Keeping A Date With Awka Blacksmiths

Uzu-FINDING their location in Awka, the Anambra State capital, was no big deal. From Unizik Junction, on the Enugu-Onitsha Expressway, just ask any of the okada riders and you are there. Though there are other locations for blacksmithing in the town, this one at Timber Market, by Works Road, seems to be central. 

     When you are here, don’t bother about those artisans that clog the market gate, it’s normal. They are always there on a daily basis, seeking for jobs. But if you are putting on white outfit, then you need to be careful with their dirty shovels and diggers. 

    At first, they would besiege you like bees, but once you begin to ask for direction, they would disperse in anger. Only a few would even have time to say things like, “just go down.’ No exact direction!

   Well, this reporter managed to get through the market on this day, even while there, the story is not far from what you get from the artisans –– all man to his business. Notwithstanding, there are few, who are in tune with the geography of the market. A typical example is Ikechukwu, a motorcycle repairer, who gave a clear direction to the blacksmith’s block; you could tell he’s been there for long. 

    With heaps of metals at every corner, the blacksmiths were busy when the reporter called; they hardly noticed his arrival. Well, with the sound of their ‘Monday Harmers’ heating metals in a staccato movement, you could barely hear yourself. 

    Unlike other blocks in the market, this place is entirely different. Though the buildings look more like makeshift, with rusty roofs and zink walls to protect their forge from rain, this section of the market is not for frail and lily-livered men; it’s for real men. Here, everything is manually done. From cutting the metals into sizes – depending on what the blacksmith intends to form – to refining the metals with forge fire and beating them to shapes, this job involved energy and a great level of artistry. 

    As crude as the process might seem, it has been effective for ages. On this day, ogene (metal gong) dominated the workstations; almost all the topless men were forming ogene of different sizes and shapes. 

     From the point of cutting the metals, it appears an arduous task, especially the idea of chiseling with bare hands and hammer. But give these guys few minuets and the metal plate would turn into pieces. At this stage, the welder takes over; it’s his job to weld the pieces together. Then, it returns to the blacksmith for refining in the forge.

    The technology behind the blacksmith’s forge is amazing. With the device, the smith heats a piece of metal to a temperature where it becomes easier to shape, or to the point where work hardening no longer occurs. The metal (known as the workpiece by the men) is transported to and from the forge using tongs, which hold the workpiece in the anvil, while the smith works it with a hammer. Finally, the workpiece is transported to the slack tub, which rapidly cools the workpiece in a large body of water. The slack tub also provides water to control the fire in the forge.

    To function, a forge typically uses bituminous coal, industrial coke or charcoal as the fuel to heat metal. The designs of these forges have varied over time, but whether the fuel is coal, coke or charcoal, the basic design has remained the same. It is essentially a hearth or fireplace designed to allow a fire to be controlled such that metal introduced to the fire may be brought to a malleable state or to bring about other metallurgical effects. And over years of forging, these devices have evolved in one form or another as the essential features of this type of forge.

     Chekwube, a young blacksmith in his late 20s, was going through this process when the reporter arrived. He was very serious with the metal, as if his future depended on what he made from here. From his age, you could tell he inherited the business from his father; he was born into a smiting family.

    At first, he was reluctant in his response to questions by the reporter, but along the line, he opened up, however, constantly watching his back.

    “Oga, we are not allowed to do interview with journalists anymore. If you want to get interview, you have to go and pay N5000 to our union with kola nut and drinks. As you are here, they are watching to know what we are discussing,” he said with a straight face, while working his forge.

   Indeed, all the men had their eye on the young man, as if he was under some form of scrutiny, while we continued with out casual chat. But Chekwube is a clever chap; he found way around the situation and spoke in low tone.

   “Left for me, I would have done this interview with you, but this is a law. If I talk to you now, they will fine me,” he said, now sounding friendly.

      For minutes, one took time to explain why it is important for them to speak with the press and how such interviews could help alleviate their challenges, but he would not have any of it.

   “Haaa, journalists have been coming here since, no be today. You even came from Lagos abi, but people come from abroad to interview us here, including white men. Government people come here with NTA and ABS; they show us on TV. But at the end of the day, nothing comes out of it,” he said, hitting the red-hot metal.  

    “That’s why as a union, we made that law that anybody, who wants to cover us here must pay and bring drinks and kola nut. They have been deceiving us, so, we want that to stop. Students used to come here for us to teach them about blacksmithing and we do that every time. But now, we have law,” he said.

