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Blacksmith: Why some still cling onto the dying old trade

By Nathan Ochunge | June 22nd 2021
Meshack Amoyi Shisoka at his workshop at Emulundu in Lurambi on June 16, 2021. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

It is rare to meet a blacksmith or even spot a blacksmith’s shop in the Western region.

A blacksmith’s job entails smelting iron and creating unique tools. In the past, blacksmiths were adored for their specialised skills and ability to forge iron tools and weapons and the trade was highly valued.

It was usual to encounter a blacksmith’s workshop at market centres, while others hawked their wares in villages. However, not anymore, and the trade appears to be dying gradually.

Caston Savana, 36, one of the few blacksmiths who have held onto the trade for decades, argues that utensils and other tools crafted from smelted iron are of the best quality and safe to use compared to those being manufactured in aluminium and steel factories.

“The current generation might not know about blacksmiths. But those who have been around for over five decades appreciate me and my products,” says Savana, whose shop is located at Evinju in Kakamega Central Sub-county.

Even though they appreciate the fact that the trade is on the verge of collapse, Savana and a few others are still clinging onto it.

The blacksmiths say products produced by the ironworkers are valuable, rare and distinct. It is among traditional trades that survived after the Industrial Revolution.

“Unlike in the past when blacksmiths were old men, nowadays the youth have ventured into the trade as a source of livelihood due to scarcity of jobs in the country,” says Savana, who learnt the trade from his elder brother.

“I used to do odd jobs like working on a construction site, looking after people’s animals and even sold sweets and nail cutters in Kakamega town before I asked my brother to train me.”

He has been in the trade since 2010 and “I have no plans to quit anytime soon because it is a profitable venture that requires one to remain committed and focused.”

Heaps of all sorts of old scrap metals are all over the place in his workshop. There is also charcoal for smelting the iron, clay soil and aluminium ore.

“These are the raw materials I rely on to create the unique utensils and other tools you see glittering over there,” says Savana pointing at assorted kitchenware and other tools at the far corner of the workshop.

The products include spears, knives, pots, sufurias, jembes, mattock, digging bar, weapons, religious items, gates, grilles, railings, light fixtures, furniture, sculpture tools, plates, spoons and crowbar, among others.

Not an easy job

On a good day, Savana gets Sh4,000 from selling the tools. “On average the profit I pocket in a month ranges from Sh12,000 to Sh23,000.”

The business has enabled him to put up a three-bedroom semi-permanent house and buy two dairy cows. 

“I am also able to pay my children’s school fees with proceeds from this trade, which many people disparage nowadays,” says Savana.

He says it is, however, not an easy job to do as it requires a lot of energy, skills and commitment.

“I would never want my children to do the same job, that is why I will do everything in my power to give them a good education so that they will secure well-paying jobs someday,” says Savana.

About five kilometres away from Savana’s workshop, we meet Meshack Shisoka, 66, at Bukura in Lurambi Constituency.

Shisoka has been in this trade for the last 27 years. He learnt the skills from his late father, Saulo Shisoka.

Eshikhuli (dog bell), inyimba (xylophone), mukumbeti (digging hoe), axe and mukasa (bracelet), among others, are some of the products Shisoka fabricates in his makeshift workshop.

He says the hoe was a treasured tool that at one time was used in paying the bride price in the 18th and 19th centuries. He says it was also scarce and not all blacksmiths had the skill to fabricate them.

“When someone wanted to marry, the father-in-law would prefer he brings the digging hoe as bride price instead of cows. Those days there were no jembes and tractors to plough large parcels of land and when someone gave you a digging hoe, it was a sign of respect,” said Shisoka.

The blacksmith avers that for ceremonial spears used for installation of politicians and community leaders, he charges Sh3,000 each.

“Those spears undergo some rituals and you cannot give them away at a throwaway price. Anyone who has ever bought a spear for ceremonial purposes has ended up being a leader. Some of my clients are top politicians from Western,” says Shisoka, adding he sells traditional bracelets at Sh2,000 each.

Shisoka says a bracelet symbolises power and is hereditary.

“If a leader and passes the bracelet to his son before he dies, the son must wear it and observe all rituals that go with it or else he will be mad,” he says.

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