In the heart of the ancient town of Bida, Niger State, North-Central Nigeria, lies the Masaga area, where glassmaking has survived as an age-long tradition. But while the artisans struggle to preserve the tradition, the popularity and craft enjoyed over 100 years seem to have declined tremendously and preservation not assured. This is partly due to the coming of technology and civilisation that have nearly crippled cultures and traditions in the country.
Aside the collapse of tradition, younger people of the Masaga glass making dynasty has no interest to acquire and master the skill, while the tradition forbids non-members of the glassmaking family from acquiring the skill.
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This tradition, which spans over 100 years, is at the verge of dying completely because their children, who they expected to take after them, are not showing interest in acquiring the skill due to the dwindling market for the product, a 55-year-old Alhaji Abbas Masaga, one of the four surviving elders in the glassmaking family said.
“In those days when our forefathers were doing it, some people would even deposit money before the products were made. When I was growing up we had many workshops, and each of them was very busy on a daily basis, day and night. But now, there is no market. We have only five functional workshops; others have been shut. Many of our brothers have abandoned glass work for other things that fetch them more money,” he said.
His 27-year-old son, Muhammadu Hussaini, told Daily Trust on Sunday that he preferred tailoring to glasswork. “Sometimes we only assist in blowing the fire. I don’t know much about glassmaking. It is true that if our parents die now we won’t be able to take over or preserve the tradition. I have learnt and mastered tailoring. I earn a living with tailoring, but we don’t get much out of glasswork, which is traditionally our inheritance. So I focus more on my tailoring work,” he said.
But a 25-year-old Fatima Emi-Nda-Zara Masaga did not allow herself to be sidelined by the tradition that sees the craft as exclusively preserved for men. She told our correspondent that she was among the young women in the family that mastered the craft, although they are not allowed to practise.
“I help them to blow the fire and do other things. As a woman, I don’t see any challenge in learning glasswork. Women need to learn their tradition too. I can make glass without being supervised by anyone. I have mastered the craft because I have been learning it for the past seven years,” she said.
While there are concerns of possible extinction of the art sooner or later as 85 of the 99 workshops inherited by the current practitioners have already been shut, non-members of the Masaga glassmaking family are not allowed to learn, while members of the family are also forbidden from practising the craft outside their workshops.
“Nowadays, our youths cannot withstand or withhold the tediousness of the practice. Because of that, you can see that they have lost interest in learning the art. That is why it is dying. Without fear of contradiction, there are only four functional workshops in Masaga now, out of 99 workshops that were functional when our grandfathers were into the practice. It is one of the things that contributed to the backwardness of the craft,” Alhaji Yahaya Alfa Masaga, the chairman of Masaga Glass Workers Cooperative Society said.
Alhaji Abbas also said, “I have 13 children, but none of them has learnt the work. They prefer to learn modern skills, such as tailoring, carpentry, welding, mechanic, wiring, among other things because that is where they would make quick money. This is because market for the glassmaking business is not booming as it used to be.”
He said it had become a serious concern to glassmakers, adding, “We are worried that our children are not willing to learn the glasswork. We would have been happy if they learned and took over from us. There is a sign that the art will go into extinction. We have tried to convince our children to see the reason they ought to learn and take over from us, but because of marketing challenges, they prefer going into other skills where they will get money faster.”
Another factor that is killing Masaga glasswork is the unavailability of a viable market due to lack of innovations to meet modern demands. Lack of buyers, coupled with the tradition that forbids makers from hawking their products, is also gradually pushing the glasswork into extinction.
Alhaji Abbas said, “We don’t hawk our products. Once we produce them, those who need them must come to our showroom to buy. We don’t hawk our products even within Bida, let alone take it outside. But people come to buy from within and outside Nigeria.”
Alhaji Alfa also observed, “The backwardness of Masaga glasswork is also caused by modernisation; everything changes with time. We still do the same products we had 70 years ago, even when things have changed. So there is a need to inject new ideas by bringing innovations into it so that it would meet current demands. But we don’t have modern equipment.”
Masaga glassworkers produce various sizes of beads and bangles. They also produce a snake-like home decorator using broken or melted bottles.
The chairman of the workers said, “If we were producing household materials such as cups, plates, spoons and other household utensils, the art would have been progressing. But since our products have no direct usage in the house, there won’t be any need for patronage in this modern society.
“The only useful products we have are beads and probably bangles. And in this part of the society, men don’t wear beads and bangles; it is only in the South that they wear beads.”
