SMITHS FORGE

Part two of my field note series on Indigenous Communication Systems. We were asked to do some research in town using a method called ethnography, a technique used by anthropologists (and others) and there’s little or no data; it involves a lot of observation instead. The researcher then reports whatever he sees without drawing conclusions. Just thought it would be fun to post some here so you can get a glimpse into what you wouldn’t normally see or go close to. Remember I said I’d be back with mine after posting that of my friend’s visit to the masquerade clothier. Here’s more knowledge on indigenous history and traditional African crafts…

22 May, 2013; 11:23am.

We alight from the bus at the bus stop in Beere, Ibadan and cross to the other side of the road. In order to get the blacksmith we were looking for, we ask for directions from an old man calling for passengers to board his bus heading for Bodija. He wants to be sure we know who we’re looking for; blacksmith or welder? We assure him it’s a blacksmith we’re looking for. The old man directs us down the road from where we were coming from, saying the place is impossible for us to miss. We thank him and head down.

A hundred metres later, we arrive at the forge, almost obscured by a row of white buses also calling for passengers going to Bodija/Ojo, Ibadan. However, the array of cutlasses, axes, hoes and traps assure that we’re at the right place.

There’s a staircase leading down and we took it. In direct line of sight are three people cutting sticks – no, they were carving the sticks into handles. There’s a man relaxing with his back to a mud wall, maybe he’s resting or supervising. My partner, Raymond, greeted in English (he’s Ibo) but I greeted in Yoruba. The man responded in Yoruba, suggesting he’s more at ease with the language. I tell him what we’re there to do and he directs us to another man, pointing left. There’s a shed with a man sitting under it working a bellow.

We enter the shed and ask again, he nods and points to a small bench capable of seating three people. We sit. The shed is warm; I think it’s because of the heat emanating from the fire the man was stoking with the bellow. Piled against the wall in a corner of the shed are pieces of metal with levers and sharp ‘teeth’ – they look like hunting traps.

The fire interests me, there’s hardly any smoke, even when the bellow is being worked. There’s no wood either, only what appear to be small white pebbles. It looks like coal but spent coal burns out into ash; there’s no ash residue from the fire.

Another man comes out; he has tribal marks on his face and was wearing a well-worn baseball hat. He had a stern look on his face. He looks to be in his late 30s. The man looked at us, grunts and asks the man working the bellow who we were. The bellow man tells him and ‘baseball hat man’ simply walks away.

I look left from where I’m sitting, two yards away from me was a large rock; there’s a hammer on it. On the side of the rock is a red oily substance – palm oil. There’s sugarcane on the floor beside the rock, and a sprinkling of salt. I think it’s a shrine/altar of some sort. Farther down the left of the shrine/altar/rock there are a few more buildings, all built with mud but roofed with corrugated iron sheets. The shed is ‘roofed’ with wooden planks – a small gap here, a gaping hole there.

A bald old man of about 67 years with a white goatee comes to us and tells us to shift the bench to the side, closer to the rock/shrine/altar. He sits in the space created with a metal plate and begins to fashion out what looks like the blade of a hoe, placing a sharp chisel-like object on the plate and hitting it with a hammer, cutting the plate in the process. The bellow man sits there and watches, he’s holding a piece of cloth which he presses to a piece of iron before holding it to the sole of his feet- he appears to have a wound. I think he injured his foot by stepping on a sharp object – the floor is littered with small pieces of unused metal.  The iron he was heating up earlier is what he uses to heat the cloth and tend to his wound.

A younger looking man arrives; he’s wearing a white t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans. He appears to be in his mid 20s. He greets us in Yoruba, and we tell him what we were at their forge to do. He seems friendly. He tells us they are all masters of the trade but they have a superior who wasn’t around, but will be back soon.

