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The Transforming Blacksmith in Buganda

A blacksmith at work. Images courtesy of UCASDR
A trajectory of blacksmithing as a creative practice in pre-colonial and contemporary Buganda
CULTURE & ARTS | Dominic Muwanguzi |  Since the pre-colonial times indigenous communities on the African continent have engaged in different art forms as a means of social-l cultural expression and survival on a day to day basis. The art of blacksmith that dates back many centuries ago before the advent of the white man in Buganda, is one of those occupations that were evocative of the different norms and practices of pre-colonial Buganda. Though blacksmithing has arguably been traced to have originated from Kooki, formerly a constituency of the expanse Bunyoro- Kitara Kingdom, it soon became an integral part of Buganda material culture.

Kooki had large deposits of iron ore and as the evolution from stone to Iron Age took place, it became a site of production of iron tools that made it famous to its neighbours.
In this regard, the earliest blacksmiths in Buganda are believed to have come from Kooki and may have settled in different parts of Buganda in order to provide the much needed tools for society’s social economic and political advancement. The blacksmith soon became synonymous with the making of utilitarian objects which became popular in many households across the Kingdom. This included the spear that was adopted as part of the Buganda royal regalia symbolizing power and authority of the monarch.
The identity of blacksmiths in Buganda was not limited to craftsmen who made extraordinary objects but also artisans who were involved in skills development at the grass root level. As such, through the process of production of the iron wares, the blacksmiths performed a dominant aspect of pre-colonial African societies which is knowledge preservation.

This transfer of skilled knowledge from one generation to the next was done collectively and involved a group of young men from a particular family or families gathering at the workshop of
the artisan and through observation and participation would learn the trade.

A more interesting aspect of this apprentice model was that it was not open to every youth in the community. Otherwise the masters enrolled young men in their realms who had been especially identified to them by the elders in the community.

A blacksmith at work. Images courtesy of UCASDR

This was after close observation of their potential and passion to learn particular crafts from a tender age. This selective approach is validated by the fact that though blacksmithing was an essential trade in the community, the artisans were largely scarce. People had to travel hundreds of miles to access their services from time to time. Additionally, it was a norm in Buganda traditional society for a family to be known by the trade those of its household practiced. Hence, it was common to have families assume titles as the family of blacksmiths ( famile ya Baweesi).

In the post-colonial era and today, the influence of the blacksmith continues to be felt in the cultural social and economic spheres of society. The trade has provided a source of livelihood for many urban youth living on the periphery of the city. In Katwe and Kisenyi spaces that emerged during the post colonial period as economic hubs of native Africans, both the youth and middle aged men are seen engaging in the trade. This random participation in the trade is obviously different from the traditional structured method of recruitment into the craft.

This nonetheless has not undermined the level of creativity in the production process of metal objects.

The rising trend among the more ingenious artisans to manufacture replicas of modem tools and equipments like car spare parts and industrial hardware is a testimony to the fast transforming ingenuity of the local artisans.

This is a significant departure from the production of traditional objects like spears, cooking saucepans, hoes and axes.

Though such transformation has been realized, blacksmiths still encounter social- economic challenges.The artisan has continued to produce his products using rudimentary methods which limit the quality of his objects. He also faces the arduous task of being accepted from any
form of serious scholarship. This isolation underscores the prejudice attached to artisanal work as a “cheap” and therefore does not belong to the mainstream visual arts.

The famous model that required integration of traditional art making elements and skills in art production promoted by Margaret Trowell, brings into dispute the latter argument. Trowell in her art teaching noted that craftsmen,

like blacksmiths, expressed a high level of personal interpretation and appreciation of their immediate surroundings. As such, she emphasized that the objects they created were evocative of the traditional norms and practices of the respective communities. This theory was inspired by her earliest observation of the Kamba people she lived with in Kenya before her academic undertakings in Uganda. To exemplify her argument, she invited a local potter in one of her classes at Makerere to demonstrate the idea of making art using indigenous art elements and forms.

Away from the theory of Trowell, the recent penetration of academic research into the creative practice of blacksmiths is a gesture to the shifting perceptions of the craftsmen in the contemporary times.

Indeed, the ongoing academic program at Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Art under the theme of Art and the Community has renewed the conversation on the position of blacksmiths in the contemporary arts.

The idea of preserving knowledge and indigenous culture that is visible in the trade offers diverse opportunities for its interrogation not only as a medium of skills development, but as a reflection of the social cultural identity of the community. Noteworthy, the blacksmiths in Mengo- Kisenyi and Katwe mirror the fast evolving social and cultural landscape of Kampala. The typical blacksmith in Mengo- Kisenyi is socially, economically and culturally conscious of his immediate surroundings.

He therefore produces objects that respond to the needs of his community and in doing so becomes relevant in a city that increasingly adopting new cultures within a global context. In light of this relevance, the blacksmith ceases to perform only the traditional role of manufacturing objects for human survival, but equally assumes the identity of a social commentator.

While Blacksmithing may have been contextualized as a low ranking occupation during the colonial and post- colonial era, before the period it served its purpose of providing communities with utilitarian objects that eased life as observed above. These objects accelerated the transitioning of Buganda from a primitive to a civilized society.

A blacksmith at work. Images courtesy of UCASDR

The creative ingenuity that accompanied such enterprise may have been ignored in the earlier days, but as society progressed on it dawned on the population that the artisans possessed a rare quality of knowledge. To give credibility to this form of knowledge words like Magezi ga Baganda came into use. This was probably the first form of manifestation that Blacksmiths were accepted in mainstream Buganda society. The Baganda had a tradition of giving their identity to things including objects and trades that they considered unique and valuable. This probably was to promote the idea of exclusivity of the Kingdom in the face of their neighbours.

With the Blacksmith transforming in the contemporary Uganda, his access to diverse cultural experiences and residence in the city (Kibuga) provides enormous opportunities for his artistic practice, including now being a focus of academic scholarship. Incidentally, the space he occupies in Katwe and Kisenyi- Mengo is a habitat fordifferent ethnic groups like Eritreans, Somali and Congolese. This affords him a vast landscape to experiment with different materialsand learn from a divergence of life experiences as presented by the respective communities. An experimental approach to artistic practices encourages different responses from the public. Therefore, the blacksmith becomes a major actor in the city’s fast transforming environment.

Images courtesy of UCASDR

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