Bida was once the capital of the Nupe-kingdom of the mid-1800s and central to the Nupe people. The massive red clay town wall is a reminder of this recent dominance. The wall encloses 5 sq miles (13km) of the town.
After a good night’s sleep in a spare room at the Ilorin Police Chief’s cousin’s house, I went off to explore the Old City. As a foreign traveler, I was able to walk into many of these manufacturing huts and was routinely welcomed. In the three days I was there, I never saw any other outsider, much less young traveling students. It was a road less often taken.
The Bead Factory manufacturing area was more like a village as it evolved and grew from a few huts to what seemed like dozens. Several of the Factory Huts were arrayed in a rough grid, with narrow alleys between the rows of huts and wider dirt roads. Each hut had one side that can access a road. This way they can readily access raw materials and then send out product to vehicles waiting on the other side.
I spent two days in Bida, starting with a morning circumnavigation of the Old City Wall and its environs. Later, I visited several glass bead fabrication huts and one brass foundry hut. I was intrigued by the craftmanship and artistry of these skilled craftsmen. I spent hours, in a kind of joy and wonderment — just watching. Their hands were so quick and skillful, touching, stretching manipulating red-hot glass or delicately pounding out brass into its desired shape. I wondered how many centuries this work had be going on.
While people spoke Nupe, they also spoke English, of sorts, so we could communicate.
In one hut, I was asked if I wanted to try some of the steps in the process. I accepted and worked at making some beads under close supervision. We accepted and worked easily with each other in a totally natural way. I have to admit, I was nowhere near the skill level these artisans had in their easy manipulation of a difficult substance in what I might have thought was less than ideal conditions. To them, conditions were no obstacle. As they say, “it is a poor craftsman who blames his tools.”
I would never have imagined that working on glass beads in a Nigerian hut would have been on any planned itinerary and I was surprised at how easily people welcomed and integrated me into their daily tasks. We were all focused on making sure we got the right results for the market. A sense of purpose can unite people so easily.
As I left the bead hut to head home in the dusk for rest and dinner that afternoon, I was struck by the busy crowds outside moving goods and heading on their ways. Women often with babies wrapped on their backs; the babies curiously eying the world around them. The men favored distinctive cone shaped hats topped with brass rings woven into a protruding finger of straw and cloth rising to a point at the top. I wasn’t sure if this was a fashion statement or some kind of ethnic/tribal badging. Central Nigeria is the crossroads of many cultures with Muslims to the north and Christians to the south, so it could have been tribal – or it could have been a badge for the brass workers.
That night, I enjoyed a wonderful dinner and conversation with my hosts before turning in. I had had a hard and hot workday at the forges and kilns. The folks that did this everyday earned my admiration and respect.