A lecturer at the Paul University, Awka, Chinedu Mbalisi studied History and International Studies at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE, the historian, who has conducted research works in this field, gives insight into the history of blacksmithing in Igboland and how quest for foreign products by Nigerians is killing the industry.
How important is the blacksmith in a traditional Igbo culture?
WELL, the blacksmith, from available information and record, is very important to Igbo economic, political and social life. First of all, you cannot talk about the Igbo society without the blacksmith. Politically, the royal families respect them; same with village heads because they made most of their weapon of warfare, their arrows, their bars and staff of office. Again, there’s this respect people have for the ‘god of iron,’ which is believed to be the god that gives the blacksmith that special spiritual respect that they have. Because of that, every blacksmith is given a very special place in Igboland.
Are there particular communities in Igboland known for blacksmithing?
In Igboland, communities that are known for blacksmith include Awka in Anambra State, Agbaja Udi in Enugu State, Abriba in Abia State and Nkwere in Imo State. These are the known smiting communities in Igboland and you cannot do without them during the pre-colonial time. Before the contact we had with the Europeans, they were important to the farmer in agriculture because the hoes, cutlasses, digger, everything you use for agriculture, were made by them. Religiously, they were very important; all these ritual articles, bangles worn by native doctors, their staff of office, the oji, those things were the products of the blacksmith. So, the importance of the blacksmith cuts across every sphere of Igbo society. Culturally, socially, economically, agriculturally, spiritually, you cannot do without the blacksmith.
But it seems efforts have not been made to take blacksmithing beyond making hoes and cutlasses, especially in this era of science and technology?
Don’t forget that in the olden days, agriculture was the main stay of the Igbo economy. And it was that revolution by the blacksmith – the iron working – that gave agriculture the main boost. That’s why people were able to cultivate the land and grow food to feed. Due to population explosion, people began to move, so, the blacksmith was instrumental to that revolution because he produced farm implement for the farmer. Beyond that, anything that has to do with iron is a product of the blacksmith; the door you have today is a product of the blacksmith. But because of modernisation and advancement in technology, they now kind of modernised their product. The doors, the windows, guns were all made by the blacksmith. So, it’s not about making hoes and knives, no! If not that we now call them panel beating and iron benders, the blacksmith are the ones that are doing all those things that have to do with iron. But as technology changes, some of the blacksmith adjusts to the new technology.
How would you rate the quality of these products made by the blacksmiths?
Obviously, you cannot compare them with most of the Europeans articles that have expiry dates. The knives and hoes that we used in our villages, if you compare them with what we have now, some of them cannot even cut ordinary orange, but that of the blacksmith lasts for ages. So, in terms of quality, they produce reliable products.
Is blacksmithing open to anybody who wants to join?
Blacksmith is not open for everybody; it is reserved for smithing families. Now, they operate what is called Guild System, where non-smithing families cannot get into the business; that’s to protect the integrity of blacksmithing. You don’t just go into it as if you are learning a trade. If you do that, they will mess up the trade because this is a highly respected profession and spiritually inclined. So, they protect themselves.
What’s the apprenticeship pattern?
The apprenticeship spans over a period of years and they have a god called Ogadazu, that’s the spirit of the blacksmith, which protects them. A wife married to a blacksmith in the old Igbo society, cannot run away from her husband’s house. Otherwise, she will remain barren; if she gets pregnant and gives birth, they believe that the child will die because the god of iron will not allow you to survive. Until she comes back to the blacksmith and perform some sacrifices to Ogadazu, then she will be welcomed back. Some villages where you have those Ogadazu people were known as great warriors; they were feared by other society. In fact, they were the people used by the Aro and Nri people; they were using them for warfare. People from Ohafia, Abam, Abriba, they were coming to as far as Awka to buy the products of the blacksmith to protect their territories against invaders. So, you can see that the blacksmith is very important to the society, but the only challenge they had was the coming of the Whiteman.
Again, apprenticeship is from one blacksmithing family to another; you can have a blacksmithing person from Nkwere coming to learn blacksmithing in Awka; it is allowed. But for somebody, who does not know what blacksmithing is, getting into a blacksmithing family to learn, my brother, except where there’s friendship or a case where you have somebody who was sold as a slave; he can now work in the blacksmith’s house to work out his freedom. In that case, he may learn. And by the time he learns, he will be initiated into blacksmith and he will swear to Ogadazu that he will never violate the rule of blacksmithing in the society.
Are you saying the blacksmith is more sophisticated than people think?
If you doubt it, go to Obinagu Junction in Awka here, you will see blacksmiths, who are molding keys. Keys that are made in the United States and Japan, a blacksmith in Awka will mold that key in your presence in less than five minutes and you will use if to open a car made in the United States. These are powerful blacksmiths; their ingenuity is not known. Let me give you another example, sometime ago in Port Harcourt where they were drilling oil, one of their machines got spoilt. They brought people from the USA and Japan, yet they could not repair the machine. It was an Nkwere man, who was living in Ikwere that they called and he came there to fix the machine. After that, they nicknamed him Bekee Meluo, which means what a Whiteman could not repair, was fixed by an Nkwere man. So, there’s no way you can say our own technology is fake to that of the Europeans; the problem here is that our mentality is geared towards something new.
