In the town of Bida, Niger State, in traditional parlours called katamba, a guild of Nupe families sit around a furnace, melting bottles in fire, in a generations-long tradition of glasswork. The beads they make, of varying colours, designs, and sizes, are held in great esteem outside the town.
For each family, there is only one workshop, controlled by the masaga, the guild head. The workshops have mud forges, which are connected via clay pipes to goatskin and mud bellows worked by an apprentice or an old man. Bottles and jars are melted and stored before usage. Two more workers join the bellows boy: a man melting glass with two iron pokers and the maker of articles who uses pokers to pick needed pieces from the mass of molten glass. After the articles have been shaped and decorated with other coloured glass, they are put in calabashes of sand and left to cool.
Glassmaking is originally an ancient Egyptian art, invented around 1,500 B.C., and with the subsequent emergence of glassblowing in Syria, the technique spread across the world. The glassmakers of Bida trace their ancestry to Egypt, holding that their progenitors left North Africa through Chad, the Bornu Empire, and Kanu, before settling with the Nupe. Their work has been explored in sociological and historical texts, including S.F. Nadel’s A Black Bysantium: The Kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria (1942), Rene Gardi’s African Crafts and Craftsmen (1969), and W.H.L.’s article “Red Walls of Bida” (1949).
Unlike Bida’s many other guilds—blacksmiths, clothworkers, dyers, leatherworkers—membership of the Masaga Glass Bead Makers’ Guild in Bida is through birth alone.
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.