Lesley Lababidi is a travel writer and author. In this interview, she speaks on how her documentary on ancient Masaga glass making technique led to the recreation of a lost ancient technology in Bida that researchers couldn’t find anywhere around the world, and its recent recognition by UNESCO.
Tell us about your role in the popularization of the Masaga Glass-coated bead industry?
In 2015, our PRO Alhaji Isa passed on after working for 20 years in the company.
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He was from Bida and had taken us around Nigeria. However, one place he had not taken us to was Bida. We were planning a trip to Bida to see their culture because the Nupe culture is well known but he passed on, almost overnight.
So, I told my husband that I would like to go to Bida to condole with his family personally. I had never been to Bida and I didn’t know anyone there, but I got in touch with his elder brother – Alhaji Dangaladima, who was one of the palace ministers of Bida Emirate.
Well, I finally went to Bida, spent a week there and his elder brother, Alhaji Dangaladima, took me everywhere to see all the crafts, the customs and Masaga glass-coated beads.
I never expected to do anything with all the information I got there. I went back to my home in Lagos, logged into my website blog and wrote about my trip to Bida with pictures and everything.
After six months, I got an e-mail from a professor from a university in Paris and another professor from a university in Scotland. They said they saw my videos about the seeming-less glass bracelets being made in Bida and they were interested in it because it’s the same technology that was done thousands of years ago.
They sent me a long list of questions and I didn’t know the answers. So, I called Alhaji Dangaladima and told him I would like to visit Bida again.
So, I went back and Alhaji Dangaladima took me to the Etsu Nupe’s palace and told him the story. The Etsu said I could ask any question and I’m free to take as many pictures as I wanted.
That began my story on researching and creating awareness on Masaga glass works. I began to write magazine articles, booklets, and we did several exhibitions in France along with the gothic glass making because what they did was that they learnt through the Bida glass makers how to reconstruct using this ancient technique.
We don’t know if it sprang from their indigenous technology, they might have developed it on their own or it might have been something that came through trans-saharan routes over these centuries.
We don’t know how it developed but the universities that study archaeology have been all over the world looking for this technology (if it had survived) and they couldn’t find it anywhere in Nepal, India, China, South America. It was through that video that they found it on my website.
So, the Bida glass makers answered all the questions and I made a very specific video and sent it to the university in France. Based on that, they were able to put together an exhibition that showed how to make the seamless bracelets and how they put together their own furnaces.
And, based on learning from the Bida glass makers, they were able to make glass and from that, they had a huge whole summer exhibition in France, showing how the Bida glass makers taught them how to recreate this ancient technique of thousands of years ago. That went on in 2017 and 2018.
In 2019, I went back to Bida and met Etsu Nupe. I told him we have done books, magazine articles and put things on the website. The next thing to do is documentary. I asked him to help me get the permission of the community because many people were involved and we reached an agreement.
Within the years I spent there, I found that there were two types of glass making. The glass making that they do now with recycled bottles and the glass making that they did prior to 60 years ago when they made their own glass.
Oral tradition has it that the people migrated from Egypt to Bida with the secret of making glass. They settled in Bida and some other places in Niger State but then they are congregated in Bida and became part of the Nupe. This happened in the middle of the 18th Century.
They brought their secret of making glasses called Bikini.
I started asking, what is Bikini? It was a secret their forefathers used to make glass and only one man who is 95 years old ever saw and participated in it.
I asked if he was still alive and they said yes. So, I said we have to document this but we had to get permission from everybody because many families were involved and they have a hierarchy of the head of the glass making cooperative.
So, the Etsu agreed to all of these and he brought everyone together; we got the lawyers in Lagos to work with lawyers in Bida, to draft the contract.
The documentary was successful. I spent one month in November 2019 making this documentary and it is on the British Museum website now.
At what point was Masaga glass making recognised by UNESCO?
Last year, the Etsu Nupe was contacted by them. I wasn’t involved in the process but he was extremely complementary. He called me up and said he was thankful for the part I had played and I was so touched that he would give me that honour. So, I’m not taking any credit for the UNESCO designation.
But, the Etsu Nupe, I want to say, is a leader. The closeness he has with his people, the appreciation he has for his culture, he put that first. In all these years, I’ve seen it and admired him because of his dedication to his heritage, to his people, to his role as a traditional leader.
How do you feel being honoured by Etsu Nupe as ‘Jakadiya Gargajiyar Nupe’?
I have always appreciated that because in the whole world, people take things but they don’t give back or say thank you in appreciation. He also said in Nupe culture, they always appreciate when people give them, so that was how I received the title, ‘Jakadiyar Gargajiyar Nupe’ (Ambassador to cultural heritage in Nupe).
What are you expected to be doing to them?
I don’t know what I’m expected to do, but I keep working with the Masaga. Right now, we are doing a training programme for the youth, to try to keep them interested in preserving the glass making culture.
What is your assessment of the Nupe people?
I find them extremely gentle in a way. They have respect, not only for me as someone that is not from the community but towards one another. Through their greetings, they have the structure of a society and they follow that structure.
Also, within the structure, it creates a lot of respect, constant helpfulness, and I have always been greeted.
In England or the USA, greetings have ended. People don’t greet each other anymore. If you pass me and I say ‘good morning’, you’d wonder what I want but in Nupe culture, coming in and going out, you will always greet. I love that.
I also notice that Nupe people listen, when we have meetings, people have a say and they listen too. They listen to each other, and they listen to everybody. I saw that especially in the Masaga community.
For the period you were there, how did you cope in terms of food and how you sleep?
I eat the local food. And sleeping, I do sleep without air conditioning, I take a mosquito net with me for personal protection. I can wash using a bucket if I have to, it’s okay.
And do you feel comfortable wearing the local clothes or is it because of the title?
I have been in Nigeria since 1971. I’m a chief in Lagos, Chief Otunyeye Oluwa. So, I lived in Nigeria, I taught in a school and I have done many things in Lagos.
What brought you to Nigeria?
My husband and I came here with nothing. We started in Ghana in 1970. His father – Fu’ad Labbabidi – had a part in a flour mill there, so he sent my husband there and we started in Ghana working in my father-in-law’s flour mills and then my husband decided to open a flour mill in Nigeria, but we had no money.
My brother-in-law was already here working in some small businesses in Lagos, so we came to live with him in a tiny place in high density Apapa. All of us lived in one room with just a fan, so I started from a very humble beginning in Nigeria and I’m very proud of that because I can live anywhere.
It took us ten years for my husband to finally open Crown Flour Mills; ten years of serious struggling to get there.
I have three children here, my eldest is 46 years old, and he is in Lagos working. So, I’m very connected to Nigeria and when I’m in Nigeria, I only wear Nigerian attire because this is where I feel I fit in.
I know people look at me and say I don’t fit in, but in my heart and in my mind, I fit in.
Here you are at this edifice (Fuad Islamic Academy), what is your connection?
My husband and Alhaji U. K. Umar were very close. When developing Crown flour mills, he was in the Civil Service and I think they knew each other from there. Anyway, when UK Umar and the community wanted to begin the school, he went to my husband and through them, they decided to start with the primary school, so my husband built that primary section here and then the mosque. I had nothing to do with this.
My father-in-law passed on at about that time and the community decided to name the school Fuad Lababidi Islamic Academy. My husband is always involved in whatever they need. I’m not privy to the information about how that goes on.
What ambition do you have?
At 73 years, my ambition is to have the energy to see the opportunities that come to me and take them and to have the ability to follow these opportunities because there are so many opportunities in this world and it’s nothing to do with corporations and wealthy people, it’s real.
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