Awka: Battling to Reinvent Age-Long Vanishing Blacksmithing Vocation

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Awka, spelt and pronounced as Oka in the Igbo language, is the capital city of present-day Anambra State, which was created on August 21, 1991, from the old Anambra State with its capital at Enugu. It boasted an estimated population of 301,657 going to the 2006 Nigerian census, and over 2.5 million estimated population in 2018.

Awka was in the colonial era an administrative centre of import in the Eastern region of old. However, historically, one of the things that gave the city, which is strategically located midway between the intersection of two major cities in the northern axis of Igboland, Onitsha and Enugu, was its iron-making or blacksmith business. Awka is one of the oldest settlements in Igboland, established at the centre of the Nri civilisation, which produced the earliest documented bronze works in Sub-Saharan Africa, around 800 A.D., and was the cradle of Igbo civilisation at large.

Award winning history

The earliest settlers of Awka were the Ifiteana people, translated into ‘people who sprouted from the earth.’ They were renowned farmers, hunters and adept iron workers. Over time, the town became known for metal working and its blacksmiths were prized throughout the region for making farming implements, dane guns and such ceremonial items as Oji (staff of mystical power) and Ngwuagilija (staff of Ozo men). Renowned Nigerian author, late Professor Chinua Achebe, in one of his statements succinctly put in perspective the global import of this city and its blacksmithing culture, as he noted, “Awka has a certain kind of aura about it, because it was the place of the blacksmiths that created implements which made agriculture possible.” Before the inception of British rule, Oka was governed by titled men known formally as Ozo and Ndichie, who were accomplished individuals in the community. They held general meetings, known as Izu-Oka, at either the residence of the oldest man (Oto- chal Oka) or a place specially designated by the titled men.

He was the Nne Uzu, or ‘master blacksmith,’ irrespective of whether or not he actually knew the trade, as the only master known to Oka was the master craftsman, the Nne Uzu. While in present day administrative scheme, Awka is now administratively under the Awka South Local Government Area. However, it still preserves its traditional systems of governance, with the respected Ozo-titled men often consulted for village and community issues and a paramount cultural representative, the Eze Uzu, who is elected by all Ozo-titled men by rotation among different villages to represent the city at state functions. Althouhg it has preserved this age-long traditional structure, however, what the people have over the years struggled to hold on to it and ensure that it doesn’t go into extinction, is it traditional iron or blacksmithing trade, which was a common place among the people and in some of the families even hereditary.

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Myth and legend

Professor Clifford Ezekwe Nwana is a lecturer at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka in the Department of Visual Art, with interest in Africa culture. He is an indigene of Awka and a sculptor with a pedigree that looms larger than life as he is a notable and multiple-awards winning sculptor. Some of his amazing works adorn the landscape of Unizik where he lectures. He told the story of the origin of Awka Blacksmith trade which is a blend of myth and oral tradition, citing two authorities. “We have two theories and the first one is that it is believed that Awka people were born blacksmiths and they did not learn the trade,” he disclosed as he recounted that; “Like Chike Aniako recorded that God created the world and it was full of water and He then created man but man found it difficult to inhabit an earth full of water. God looked round and found an Awka man and asked him to use his bellow to dry the water, which he did and mankind now found a dry land to live in. Such story lends credence to the fact that nobody taught them the trade.’’

The second narrative according to Nwana, is that of a man from Agulu Umana who is believed to have migrated to Awka and established the blacksmithing trade, which he later popularized with many Awka indigenes learning the trade and taking after him. Nwana stated that, “Another theory has it that a certain man from Agulu Umana, which is in the present day Ezeagu Local Gov- ernment Area of Enugu State was a blacksmith. He came from his place and started blacksmithing and as a matter of fact his father, named Dibuzor, was the first to come to Awka. ‘‘When he came he started blacksmithing somewhere in Amikwo – Awka and the people of Amikwo gave him land around Umubele in a place we now call Agulu quarters where he then tried to replicate the trade in all the villages in his place.

“That also goes to explain the relationship between Agulu peo- ple in Awka and Agulu Umana in Ezeagu Local Government Area of Anambra State and we also have. Furthermore, he disclosed that, ‘‘We have Umuogbu, which is my village in Awka and we are the first son of the town as well as Umube- lu, Umuahagbo as well as Umua- naga and they are all in Ezeagu Lo- cal Government Area of Anambra State and that shows the similarity of culture, laying credence to the story that these two people are the same and shares the same trade as blacksmiths.”

