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Watchmakers run out of time

By Mactilda Mbenywe | June 27th 2021
Lamech Onyango, a watch smith along Oginga Odinga street in Kisumu county. He has been in the business for the last 30 years. (Collins Oduor, Standard)

Seated at his shop along Oginga Odinga Street in Kisumu, Lamech Onyango is busy bringing life to a 19th-century wristwatch.

Most of the watches and clocks Onyango has been working on over the years have become rare antiques.

The clocksmith restores antique watches and vintage clocks and by so doing helps families to preserve their historic heirloom for the next generations.

The 60-year-old has repaired thousands of timepieces since he started the job over two decades ago. He has sifted through tiny metal pieces to ensure the clocks tick again.

Behind the makeshift counter in his shop are a few wristwatches and wall clocks that Onyango is working to restore. However, one also notices how digital watches and cell phones are quickly replacing analogue wristwatches.

Families with inherited gold and silver watches still entrust him to service them. Onyango charges not less than Sh2,000 to bring one watch back to life. The brands he has been working on these years include Rolex, Cartier, Omega, Rado and Seiko 5, he says.

Onyango says 20 years ago, Kisumu had hundreds of watchmakers. However, the number has been dwindling and now, there are just a few.

“Once a profession of thousands of people in Nyanza, watchmakers are increasingly becoming rare and those sticking to it have a few clients. This has made sustaining the business of repairing watches challenging because customers are fewer,” says Onyango.

Onyango laments that no new watch smiths are joining the industry. In the next 10 years, Kisumu will have no watchmakers, says Onyango.

He knows his profession is a dying art — especially when a week goes by without a client seeking his services.

Onyango, who grew up in Nyalenda slums, remembers his elder brother who he said was passionate about watches and even learnt how to fix them. However, he regrets that his brother’s interest in watches and wall clocks died.

After school in 1980, Onyango worked at Rift Valley Bottlers. He said his brother noticed his attention to details and suggested that he tries his hand in repairing watches.

He says he learnt the basics of disassembling watches, replacing parts and lubricating the tiny gears that keep a watch or clock ticking.

From 1990 when he began the trade, Onyango has worked on many types of watches and wall clocks, including the 1970s-era pieces.

Initially, he says, the business was a boom and made him a lot of money. In the 1990s, Onyango says he could repair more than 20 watches in a day. However, today, he repairs an average of two watches in a week or none at all. He blames this on mobile phones and Chinese-made watches and clocks that have flooded the market.

Currently, Onyango says he charges Sh150 to repair a single watch and Sh1,000 to service a wall clock.

“Before Chinese watches flooded the market, we had watches and wall clocks made in Switzerland, Japan and Russia, which required manual repair. The market was big and earned watchmakers a lot of cash,” he says.

“These days, all we do is replace batteries. We cannot fix them if they stop working. Most watches and wall clocks today are as good as dead the moment they stop working,” says Onyango.

Currently, his main customers are the elderly who still believe they should wear analogue wristwatches.

“During the olden days, a watch was part of one’s dress code, but not anymore. Many people these days use their phones to know the time,” says Onyango.

He adds: “To say the truth, this craft has no future with the influx of modern digital watches and clocks as well as mobile phones that perform many functions. They have flooded the market and are swiftly replacing the old clocks and wristwatches.”

“Most of them are cheap thus accessible by the masses. When they fail, it is easy to buy another one instead of having it repaired.”

He said few youths are also willing to learn the art of repairing watches. Also, the fact that most watches in the market are new means demand for repairers is low.

“No one is taking up the challenge. We will have a gap that will never be filled and that’s how the craft will eventually disappear,” said Onyango.

On Kisumu’s Tom Mboya Street, we meet Joash Ombura who has not seen a customer needing to repair their watch in a long time.

Ombura learnt the trade from his father in Uganda before he moved to Kenya in 1993 where he set up his own repair shop.

Ombura says he could repair about 1,500 wristwatches in a month. Today, he says, he only replaces batteries in one or two watches in a week.

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