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Forged in fire: Inside blacksmiths’ world where creativity meets mystery

Blacksmithing is an ancient traditional craft that is known since time immemorial to be shrouded in secrecy, myths and various hearsays. YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE ventured into the sacred world of blacksmiths to unravel the perceived mysteries, myths and power behind the craft as well as find out why women do not do the job. Her report:

Beere is unarguably one of the busy and notorious spots in Ibadan, the Oyo state capital. Indeed, it is one of the oldest and popular places in the history of the ancient town, being the traditional home of many prominent families of the ancient town. And to those familiar with the area, on the right side of the major road, just after the roundabout is a home to sellers of farm implements and other objects made from metal. That stretch of road from morning till dusk is known for artful displays of farm tools; cutlass, hoes, diggers and such other implements in different sizes.

However, the sale of the displayed farm implements is just a fraction of the activities that go on in this area daily. Just by the walls of that main street and in the midst of the displays, are openings with concrete but precarious steps that lead into a ditch or valley like environment. Though made of concrete, the steps are not only steep but sloppy and requires great concentration to navigate else one is in danger of tumbling headlong into the underground world below.

And just down the step is a haphazard collection of ancient houses that are close knitted with no certified layout and no consideration for cross ventilation, pathways or drainage. The houses with their corrugated roofing sheets are jumbled together; sprawling across a wide expanse and are devoid of the basic amenities required of a residential home. The blanket of brown roofs gives a deceptive sleepy look to the area.

As one descends the step at the first entrance, he needs no one to tell him he has stepped into a different world, filled with men of all ages in different attires, metals of various shapes stripped all over, half made hoes and cutlasses as well as a fireplace that is filled with embers from a fire started with palm kernel nuts (Esan) in a very hot environment with a continuous spiral of white smoke.

Welcome to the Alagbede compound which is led by Olugbede Arasi Oyebamiji, a blacksmith that died last year but still leads the compound from the great beyond, as he is yet to be replaced as the head and when asked for the leader of the motley crowd, his name is the one mentioned by all.

Venturing into the midst of these men is however a feat for the bold at heart as the environment becomes charged once a stranger steps into the hollow concave and different men with unfriendly faces starts asking diverse questions simultaneously to find out the mission of the visitor. And in the unfortunate situation that the visitor displays a camera before being accepted into the fold; such a stranger would not find it a funny experience – as threats ranging from the camera getting spoilt supernaturally, pictures taken showing blank, the camera displaying pictures of the owners loved ones rather that the blacksmiths and bad things happening to the owners loved ones are issued from many at the same time.

But if the visitor is bold enough to in spite of the aggressiveness and unfriendly faces expresses himself in a way that endears him to the crowd of blacksmiths and gain their confidence, their countenance changes and their disposition becomes friendly. But then, the demand for money commences, as in this underground world of blacksmiths, nothing comes free and information is money.

The price for getting information by an individual ranges between N2000 to N5000, depending on the bargaining power of the person involved and at every point, you drop money to buy information as if you say you do not have money, you have to go and raise fund to purchase the required information.

blacksmith3That one has been received and has paid the required fee doesn’t however give him the right to take pictures of the process or individuals at random as at every point, one must obtain permission. The Alagede family of Beere is however not the only traditional family in Ibadan, some minutes drive up the hill of Oke Are brings one to their cousin’s compound; the Agede Adodo compound of Ibadan which also is  a compound of haphazard compilation of ancient homes with the same modus operandi; you must pay for information.

These two huge compounds produce the metal objects that are sold by women and some men around Ibadan. They also repair traps for hunters and get customers from neighboring states, Nigeria Tribune met a man that came from Ondo town with some complex traps for repair and when asked why he came that far, he said he was willing to spend money on quality as that was the best place to get things repaired well.

This is the world of blacksmiths; a world where rules are different and the god of iron reigns supreme. Blacksmithing known as Ise agbede in Yoruba language is one of the oldest craft; it is the art of forging and creating items like cutlass, hoes, rake armour, traps, shovels, diggers and weapons among other implements out of metals and some other materials.