Entrenching the trade

History has it that the Awka man has no other trade but blacksmithing as they are neither farmers nor hunters and when those in the trade saturated their living abode with the trade they were said to have moved out of the town along the coastal regions to establish their trade. However, they were said to always return home yearly to celebrate what is then known as Onwa Asato – Meaning; Mass Return. As a result of the healthy competition among the practitioners they had to move to places like Idu, which is in current Benin, Edo State and to Igala in Kogi State as well as part of Benue State. The trade further travelled through the riverine areas to such places as Sapele and Warri and later moved to Lagos and then settled in Baminda in Cameron. Also, another account had it that there is traces of blacksmith- ing trade in Abiriba in the current Abia State and Nkwere Opi Egbe in Imo State.

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Pricing products

A Missionary from the Church Missionary Society (CMS) in Badagry, around 1860, was said to have discovered an Awka-based blacksmith trader and was marvelled at the display of creativity in the craft and metal works. He then concluded that there is a hidden set of professionals in the Eastern part of Nigeria as against the earlier belief that they dwell in trees in Africa. He further discovered that before the advent of missionaries and the colonial masters, Africans and indeed, the Easterners were far ahead of the British in blacksmithing and metal works. Against this backdrop, European moralists contended that since the Awka people had a proven and well- developed creative acu- men which has become a veritable source of livelihood to man then wonder why their white brothers choose to colonise them and dismiss the products from blacksmithing as not original while addressing theirs as master craft.

Elder Eugene Chukwuogo, a retired blacksmith, gave credence to this stance by recounting his ordeal in the hands of the colonial masters when he travelled to Onitsha as it where to sell his goods. “The white people have their own products and they discovered that we had better ones in the production of gongs, bells, plates and pots as well as other metal works and that we are putting them out of business. “So they came and confiscated our own and took them to the house of the District Commissioner. But we later learnt that they took them to their land in Britain and was displaying it to their people and selling them at higher prices.” ‘‘We couldn’t do anything about it then because they were in power and there is a court that would sentence you to months of imprisonment if you dare oppose their actions.”

Madam Nneka Nwokoye also narrated how her father and some of his kinsmen were arrested for gun running despite the fact that they know that Awka people also produce guns through the blacksmithing trade. “Even during the Nigerian civil war our people produced guns for the Biafra soldiers because they lacked enough arms and ammunition and the Mkponana cannon that we sound during funerals were also produced from blacksmithing trade.”

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Taking Awka trade

Aside of the clandestine means employed by the colonial masters then to freight Awka’s blacksmith products out of their domains to the Western and European world, however, over the years, official means was established to expose the products to the world. This effort was manifested in the year 1920 by George Basden, who was a Priest at St Paul’s College, Awka, a CMS training college and the first in the Southern Nigeria, was said to have taken two Awka sons, Bede Nwume and John Uzoka, to take part in the British Empire Exhibition for craft. Their exhibits at the exhibition were marvel to behold as they were said to have produced an iron gate through the process of blacksmithing. At the close of the exhibition they won the first prize in that category and it was an exhibition that had participants from such places as India and other British colonies. Today, it is no longer news that blacksmithing products of Awka of different shapes adorn homes, offices and museums across the world especially in British and American museums. All of these tell the story of the Awka man as the originator of blacksmithing trade across the world.

Modern blacksmithing

Awka’s blacksmithing trade that once held the marvel of the world, is today in the doldrums, suffering a loll in its development like most traditional crafts and businesses as young Awka men have abandoned the trade for white collar jobs, trading and other businesses. The old master blacksmiths are fading fast and the transfer of knowledge and ideas have been stalled as the upcoming generation of Awka people appears not to be interested in the trade.

Traditional trade

The fate of this fading culture appeared to be further circumscribed by the underlining secret that have been introduced into it practice as was the experience of this reporter when he visited one of the existing quarters for blacksmithing in Awka. Attempts by him to talk with any of the blacksmith or the guild, was made futile by the atrocious demand on the reporter to provide some kola nuts, bottle of Gordon Dry Gin and the sum of N10, 000 before they could grant him access to their workshop and talk with him on the trade. The interview was targeted at them telling their story of what has become of the fate this once globally acknowledged trade and efforts, if any, by them to once again resurrect the trade so as to make it resonate with the people.

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