From Bottles to Beautiful Beads
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN NIGERIA
YOU are in a hurry. You reach for a bottle on the table, but it slips from your grasp, falls to the floor, and breaks. You sigh, sweep up the broken pieces, and dump them into the wastebasket. As far as you are concerned, that is the end of the matter.
If you lived in Bida, Nigeria, that might be just the beginning. Why? Because among the Nupe people who live there, craftsmen can take a broken bottle and make from it a beautiful string of beads. It is an art that has been passed on from generation to generation—one that has changed little over centuries of time.
Beadmaking in Bida
The workshop is a small, round hut made of dried mud. In the center of the floor stands an earthenware kiln. Into the kiln, craftsmen drop pieces of wood, which they set ablaze. The fire is fanned to a roar by hand-operated bellows. As more sticks are added, a red flame rises above the top of the kiln. A bottle is suspended on a rod over the kiln, and soon the glass softens and hangs molten.
The beadmaker makes beads one at a time. He lays a pointed rod over the fire next to the rod that suspends the glass. When the pointed end becomes a glowing red, he moves it to the hanging glob of molten glass. Then, by turning the rod with his fingers, he wraps a bead-size portion of glass onto it.
Next, using a long, flat bush knife, he smooths and shapes the glass into a bead. If he is especially skilled, he may work with several colors of glass, overlaying a pattern on each bead he makes. Finally, he uses the knife to gently ease the bead off the rod into a pan of ash where it will cool. The bead is now complete. The hole made by the rod becomes the hole used to string the bead. All that remains is to wash the bead and then thread it with other beads to make a necklace.
Learning the Art
How does one learn the art of beadmaking? Nupe children begin by watching. By the time they reach ten years of age, they help collect and cut the firewood.
The next step is to master the bellows. The bellows are twin bags made of cloth, each of which is connected to a stick. To operate the bellows, the “blower” must hold a stick in each hand and rapidly move them up and down. He needs both strength and coordination. He must be strong enough to constantly pump the bellows throughout the beadmaking session, and a session can last for hours!
He must also be coordinated enough to maintain a rapid, constant rhythm, pumping the bellows at precisely the correct speed. If he pumps too slowly, the heat of the fire will not make the glass soft enough to work with. If he pumps too quickly, the heat produced may cause the glass to fall from the rod into the fire.
Typically, an apprentice beadmaker will handle the bellows for five years. Finally, he learns how to fashion beads. Part of the challenge of this job is to learn to endure the heat from the fire, which, added to the tropical heat of the sun, can be a test.
He learns progressively. After helping an experienced beadmaker with the handling of the rods, the apprentice learns to form small, plain beads. In time, he progresses to making larger beads and beads adorned with an overlaid pattern of glass of another color. Experienced beadmakers make the job look easy, but it takes time to master the skill necessary to produce a series of beads, one bead at a time, all of uniform size, shape, and pattern.
Beadmaking is an enjoyable art. The beadmakers delight in seeing people throughout the country adorned with their colorful beads—tiny beads worn by children, delicately crafted beads worn by women, and heavy ceremonial beads worn by men. There is enjoyment too at festival times when people gather around the workshop to sing and dance to the rhythm of the bellows.
Says the book History of West Africa: “Nupe artistic production in . . . glass . . . is still some of the best on the continent.” Others agree. Said one Christian missionary: “We bought beads from Bida as well as other places to give to our friends and family when we went on vacation. When we got to the United States, our friends chose the beads from Bida every time!”
[Picture on page 26]
Firing glass in a kiln