According to history, the story of the genesis and existence of the black race and indeed the Yoruba people is incomplete without the mention of the age long craft of blacksmithing which remains relevant even at this period. The art of blacksmithing is not an easy one nor is it a task for the lazy man. It is a continuous battle between the anvil, the metal, fire and the hammer. The battle is a continuous one that is not only fierce but seemingly endless and it is one coupled with shrieking sound of the heavy hammer pounding hot iron in a energy sapping procedure.

Nigerian Tribune explorations however revealed that the art of blacksmithing goes beyond creating objects in a hot and noisy environment as there are so many mysteries, myths and untold stories surrounding the ancient craft. Part of the mysteries is the healing aspect for which the craft is renowned.  There is a belief that healing of some ailment like heart related diseases can be received at a blacksmith’s workshop. It is said that the water in the hollow stone used to cool the hot iron to be forged is a potent source of healing diverse ailments though no one could explain what the source of the curative power is.

Speaking with Nigerian Tribune, Biliaminu Oyebamiji, stated that it is true that the water can be used to heal ailments of various types, adding that only Ogun knows why it cures diseases.

“Though we do not use the stone again, the water is effective. We use plastic bowls and aluminium containers but the healing powers are still there. The water can be used to cure all forms of fear and phobia and can be used to deal with anyone that bites another person because once it is used to wash the bite wound, the person that bit the individual will have issues with his teeth, all his teeth will start falling off one after the other except drastic steps are taken,” Biliaminu stated.

Another blacksmith added that the water is also very effective for oath taking as anyone that defaults will have to contend with the god of iron.

Today however, the trade faces the risk of extinction as the old craft is fast fading into oblivion in many places and the trade which was solely hereditary in times past is now being learnt by anyone that is interested now. The reason isn’t farfetched, unlike before, many do not see it as a viable employment opportunity and civilization has also sent many away from such a tasking job as a source of livelihood.

This doesn’t however pose a serious threat to the business and Biliaminu was fast to disagree with this. According to him, the business is still every lucrative and if it is stopped, the whole Yoruba community will be affected.

“It is wrong to say this craft is going into extinction, though there is an obvious reduction in the level of production, it is still a viable and profitable business. The reduction in our production affects food security as we are the mainstay of local farmers. However, we get larger by the day as unlike before, it is not solely hereditary, we now take apprentices and our own mode of working is different.

“We do not take money from apprentices from the beginning, rather, once a parent brings his ward to learn the trade, such a person becomes the responsibility of the trainer till the time he is certified as a professional, that is when we collect anything and that is why we get many apprentices because it does not burden the parents. Our job is still very important and for food scarcity to be a thing of the past, we must continue working,” he stated

The art of blacksmithing is a cumbersome procedure that calls for strength, perseverance and determination. It can be described as a clinical process using heat to form wrought into different shapes; a continuous cycle of heating iron in the forge and shaping with a hammer on the anvil as the metal cools and when the metal becomes too cool to forge, it is sent back into the fire and the process starts all over again.

The tools used according to Biliaminu include the forge (the hearth or furnace), anvil, hammer, thongs or pliers (Emu), mortar car and the iron bender (omo owo).

blacksmith2Also speaking, Yusuff Oyebamiji stated that the art of blacksmithing is one that seldom changes as it goes on the same way year in, year out. He added that the palm oil is also very essential to the craft as it is used in forging some difficult tools. He explained further that palm wine can never be far from a blacksmith’s workshop as it is used to appease the God of iron.

One of the tools, the anvil, called Ewiri in Yoruba is said to produce entertaining musical sounds which not only entertains but gingers the blacksmith to work harder and faster. History has it that the sound is used to compose songs that teach the benefit of hard work, morality and good living among other credible virtues.

But today, the use of the singing anvil is no more in practice as the one now in use does not produce sounds. “It is true that in years past, the anvil used produced sounds that type is the double anvil and we do not ise it again. That was used by our fathers but modernization has made it a thing of the past. Now, we use the single anvil which is easier to manage but does not produce any sound,” Biliaminu stated.