The baseball hat-wearing man replaces bellow man at the bellow and puts a bar of iron into the fire. He works the bellow till the iron bar becomes red-hot and removes it from the fire with pliers – or something that looks like it. He then takes the bar to the altar/shrine, places it on the rock and starts hitting with a hammer. He’s singing in Yoruba but I don’t understand what he’s singing about – just to ease the work he’s doing or in praise of his god? I don’t know.

The younger wearing the white t-shirt man puts a sharp ended iron rod with a wood handle in the fire till it’s hot. He then brings one of the carved handles I earlier mentioned and sticks the hot sharp point into it; there’s a sizzling sound from the wood. The wood appears to be wet, cut from a tree not too long ago. When the iron lost its heat and the smoke clears, he repeats the process till the sharp point of the rod sticks out on the other end of the wooden handle. He appears to be making the hole where the hoe blade will fit. I remember the already done hoes put up for sale before we came in had the same handles.

Young t-shirt guy is done. He comes over, sits opposite us and asks if we have questions; we do. A man I hadn’t seen earlier joins him and sits beside the rock/altar. He’s wearing a pair of trousers but his torso is bare; his slightly rotund belly sticking out. Raymond hasn’t said much because of the language barrier. The blacksmiths appeared ill at ease with the language. I ask the questions in Yoruba, and translate in English.

I: What do you use for the fire, is it coal?

T-shirt man: No, we call it esan, from palm kernel. It’s the hard nut discarded after the palm kernel has been processed.

I: Those people over there doing the carving, is that all they do?

T-shirt man: They’re blacksmiths too, we all are. I can also carve and I do. We all cannot be at the fire so we find something else to keep busy before taking our turn at the forge.

I: I notice the wood is wet, is that on purpose? Where do you get the wood from, do you buy?

T-shirt man: Yes, we cannot use dry wood because it will snap if we work on it. Wet wood freshly cut from the tree is the best because it can endure what we use it for. We used to get wood supplies before for free but we don’t anymore so we go into the bush/forest to cut.

I: Do you have apprentices?

T-shirt man: Not often. This is our superior here (gestures to the bare chest man beside him) but we’re a family. People have little patience to learn and there’s not much money to be made so they leave before they’re ready. We here are all from the same family – all of us – and this is our family trade.

I: How do you get metal?

The superior joins in at this point. “We buy. There’s a market where we get all the iron we need”

I: How many of these things (hoes, axes, cutlasses) can you make per day.

T-shirt man: Close to 100. There are two types of hoes, small and large. The small ones are used the most by school children and are not used by serious farmers because it’s not too strong. The farmers use the big hoes; the difference is in the size of the blade.

I: So how do you sell?

Superior: Some people come to place orders; others just buy what we have already made. Sometimes, we produce more small hoes when school is in session because the students will always come. At other times, people will request for axes and that is what we will make. If we’re working on hoes, we will stop and make the axes or whatever is requested.

I: What’s the general process?

T-shirt man: We get the wood and carve into the required handle. We get the iron and cut into the intended shape: hoe/axe/cutlass/whatever, and forge it in the fire. Then we attach it to the appropriate handle. That’s all.

I: (Pointing to the rock/shrine/altar). Is that a shrine?

Superior: Yes it is. It’s the shrine of Ogun, the god of Iron in Yoruba land. We, smiths are iron workers and Ogun is our god. We worship him for protection and prosperity. Hunters worship Ogun too – even some drivers if they choose. But for blacksmiths, Ogun is the god to worship.

I: Your tools look like foreign-made ones, only a little different. Did you make them yourself?

Superior: Yes we did. We had to look at the foreign-made tools and copy them. This is a hammer we forged ourselves (points to a hammer near the fire). In the past, the hammer we used was called mataka. Then we took a look at the white-man’s pliers and made our own, we call it emu-agbede. Most of our tools are self-made; we only copied the white man’s tools and made ours.

It’s getting dark; a look at the clouds suggests it would rain soon. Not to be trapped in the shed when this happens, we thank t-shirt boy and his superior, and head back to school.

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