While the glassmakers are willing to move with time by bringing creativity and innovation to the business, they are constrained by lack of modern equipment and technology.
Alhaji Abbas Masaga further said, “We don’t teach people that are not part of our family.
Traditionally, it is not allowed. Even those of us that are still doing it, once we leave or relocate from the Masaga area to another area within Bida, we are not allowed to practise it. Every practice must be done here in Masaga, where our forefathers settled. That is how our forefathers established it; and we cannot change the tradition. Our fathers told us that during the reign of Etsu Baba-Kudu, foreigners requested that they relocate to the Wadata area of Bida, where the emir’s palace was, but they didn’t agree, saying it must be practised here.”
Alhaji Yahaya Alfa also told Daily Trust on Sunday that, “The Masaga glasswork is exceptional and exclusive to the Masaga family, or if you were brought up in Masaga and you are not thinking of leaving again. That is what we are made to believe, but it has not been proved otherwise. Even our daughters who got married cannot practise where they are, even if they have mastered the work. And they can’t even master the work because it is mainly for men.”
Recently, Bida was recognised and declared as a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) on Creative Cities Network.
On its website, the United Nations stated, “Bida has been renowned as a city of quality craft since the 11th century. Today, the local creative industry includes the art of glass production, metallurgy, wood carving, as well as fabric and raffia weaving.”
But Masaga glass artisans still rely on rigorous traditional tools to make products, using traditional furnace and locally made hand tools, as well as traditional methods that date back to over 100 years.
Despite its rich economic potentials, including creation of job opportunities, while attracting investments from both local and international communities, generating revenues, and stimulating the local economy through tourism and trade, the tradition restricts outsiders from learning the craft, which has been identified as a serious threat to the survival of the industry.
The Etsu Nupe and chairman of the Niger State Council of Traditional Rulers, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, underscored the need for a serious attention to be paid on the promotion of indigenous African tradition without causing damage to some good aspects of western culture.
In the beginning of the craft, precisely in 1850, every household in Masaga was said to have a workshop for glasswork. That was the time the craft was famous, not only in Bida but in the whole of northern Nigeria and beyond.
The sound of the fire, which was heard from 2 kilometrers, also gave prominence to the glassmakers. And market for the product was blooming.
Beads and bangles were produced from a variety of modern bottles and local raw material called bikini, a black molten glass produced using potash, sand and other things. Daily Trust on Sunday gathered that bikini was last produced 70 years ago.
While some of the raw materials used are sourced in Bida, the makers would have to travel as far as Lagos, Kano and other places for other materials required for the craft. One of the materials sourced in Kano is edzurugi (the red bottle). Manshikugi is also sourced outside Bida.
The workers use modern bottles such as Maltina, Sprite, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and several other types of bottles in producing varieties of beads and bangles. Ironically, it is not all bottles that are useful for the craft.
“We prefer soft bottles, so once we see those that are not good to be used, we know. If we break the bottle, we mix it with some of the ingredients needed. We use a white bottle called Zaka and another one called Mashikugi,” Alhaji Abbas said.
The chairman of the glassmakers also said, “Initially, we had what we were using as our raw material before the advent of glass bottles. It was a glass-like material we called bikini, which we produced here in Masaga. We used it for various products.”
Ashes from grass are used to cool the molten product as water is not suitable; it is also not all ashes that are used.
Traditionally, the shapes and sizes of products are measured by mind, without the use of any instrument, according to Alhaji Yahaya Masaga, also one of the leading practitioners of the glasswork.
The craft is believed to have historical antecedents to a family in Misra, the present Egypt. The ancestors were said to have moved to the present Masaga area after settling in some places.
Alhaji Yahaya further said, “We need assistance from all the tiers of government by introducing us to the use of modern technology as there is the need for innovations. We feel we are supposed to have advanced beyond the use of manuals like our forefathers. Modern technology will encourage and boost our activities.”
The surviving makers attested that some of their forefathers developed sight impairment because of the way they were facing fire on a daily basis.
Government at all levels also needs to key into the quest to revive the industry by providing the modern equipment that would make it easier to harness glass. The current method which requires the makers facing naked fire has a dire effect on their sight.
The Niger State Commissioner for Tourism and Culture, Mrs Rifkatu Adamu Chidawa, said that by designation and recognition, Bida is expected to collaborate with other cities in terms of cultural development.