo sessions are over and the paparazzi slam shut their cameras, what next? Will Risikat be another grass-to-grace story where the protagonist finds out, too late in the day, that the soup she’d been served has more grass in it than grace?

I have only one thing further to say. Risikat must now ask Olajumoke for advice. The way kolanut sounds when chewed is never how it tastes.

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