From the picture you painted, it looks like the government has not really paid attention to the blacksmith. For instance, this China you are talking about, they do mass production. Our blacksmith, do they have the capacity to produce en mass?
My brother, they have the capacity; if you go to Innosson Motors, they use blacksmiths; I’ve been there myself. Most of those cars you see, the irons come from Onitsha and they beat them into the shape you want.
So, what’s the problem?
No matter what you want the government to do, note that our people are becoming naturally lazy, ‘how can I become a blacksmith when my mates are flying in the air?’ This time of oil business, everybody want to go into modern life and it’s affecting the business of the blacksmith. Again, the blacksmith feels that after staying in his forge for a day and produced maybe 30 knives, how long will he do that to be able to buy a big car like others? These are the issues. The advantage some of these western countries have is that industrialisation began in their area, so they’ve advanced in technology to the extent that, before you even think of producing your own here, you will have to depend on their own products to be able to produce. Now, it takes us to technology transfer, which is always a difficult thing between countries. The fear is that, if they allow you to know what they know, then their industrial sector will fall. So, they have to make sure that they flood our market with their good. Just recently, I stumbled on a material when I went to do a research at the National Archives in Enugu. I saw an invitation given to Akwa and Nkwere blacksmiths by the Europeans during the colonial era, to come for exhibition in Nkwere; people refused to go. They said, ‘how can we go and compete with these Europeans, whose materials are more synthetic in the eyes compared to ours.’ It is only those old fathers, who understand how strong the products of the blacksmiths are, that still patronises them; they still use their tools to cultivate their farm. So, in this age of modernisation, you see that Africa, being a developing society, it’s difficult for our people to really align themselves in that regard. But when cars have accident, it is the people they call panel beaters now, who are the product of blacksmith that will bring the car back to shape, how do you explain that? It’s about our ability to be patient and stay in a place to beat something into shape; they prefer to go to the market and buy a new one.
So, you are saying that as a people, we are not helping the situation?
Look, when they see you using a knife made by the blacksmith, they will say, ‘oh, no, this is an archaic thing; you are an old man.’ It is that mentality that is destroying us, not government. If you are saying government, how many of our youths are ready to take loan from the government to start blacksmithing? No, they want to go to America to make easy money. That’s our problem; I won’t put it on the government.
Where do they get the raw materials for blacksmithing?
The raw materials are gotten within our land; it has to do with the extraction of the ore, which is used by the blacksmith. According to available research, those materials are gotten mainly from Agbaja Udi where they are dug; it is really labour intensive. You have to dig deep to extract the raw material, which is washed and sent to the blacksmith, who now goes through the process of heating those materials. Burning them with fire, melting the iron, which eventually beaten into shape, depending to what they want. Now, from Agbaja Udi to this place in those days, requires labour to deliver materials. So, the labour you have to expend in that process is not a lot of people want to do today; patience is no longer there.
Is it possible that someday, we might not have blacksmiths anymore?
Well, it will be a bit difficult to say, but as a historian, I will tell you that the strength of Igbo society lies in what you call chain and continuity. We believe in oral tradition, the transfer of information, culture, tradition, custom from one generation to the other. So, these things told to us by our forefathers have continued to exist. So, if the blacksmiths, because of the nature of the work they do, will continue to have their families teach people, it will be very difficult not to have blacksmiths in the future. However, what I see is that sometime in future, they may advance the process of blacksmithing; instead of using manual labour, they will now use advanced equipment to do that. In that case, it will now be transformed from local blacksmith to a mechanised industry. But for blacksmith to die… that means ironwork will die too. But there’s no way ironwork will die; as long as we have iron in existence, blacksmithing can never die.
Is it really true that blacksmiths produce guns?
Yea, when you hear people say ‘Awka made’, it means a gun made by the Awka blacksmiths. Look, our people made real guns; they made weapons. Before the Europeans came, our people were shooting animals with dane guns; when a king wanted to do his Ofala or coronation, they shot the canon gun; these things were the products of the blacksmith. Then, people used these guns for protection, but today, people use them for criminality. Look, blacksmiths make real riffles today; once they see what the Europeans made, give them few hours, they will replicate it. In fact, they produce what you call ‘Awka made bullets’, which are even more dangerous; it’s almost poisonous.
Though there are other blacksmithing communities in Igboland, it seems the Awka blacksmith is more pronounced than the others?
Well, I will subject that to the history of Igbo society. You know, Anambra, Orlu and Owerri societies are seen as the primary settlement of the Igbos. Now, it is the Awka blacksmith that gave the Nri rituatlists and royal families the respect they have; they follow them everywhere as their warriors and protectors. They also helped the Aro, who controlled the economy of Igboland at a time. So, when you look at the Awka blacksmith, the place it occupies in Igbo society gave them that prominence. It is also because of how far they carried their produce; it goes beyond Nigeria to other parts of Africa. So, if they could produce all those weapons to protect Africa societies in the pre-colonial times, people will always know them as Awka blacksmiths.