     At this point, one attempted to take a shot of the forge loaded with metals, but he exclaimed, “no, you can’t take pictures; if you want to take picture, you must pay. As it is, we are on our own; whatever we get here is what we have. They have been promising us, but at the end, we don’t get anything. Tell government to come and help us,” he said casually.

     “But that’s why I’m here,” I reminded him once again.

     “This is not the first time we are hearing this kind of story; it’s not new. There’s no newspaper in Nigeria that have not come here to cover us, but after that, nothing happens. 

     “If you watch news on ABS, that blacksmith you see in the video is my father; they have been promising him too. Today, he’s old, yet nothing to show for it. This is what Awka is known for, but they are not paying attention to us; even our government.”

      Chekwube has been smiting for 12 years; his father, who has gone on retirement due to old age, trained him.

    “Even before they built this market, I’ve been in this business. I learnt from my father; he’s old now and no longer fit for this job.”

    And how did he learn this job?  

     “I started when I was in school (primary school); I used to come here after school to help him with the forge. Sometimes, when he was not around, I used to try my hands on it. I started by watching him first, then I started doing my own; that was how I came into this business,” he said.

   According to Chekwube, the blacksmith is capable of fabricating anything metal. “We produce hoes, cutlasses, chieftaincy articles, oji… anything iron, we produce it here. At the end of the year, we supply them to the traders, who now take them to other parts of the country. They come from Onitsha with trucks to carry them and supply to those in Lagos and other parts of the country. Like this ogene (metal gong), they sell them abroad. Our people there use this ogene, especially the big ones. Whenever they need it, I produce and send to them; our work goes far,” he boasted.

       As far as he’s concerned, that the blacksmith technology has not advanced in Awka, is purely a leadership problem.

     “The kind of leaders we have here, they are the cause of our problem. They only answer names; some of them answer ‘Uzu Awka,’ other answer ‘Eze Uzu,’ but they don’t maintain their names. Some of them will come here and use us to make money from the Whiteman. We are no longer waiting for the government; we eat from what we make here,” he lamented.

    What exactly do the blacksmith need?

   “When some of them come here, we plead with them to help us with machines to make the job easier for us. We are not asking for money; all we are asking is that they help us with machines. This is something that has put Awka on the world map, but nobody cares.”

      Though he’s capable of producing a wide range of articles, for now, ogene is the in thing. 

    “If government can empower us, there’s nothing we cannot produce here, as far as it’s iron. If I open that shop, you will see all the things we produce. But now, ogene is moving market; once you produce them, you get your money back. But during the raining season, we produce more of farm tools; everything has its own season,” he said.

    At this point, another hefty blacksmith walked in and sat on his workstation; he was also fabricating ogene. The way Chekwube kept mute while the bare-chested man swaggered in, it was obvious a top union man had arrived.

    “That’s our Vice Chairman, go and talk to him. Whatever he tells you, you take it. But I know he will say the same thing I told you here,” he said without eye contact.   

    With the look on his face, one decided to be friendly with greetings. And like magic, his stern face beamed with smiles.

    “This is our job; we are used to it. When you start this job, first, it will be difficult. But after sometime, you will get used to it.”

        Done with the pleasantries, business began.

    “What you heard is the truth; we have stopped people coming here to interview us or take pictures. For years, they have been coming and we used to cooperate with them. But the way it is now, we have decided that, if you want us to talk to you, you must pay N5000 to the union, with drinks and cola nut. That’s the only thing we get now,” he said.

   Asked if he does not see any good in granting press interviews, he said, “my brother, this is a matter of a union, it’s not for me; the money you are paying will not get into my pocket alone. As you are talking to me now, a lot of them here are watching to know the outcome. So, if you want us to speak about this, you have to pay.”

    Then, he took on the government saying, “they have abandoned us; we are on our own. Each time they come here, they make empty promises, but at the end, nothing will come from it. Look at me now heating these metals; that’s all I get. But government will use our name to be promoting themselves, but they don’t listen to our problems.”

     He continued: “See, if we have proper tools, there’s nothing we cannot fabricate here. You came here when there was not much to do, otherwise, you would have seen what Awka blacksmith could produce. We would have played a major role in that Innoson Motors if government were serious with blacksmith. All we need is a sample of what they want and we will produce it for them,” he said.

     From their tone, it seems the law has come to stay, so, there was no need for further pleas.

     “Oga, but you cannot go like that now; you have to give ‘Uzu’ kola nut; at least, for coming here,” he requested politely.

   You know what? He got the money for kola nut, but immediately they saw the notes, his colleagues, including Chekwube, who had pretended to be very busy, dropped the tools and scramble for the ‘kola nut money’ began.

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