By Vincent Ujumadu
AWKA, the Anambra State capital, is known as the blacksmith city because the town used to excel in manufacturing such items as guns, gongs, pots and metal wares of all kinds. In fact, the traditional ruler of Awka bears the title of Eze Uzu (the blacksmith king) and many title holders in the town attach ‘uzu’ (blacksmith) after their names.
But the blacksmiths themselves are bitter. They are bitter because government has neglected them and they therefore look at anyone who comes to make inquiries about their trade with suspicion. Blacksmith used to be somehow exclusive to Awka people, but things have changed as not only Awka people are in it currently.
The environment where they operate is also an eye saw and, as many of them told Saturday Vanguard, they are still in the trade because they could not find an alternative job to do. The place where the blacksmiths occupy in Awka used to be a beehive of activities and customers used to come from many parts of the country and even beyond to buy the short guns that were synonymous with Awka. However, after the Nigeria civil war, production of guns, the most lucrative of all products manufactured by the blacksmiths in Awka, became illegal such that security operatives were often carrying out raids in the area. Out of fear, many of them withdrew and learnt other trades.
Over the years, however, those who endured adjusted and concentrated in making items other than the guns. But gradually, however, many of them began to lose interest in the job and finally withdrew. When Saturday Vanguard visited the blacksmith center in the heart of Awka, not more than 20 people were seen and most of them were men above 60 years old. The only young people among them were apprentices from other parts of Anambra, as well as Akwa Ibom and Cross River states.
Littered at the center were the traditional blacksmith tools like tongs, anvils, chisel, hammer and charcoal. Even as ramshackle as the center looks, Saturday Vanguard gathered that many tertiary institutions were using it for their scientific researches. Though there is modern day form of blacksmith, the Awka blacksmiths still use the traditional tools due to lack of financial support to acquire modern equipment.
Because of what they described as their ugly experiences with some people who pretended to connect them with government for assistance, the blacksmiths decided to take their destiny in their own hands by registering Awka Blacksmith Association with the Corporate Affairs Commission, CAC, as a rallying organization to protect their interests. Chairman of the association, Mr. Obiorah Okafor, who was the only person permitted to speak for the blacksmiths, said they have become disenchanted with people coming to ask them questions about Awka blacksmith.
Okafor, an indigene of Awka, whose late father introduced him into the business at the age of nine, said the most worrisome aspect of their plight was that all those who came in the name of helping them to modernize the business, were only interested in their pockets.
He said: “Before the civil war, blacksmith was a thriving business in Awka and buyers were coming for the popular Awka short gun. But after the war, there was embargo on the manufacturing of the guns and we concentrated in making other items. Unfortunately, subsequent governments have not been helping us. Some people would come and claim that they would connect us with government, not knowing that they were only concerned with their pockets. It was because of that experience that we decided to register the association. Even after the registration, the help did not come. “
Going down memory lane, Okafor said because of blacksmith, Awka was a big market because of our products such as gongs, guns, hoes, machetes, keys, pots, among other items, adding that if the right support had been received, blacksmith would have been a big industry in Nigeria. He regretted that many of the items are no longer produced because of lack of encouragement.
He said further: “We were producing guns for Biafra during the war. In fact, blacksmiths from Awka were part of the team producing Ogbunigwe bomb, which Biafra was noted for during the war.
“After the war, government officials started harassing us because they alleged that we were making guns for armed robbers. We then concentrated in making other items, expecting that government would come to our assistance. Unfortunately, no assistance has come. Now youths are not interested in learning and continuing this profession, which Awka is known for. After our generation, there will be no people to take over from us.
“At a time, someone promised to assist us and he suggested that we should mount an exhibition to let the world know what we are doing. We held several meetings with him and after the exhibition; he didn’t get back to us. We later discovered that his intention was to take over our business and convert all of us to his workers, which we objected to. That is why we have decided not to allow people to come here and ask us questions or to take photographs. We are used to seeing ourselves on television, but that was where it ends.
“Even our traditional ruler is known as Eze Uzu, which is a title derived from blacksmith, but he has not been here to see how blacksmith works. The other one that holds the title of Uzu Awka is priding himself that he is from Awka, but he has not been here also and has not done anything to encourage us.”
Okafor said although he learnt blacksmith business from his father, who was very proud that his son took over from him, “I do not pray that my son will come here because there is no encouragement.”
But he admitted that there is ready market for their products, adding that they do not even meet the demands of their customers.
Despite the complaints and difficulties associated with the business, the blacksmiths confided in Saturday Vanguard that they cannot fit into any other trade. As their chairman, Okafor said, “I started this from my childhood and I have done it for more than 45 years. It is a lucrative venture. For instance, it is from this blacksmith that I got married, built a house, bought cars and trained my children. I have not done any other business in my life