Adventure Travel

The Venerable Beads of Bida

Bida is an extraordinary place, a dynamic, bustling Nigerian town with sophisticated brass and other metals fabrication.  It’s also a significant glass bead manufacturing center. 

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.

I was up early the next morning to resume my journey headed to Kaduna and Zaria, where I spent the next night.

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