“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any”
– Mohandas (Mahatma) Ghandi
By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor
We had a bitter quarrel in Dubai, my friend and I, over arts and craft. Flying Emirates from Abuja, we needed to disembark in Dubai and take a connecting flight to Moscow. The waiting in Dubai was about five hours. They say the long wait in Dubai is customary and deliberate. The idea is for the traveller to spend some of his money in Dubai.
Having those long hours on our hands in Dubai, we set out to explore the shops and what they offer. Indeed, everything was as beautiful as the airport. My friend and I strolled down to a shop where a Chinese was selling bags of all kinds. I spotted a pure leather backpack and asked the Chinese to bring it down. When I saw the price tag, I was thrown off balance. It was more than $1,000!
“That’s over N360,000,” I whispered to my friend. “Why should I spend that much money on a backpack? If I take the picture of this bag and give it to Sylla in Lagos at Alaba Rago, he will reproduce it exactly the way it is with the same quality of leather.”My position did not go down well with my friend. “You are too pedestrian!” he bellowed. “For how long are you going to keep dealing with Alaba Rago? These are designer bags. Forget about your Alaba Rago.”
“You are over enchanted with all these shiny stuff here. Our people can make all these things and they have been making them. The ones Sylla and other craftsmen and women at home make may not have exactly this type of finishing, but if we continue to support them by patronising them, they will keep improving the quality,” I argued.
“No. I don’t agree with you. You and your Alaba Rago products should come up to this standard,” my friend continued.
I had to remind him that our mission to Russia as Arts & Culture emissaries is to promote Nigeria, our culture and our products. I reminded him also that one of the areas of our culture which the DG of National Council for Arts & Culture, Otunba Segun Runsewe, is passionate about is the promotion of Nigeria’s arts and crafts.
“That is true,” he said, “but what I am saying is that you and your Alaba Rago craftsmen should come to this standard.”
“We won’t come to this standard if every Nigerian continues to gloat at these foreign goods and lust after them as you are doing!” I shot at him.
His face contorted in anger and I noticed his right fist clenching. May be he is going to throw a punch at me, I thought and balled my own fist, ready to return any blow that came my way. It would be a blow to a Nigerian for Nigeria in Dubai. If the Dubai police arrest us, I will tell them what caused the fight, I said to myself.
To my relief, instead, he held my hand and dragged me away, to some seats in another section of the airport. We sat down and commenced one of the most fiery arts and culture discourse I have ever engaged in.
In the end, my position remained the same and his did not budge.
In reality, however, we both share similar aspirations for our country: We both wanted the best products for Nigeria and our people. The difference, I concluded, is that while he was impatient with our craftsmen and wanted the highest standards now, I have the insight that our products will improve if we discipline ourselves to resist the attractions of foreign products and support our indigenous craftsmen by ordering their products. Producers of the things we saw in Dubai did not get to that high standard by any magic. There was a time China and Dubai products were synonymous with poor quality. Even till today, I do not wear Dubai shoes because they are so inferior to Italian shoes and those made in England. Instead, I wear shoes made by Mr. John Adiri in Alaba Rago because they are strong and well made. If you think otherwise, go and buy your Italian made ones for $400!
When I came back and told this story to John Adiri, my shoemaker friend at Alaba Rago, he repeated something relevant he told me a few months ago when I had interviewed him for Vanguard Arts & Reviews: A large number of the footwear and bags John and Sylla make in Alaba Rago are ordered by their white customers. “What our white customers want especially are African designs. If you make the products look like those designed in their country, they will reject it.”
This is a food for thought for us, as well as a good tip. We can leverage on African designs and sell them to Dubai, Italy, Europe and America. Wherever there is a will, there is a way.