Academic journal article Africa

The Blacksmiths of Tamale: The Dynamics of Space and Time in a Ghanaian Industry

Academic journal article Africa

The Blacksmiths of Tamale: The Dynamics of Space and Time in a Ghanaian Industry

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In the last twenty years the number of smiths and the range of their activity have greatly increased in Tamale, the principal city of northern Ghana. The evolution of the national economy and the particular situation of Tamale in the geography of Ghana explain this development and the contribution that the city's smiths make to the economy, national as well as local.

RESUME

Au cours des vingt dernieres annees, le nombre de forgerons et l'eventail de leurs activites ont considerablement augmente a Tamale, principale ville du Nord du Ghana. L'evolution de l'economie nationale et la situation particuliere de Tamale dans la geographie du Ghana expliquent ce developpement et la contribution des forgerons de la ville a l'economie locale, mais aussi nationale.

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Blacksmithing was probably practised in what is now northern Ghana as early as 500 BC, but in the last twenty years the number of smiths and the range of their activity have greatly increased in Tamale, the principal city of the north. (1) New workshops spread ever further down the main roads from the city centre, and the sound of hammer on metal rings out from morning till night. The evolution of the national economy and the particular situation of Tamale in the geography of Ghana explain this development and the contribution that the city's smiths make to the economy, national as well as local. (2)

Tamale is reputed to be growing faster than any other city in West Africa. According to the census, the population was 83,653 in 1970; 135,952 in 1984; 202,317 in 2000. City officials offered the estimate of 350,000 in 2007 but indicated that that was probably too low. Tamale is a market town, collecting agricultural produce and sending it south. It is also a transportation centre; heavy vehicles bring imported and manufactured goods from the southern ports for distribution not only throughout the north but to neighbouring countries, especially Burkina Faso. Above all, it is the most important northern administrative and commercial centre, crowded with government offices, banks, businesses and non-governmental organizations both local and foreign. All this activity requires metal goods and motor vehicles in large numbers, generating business for blacksmiths.

Perhaps half of all the blacksmiths in Tamale are motor mechanics, 'fitters'. In this article I pay little attention to them because the work of their counterparts in the southern city of Kumasi has been described by John Powell in his The Survival of the Fitter (1995). The other work of blacksmiths is the recycling of metals, derived from dead vehicles and other machinery, which are made into consumer goods or sent south as scrap to be exported or re-smelted in Accra, the capital. The trash heaps of Tamale contain little but the remains of plastic shopping bags and ash from cooking fires. Everything organic is eaten by people or by the goats that roam everywhere; everything metallic is acquired and reworked by blacksmiths. In this respect Tamale trash differs from trash in Accra, where the standard of living is higher and more junk of all kinds is abandoned, often enough clogging streams and causing flooding. There are of course blacksmiths and fitters all over Ghana, but as we will see the concentration of them in Tamale has a particular role to play.

Blacksmiths traditionally made hoes and other farm tools and weapons such as javelins. In modern times smiths still make hoes, traps, adzes and butcher knives; the weapons are mostly guns, needed for honorific explosions at funerals and festivals but also sometimes put to deadly use. The product line and economic role of the smith changed in the 1970s; between 1966 and 1986 a series of military coups, the disastrous policies associated with them, the vagaries of international markets, the misguided policies of the International Monetary Fund, and a drought in the mid-1970s combined to destroy the national economy (Chazan 1983; Herbst 1993; Kraus 2002: 401-9). …

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