Behind the mounted straw mat, the bellows operator sits. All of the tools of the other four men are clearly visible. Pre-warmed glass is melted onto the iron rods. They are reinforcing rods that are used in modern concrete construction. The long tongs are important. The man at the left is in the process of spreading out the melted glass with the tongs. The broad lamelliform knives are used to form the lumps of glass. Iron rods, tongs, and knives are the only tools that are used.
The bellows operator is in full view at the right. The bowl-bellows are similar to those that are also used by the smiths and casters of West Africa. Tanned and supple goatskins are bound over the curved edges of the “bowls”. As the stave is lifted, the skin rises and air comes in from the narrow opening at the side. And with rapid downward thrusts, blast of air go directly into the fire. The glassmakers do not use charcoal, like the smiths, but just wooden sticks. With the help of the bellows, however, they do attain temperatures sufficient to melt the glass. There sits the man who moves both staves quickly and untiringly, and the blast of air create a rhythmic sound.
One of the men is always responsible for there being enough glass material of the right consistency hanging over the fire. He also has to see that the glass does to get too soft and drip into the fire. So he holds the rod in his hand, turning it at times, or lifting it a bit higher.
By its own weight, the soft mass pulls downward, forming “stalactites.” Each one is caught at just the right moment by the three other men sitting around the same fire pit—it is wrapped around one of their iron rods. It happens very quickly. With procrastination the glass mass would drip from the rods again and again. Through practice and experience they always succeed in picking up just the right quantity of glass. Through practice and experience!
The iron rod is constantly rotated with the left hand and the glass around it melts down into a smooth, thick ring that lies directly against the rod. The paler glass mass being held over the lump will further enhance the final result. Sometimes the glassmakers do not make just plain-colored bracelets, but two and three-colored ones.
The most difficult procedure has begun. With one arm of his long tongs, the worker moves along the rod (which is still directly over the flame) under the glass, loosens the ring, pulls it out, and widens it. The iron rod is constantly rotated with the left hand, and the glass is constantly moved and widened by the tongs and pulled out into an ellipse. The man works very quickly, very concentratedly, and his eyes do not leave his ring. He turns and turns and pulls and forms with unbelievable dexterity. The bracelet gets bigger and bigger. It is still glowing bright red but it gradually loses its elliptical shape. Then comes the decisive moment. As soon as the bracelet has been sufficiently widened, the iron rod is swung out of the fire and the end of the rod is stuck into the hole in the outer wall of the forge. The rod is still rotated with the left hand and the glass is moved slightly outward. The bracelet is now round. Slowly it loses its red-hot color and hardens, until there is no longer any danger of its losing its form. Finally the bracelet is embedded in the wood ashes, and cooled slowly to avoid internal stresses.
-From René Gardi, African Crafts and Craftsmen, Van Nostrand Reinhold, N.Y., 1969).
The two crafts that Bida is most famous are Glassmakers and Brassworks. Each craft has a specific quarter of the city where the families are bound together in a strict guild.
Glass making can be traced to the Ancient Egyptians about 3,500 years ago. In the last century BC, glassblowing (see Egyptian glass makers here) was invented in Syria, which gave rise to a variety of glass objects during Roman times. The technique spread throughout the centuries to modern time. The Bida glassmakers say their ancestors came from Egypt via Chad, the Bornu Empire and migrating from Kano to finally settle with the Nupe.
Before the passing of Alhaji Essa, my main reason to travel to Bida was to discover if the glass furnaces were still in operation. The text I have to go by was by Leo Frobenius written more than 100 years ago, a 1942 copy of S.F. Nadel’s book, “The Black Bysantium,” the 1949 article “Red Walls of Bida” by W.H.L. in Nigeria Magazine, and René Gardi’s 1969 book, African Crafts and Craftsmen.
The similarities in descriptions that spanned over 100 years was not a surprise but I was not sure that the techniques used today would be the same. I was not disappointed.
In 1911 as today, the glass maker sits on the ground in front of a wood fire fanned by a bellows operator. With round air holes in the mud brick overhead that pulls out the smoke from the wood burning furnace, the bead maker begins the process by melting a glass bottle. The workers squat around the furnace and turn and twist the iron rods that hold the glass. The bellows operator carries on the rhythmic air flow into the furnace by a constant push and pull of the wood staves. Under the feet of the one who melts the glass bottles is an earthenware bowl of ash in which the finished glass beads are dropped into the ash to cool.
Leo Frobenius wrote on his visit to the Bida glassmakers in 1911:
“We step into one of the workshops, and there we are struck by the strange picture in front of us. In the dim house, five fire-lit figures, working assiduously, squat around a large fire pot sunk into the floor. Red tongues of fire lick over the edge while one of the men pushes the staves of the panting bellows up and down with rapid movements. Other workers poke into the fire with tongs and iron rods and twirl white-hot glass rings between these tools. Black and colored bits of melted glass lie about. Bowls of water with knifelike tools laid over them stand near flat baskets containing pulverized charcoal. The still-hot goods are slowly cooled off in them. In a corner lie pale blue European glass bottles. Emptied, these bottles wander from the coast all the way to the glassmaking quarter of Bida, here to metamorphose into the bracelets popular throughout the entire Sudan. The craftsmen here are working bracelets in black-white-and red-marbleization, an imitation of the agate bracelets worn on the upper arm in Tuareg lands. The bracelet is formed from a single lump and after much turning and twisting, forming and pressing and twirling around the red-hot rod. We watch as the piece, progressing toward completion, gradually passes through the hands of the four associates, until, still red-hot, it finds its way to the already cooled, finished wares in the charcoal.”
*** Nigeria is often in the news — often the news is not good, however this article centers the spotlight on Nigerians, the culture and their good work to keep traditional crafts alive. Throughout the developing world, heritage crafts need support, if not, the ancient techniques will vanish only to be read about in a dusty old book. Please support heritage crafts wherever and whenever possible. By doing so you help preserve ancient techniques, encourage skills and apprenticeships, and support the local economy.***
Global Glass Adornments, here. A website by Tatiana Ivleva “GLOBALGLASS is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie project based at the Newcastle University (2015-2017). It focuses on the cross-cultural consumption of glass bangles, i.e. rigid, ring-shaped objects composed of coloured glass, used by the inhabitants of the European northwest borderland regions during the transition from the Late Iron Age to Roman period, c. 100 B.C. – A.D. 250.” Tatiana is looking at Roman seamless glass used to make bangles and if there is a connection to the same technique used in Nigeria.
Also see: Une Histoire de bracelets https://archeoglass.jimdo.com
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