Ogun is synonymous to blacksmithing; indeed, he is inseparable from the craft and is often described as the god of blacksmiths. He is credited with introducing iron and the patron deity to blacksmiths and anyone that works with iron. A particular story has it that Ogun as a deity sent to the earth having taken oath to protect a village against its enemies but was tricked by Esu (deity of tricks) to drink palm wine just before the battle. He got drunk having imbibed excessively and he went into battle the next morning very drunk and could not differentiate the enemies from the people he had sworn to protect.

As a result, he began to slaughter everyone and when the effects of the wine wore off, he realized the damage he had done and his father, Obatala, sentenced him to a lifetime of hard labour; mining iron ore from the earth, refining it in a furnace and using hammer to fashion the ore into beautiful pieces and weapons to be used by man and deities, as a penance for the crime he had committed.

Another story said Ogunladindin Alagbede Akokois a renowned blacksmith sent to the earth every five days by God to cast iron implements and he charges the same price for every work irrespective of its complexity and falling in love with his work, they gave him a wife to tie him down on earth but his apprentice connived with his wife to betray him and he in annoyance, relocated back to heaven through a great chain.

“You cannot be a blacksmith without worshipping Ogun, it is very impossible though it doesn’t preclude embracing other religion. Our fathers were Muslims and they went on holy pilgrimage to Mecca but they still worship Ogun. You must worship Ogun to be a blacksmith and we usually hold Ogun festival annually; it holds eight days after Oke’badan festival though we make appeasement regularly,” Yusuff explained.

They stated that it is rare for a blacksmith to move around though they lead normal lives like any other person and when asked what they can’t do, Biliaminu stated that, “we really live normal lives like everyone and don’t have much taboos except that we can’t eat Oore, a kind of insect that looks like a cricket as when you eat it, tools and whatever you are designing will continue to break,”

And why can’t women do the job? They said nothing stops women except the stressful nature of the job. “There’s no taboo or spiritual limitation, the only thing that hinders them is the cumbersome nature of the job. Can a woman sit in this hot environment all day and wield this big hammer? This is not a lazy man’s job,” Yusuff said.

However, in developed climes, the system and procedures of blacksmithing employed in the Southwest today are three generations old and is no more a feasible nor acceptable means of creating things from iron. Indeed, blacksmithing has moved beyond the artisan’s craft to a more evolved production industry that makes use of machines that not only makes work quite easy but much faster and enables mass production.

In all its forms, the modern day art of blacksmithing still uses the same techniques and processes used in times past but with better tools and to make more fanciful objects and the art has indeed changed a great deal to put the trade on a pedestal of a massive production industry to open it up to a brighter future.

Blacksmithing, contrary to popular belief is not a relic of the past that is replaced by modern machines and industrial factories, it is still the same process made easier as the use of heat and fire as well as thongs has not been eroded. In fact, in the developed world, blacksmithing is experiencing a renaissance with many people especially youths putting their artistic abilities to consistent and profitable use through blacksmithing.

That more people venture daily into this trade even outside the shores of Africa is seen  in the huge number of blacksmiths in Europe and other western countries; the Artist-Blacksmiths’ Association of North America (ABANA) now claims about 5,000 members which is  double the number it had 10 years back.

Today, blacksmithing is an emerging civilized and viable career path in developed countries with a future that is capable of creating wealth and huge employment due to the gradual introduction of modernized tools.

But in Southwest Nigeria, the trend is yet to change and is unlikely to change in the nearest future. This is because the forging, welding, riveting and repairing metal parts for use in farm machinery, and industrial and domestic equipment is still done as it was done in ancient times. And the blacksmiths, most of whom inherited the trade are quite unwilling to change their ways.

For them, the craft is closely linked with their faith and belief which precludes the use of advanced tools that was not used by Ogun, a deity they believe is the first blacksmith. Also, they think that embracing modern tools is tantamount to turning their backs on the god of iron and an invitation to his wrath.

Biliaminu sums this up when he said, “This craft was handed over to us by our fathers, just as we will hand it over to our children. We cannot effect a change because it goes beyond tradition; it has to do with source and life. As it was done then and our fathers made so much profit, so will we do it in order to remain relevant and blessed.”