In their clay-stained hands

Date: 2012-09-29

Fifty kilometres north of Ogbomoso town lies the primordial town of Ilorin, Kwara State. It's a rather traditional place, like so many communities in South-West Nigeria. This region is not as wealthy, because most of its inhabitants are peasants who thrive on craft, farming and petty trading. The landscape is incredibly beautiful here: green, fertile, hilly, and all you will find is groups of people tilling the ground or hawking their farm produce in the hot September sun.

Iya Wura, as she is fondly called by her co-workers, is supervising the last set of women working on a set of Ikoko Amu, a huge water storage vessel. In this part of Kwara State, Ikoko Amu, is essential to daily life, especially in rural areas like this where there is irregular supply of pipe borne water. Hence, when water comes as it does bi-weekly, those with large families have to store water in large storage vessels till the next 'season.' And so, this hot noontime, Alhaja hurriedly encourages the workers to put finishing touches to the sets of Ikoko Amu they have been working on in the last few days. Customers are waiting.

Iya Wura is a sturdy 50-year-old woman who has been shrunken with hard work rather than age. The fold of flesh on her forehead is puckered in a furrow as she presses her forefinger on the moist clay pot. She is the family head of Ile Dada where virtually all the females are potters. Normally, they do not welcome strangers. They live in a closed society that protects their craft secrets. They believe that if they share their craft, the ancestors who taught them might not approve. Pottery is their only means of livelihood and the processes are traditionally taught only to those born into the hereditary profession of potter.

The Dada Compound demonstrates and explains the construction of huge Ikoko Amu, from digging and working the clay to the dramatic open field firing of more than a thousand perfectly symmetrical water vessels made without a potter's wheel. The women and girls, ages five to 65, work at their profession from dawn to dusk, year-round. Because of rapidly changing conditions in the country, the infatuation with modern technology and plastics, Odia Ofeimun, astute poet and literary critic, fears these skills could pass away and become victims of Western technology and notions of progress.

Women potters are many in the city of Ilorin. They must have thought it odd that a male was a potter. Yoruba culture traditionally has been gender specific regarding work, insisting that women perform tasks associated with hearth and home, and that men perform tasks outside the home. When questioned, master-potter Alhaja says she is not aware that men are potters in Northern Nigeria where pottery is also common. She believes custom and tradition call women to pottery, yet couldn't think of any specific restriction against men becoming potters. "The question had never come up," she says.

The Ogbena is another compound in Ilorin where there are women who specialise in the production of lidded soup bowls, called Isasun. It is used in rural areas for cooking over an open fire. Both the Ikoko Amu and the Isasun are produced with hand-building skills alone. This sweltering afternoon, Abibatu Koleosho is at work, her back is soaked in sweat. The brownish wrapper she tied around her body makes the beads of sweat visible. The perspiration is beading at her neck cape, then slipping down in quicksilver rivulets to rest on her already sodden waistband. Abibat belongs to a lineage of female potters. Her great-grandmother was a potter. "My mother was doing this job before she fell ill some months ago," she says, as she turns her face away from the smoke rising from the open fire. "I had to take over from her although I have been working with her before then. I used to work with my grandmother in the upper part of our compound before she died."

Abibat has also initiated her 12-year-old daughter, a primary six pupil at a local primary school into the craft. "I don't think I will do another job," says Ajoke, in Yoruba, the local language. "My grandmother thought me how to make clay. She is till alive although she is ill. She told us it is an exclusive preserve of our family, a secret we cannot share with outsiders. I will also teach my children when I grow up." She has just finished working on a dark coloured Isasun she puts next to the ones her mother has done in the hot October sun to dry.

The largest community of potters in Nigeria is called Ebu Dada, located on the outskirts of Ilorin. The community consists only of Yoruba women who are hereditary full-time professional potters. Here a green ware water vessel is in process of final construction. When fired, it will weigh some 125lbs. The wedging task is in no way enormous for their slim frames. Their strength and stamina came from wedging clay every day since childhood. As potters, they performed amazing feats of endurance and strength. They understood I was a potter because I helped them with their clay and wedging tasks yet I was not able to keep up with them.

Pottery in Nigeria has for centuries been the exclusive preserve of the womenfolk. Pottery, in all Nigerian traditional cultures is used for utilitarian purposes such as cooking, and especially for water storage. Some tribes and cultures also use pots as religious symbols, hence the intricate ornamentation that is typical of such items.

"Among some people in the North, for instance, women make pots for using at home, while men make the special pots to be used in ceremonial processions. Both make fragile, thin walled African pottery pots, which they make use of in varied ways," says Bola Durosanwo, a lecturer of Fine and Applied Arts at Yaba College of Technology, Lagos.

"As when making baskets, women normally use a coil method, rolling long strips of clay into coils, which they then stack to make the pot. They sometimes shape a pot by stacking the clay pieces around a mould. Men also make use of moulds, but they create their pots from flat blocks of clay instead of coils of clay. The Igbo tribe of Nigeria have traditionally dressed both house hold and ceremonial African pottery pots with grooves, and raised designs."

Historically, Ladi Kwali, who died in 1983, was Nigeria's best known female potter. She left a rich legacy of her work and a school of 'students' who picked up from where she left at the Abuja Pottery Training Centre. She grew up in a family in which the womenfolk made pots for a living.

The Abuja Pottery Training Centre, which Kwali headed before she died, was established 1950 by an English potter, Michael Cardew, who was sent to the Abuja area by the then colonial government, ostensibly to 'improve' the quality of local work. But he found himself, for the next 15 years, in a symbiotic working relationship with local potters, in which he taught and was taught by potters like Ladi Kwali. While Cardew introduced wheels and kilns to the centre, he also learnt about traditional firing methods and ornamentation. Kwali on the other hand, was initially reluctant to adapt to the wheel, preferring the spiralled coil method of building pots. She, however, discovered she had a natural flair for the wheel.

Over the next decade, her ornamentation skills became more sophisticated, and probably because of improved firing methods, she had the opportunity to exhibit her work in Europe in 1958, '59 and 1962. Her pottery was also displayed during Nigeria's independence celebrations in 1960. But the local women in Ilorin are not as lucky as Kwali. They are not celebrated yet their works are rare masterpieces.In Osogbo, Daramola Adekunbi is a graduate of civil engineering from the Esa Oke Polytechnic. She was not born into the potter's lineage yet she had been drawn to the craft of pottery since her undergraduate days. Now, she works as a foreman at the Industrial Development Centre, Osogbo. "I love working with clay," she says, displaying both hands smeared with clay. I can't really explain what drew me to it but I love it. There is this aura the smell of wet mud gives which I can't explain."

Adekunbi unlike her counterparts decides not to seek for employment in the big cities like Lagos and Abuja, she makes a living from selling fired clay and tutoring students who come to the development centre for training in pottery.
However, Adekunbi unlike the Ilorin potters says she will not force any of her children to take to pottery. "They have a choice to decide on what to do. I was not born into pottery myself hence I will not force. Pottery is just a vocation I love, which I am currently practising."

To this end, Terracotta pots produced by these women are used in daily life by the majority of the Nigerian rural population. They may be cheap to make and very cheap to replace yet these women see it as a calling, a craft to be practised by generations yet unborn.

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