Tracking down the white smiths

Last Saturday I took Sara a friend of my Kenyan friend and VSO volunteer Eunice at Sa’adatu Rimi College of Education to Kurmi Market, the oldest of all the markets in town – established by the 15th century ruler Muhammed Rumfa – and during the 19th century certainly one of the most important markets in the Western Sudan thanks to the trans-Saharan Trade. Anyway, we were taken around by another friend of mine, Nura Alee. Nura is a cap designer and has himself two shops at the market; hence he knows his way around and a lot of people.
While we were hunting for silver bangles in the Tuareg Style we came across a beautiful vase, supposedly produced in Cairo.
I’m not an expert of Egyptian arts and, hence, cannot really verify this information but given Kano’s close trade links with the Maghreb and the fact that an abundance of North African produce specifically at Kurmi market has already been remarked upon by 19th century European travellers the vase might actually be from Cairo. However, moving on in our hunt for jewellery we came about another set of vases, some of them in a style kind of reminiscent of the ‘Cairo vase.’ However, those, the trader assured us, were produced locally. Unfortunately though, local white smiths stopped producing these kinds of work a long time ago, roughly during the time his grandfather ran the shop. So, he estimated, the vase might be about a hundred or two hundred years old.
Now I have read in an article by M.U. Adamu that during the 19th century Arab migrants set up factories producing a particular kind of large tongued slipper (lantami) for export across the Western Sudan and Tripoli. Soon afterwards local leather craftsmen started producing similar wares and, in fact, improved on the designs. (In: Kano Studies 1968, Vol. 1,4, p. 44) Similarly, local white smiths could have started copying from imported Arab metal products, such as vases, couldn’t they? On the other hand, this was a trader’s information and, after all, isn’t a traders main objective to sell, even if this means he might have to bend the truth a bit?
Well, in the end I decided to buy one of the small one of the vases, mainly because it showed residue of colouring in the engraved designs. And with the vase and accompanied by a good local friend I went on the search for who might have produced it or similar pieces.
In fact, only a close distance from the market we were directed towards a group of old men who we were told used to produce pieces like mine. In fact, they had but stopped about forty years ago. And my own vase, they suggested, was clearly of Arab produce – so it seems information given by traders really needs to be taken with a pinch of salt!
Anyway, I’m not really angry. After all I really like my little vase – and being able to show it around really helped us in finding the old white smiths. However, none of them is actually engaged in the production of similar pieces any more. It appears that the majority of their customers were not local people but expatriates, or so they told me. So when these stopped patronising them about 40 years ago and the raw material, brass, significantly increased in price local white smiths stopped producing them. Instead they now engrave prefabricated aluminium spoons and kettles. This, however, means that a new generation of local white smiths don’t learn the techniques of producing pieces like my vase from the scratch. The men I spoke to claim to still be able to do a similar product for me or even a completely different design – provided I supply the raw material. (I’d love to commission one but for the money …) However, they are in their late 60s and early 70s and it has to be feared that this knowledge will die out with them. (Of course, there are centres of white smiting, especially brass casting, in other parts of the country or wider region where an interested youth could learn the trade. But how are they ever to consider this if they don’t know about it in the first place because nobody does it locally?) At the same time I have seen pieces similar to my little vase or intricately decorated brass bowls in the houses of some of the more well of citizens of Kano – only that they go them from Dubai.

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