YEMISI OKUNLOLA writes on the dwindling fortunes of Ushafa Pottery Centre, which was once full of life but now gradually descends into an abysmal shadow of its former self.
Ushafa is a small Gbagyi community located in Bwari Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory. Ushafa is simply an embodiment of tourist attractions and represents an investor’s delight in tourism.
Several studies on tourism development in Nigeria have constantly placed the area council as one of the areas with the greatest potentials of tourism development in Nigeria. In the FCT this community is known for mastery in the art of pottery.
As visibly observed by LEADERSHIP Sunday, Ushafa community is couched on a valley surrounded by mammoth rocks of possibly Precambrian age.
The beautiful landscape is spectacular to behold as it is complemented by rich and attractive vegetation. Some of the neighboring villages include Jigo, Peyi, Znibepe, Bmuko, Kutalu, Baupa, Gudupe, and Panda.
Ushafa is bounded on the south-eastern corner by the Lower Usuma Dam, a major source of water to the Federal Capital Territory that supplies water to the entire capital city and satellite settlements. It is not out of place to state that the community is sited at the ‘river bank’ but the residents wash their hands with spittle.
Mrs Maryam Babangida, the wife of then military president in 1991, Gen Ibrahim Babangida, incorporated the traditional pottery centre into her Better Life for Rural Women pet project and subsequently inaugurated it as a tourist attraction, which in turn positioned the quiet agrarian settlement and attracted world leaders.
Sadly, Ushafa is almost unrecognisable, forgotten and left to rot. The community, owing to ingenious skill in pottery making has attracted visits of world dignitaries such as former president of the United States Bill Clinton and a former prime minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair.
Also, world leaders like Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak and Swiss vice president, Ruth Metzier have visited the centre.
Late Maryam, in 1991 under her Better Life Poverty Alleviation Programme named the pottery village after Bill Clinton. However, after Bill Clinton visited the village 20 years ago which drew huge local and global attention to Ushafa Village and its creative potters, there is generally a dwindling fortune at the centre as it gradually loses the allure of its age-long art.
The potters, who are mostly women and are of the Gbagi ethnic group are seen in the centre, each in their huts at the centre where they produce, pile and sell their local pots. Inside the Pottery Centre is also the modern pottery studio where crafting pieces out of clay is done with the aid of a machine.
Interestingly, when asked by LEADERSHIP Sunday all the women agreed to have learnt the art from their mothers. ‘’This is the only thing we do for a living. Pottery to the Gbagi women is a noble trade that has continued to be handed down from generation to generation,’’ said Mrs Laraba Joseph a potter.
Speaking further Mrs Joseph who is in her 40’s said she has been in the business since she was a little girl.
According to her, “I have been molding clay pots since I was in primary school. Whenever I return home from school, I go to join my mother at the Pottery Centre where she makes pots.
“I learnt pottery and pot making for over 30 years and this is primarily my occupation since I was born. I feed my children through this; pay their school fees from the money I get from the sales of my work.
“Some years back, we usually get patronage from foreigners but today, we only see very few foreigners who come around to see what we are doing. This centre is yet to get government attention in terms of intervention and publicity.
“At the moment, we are managing as we do not have any other job we are doing. This is our work and we love the occupation passionately.’’
Explaining the production process, she said, ‘’Pottery is one of the oldest and widespread decorative arts and products of forming pots, vessels, beads and other objects with clay and other ceramic materials. When fired at a high temperature either by open firing in the locally made way or by inserting into a kiln, it gives them a hard, durable form.”
When asked if she was around when the former US President, Bill Clinton visited, she said she was around and felt very happy during the visit.
From the responses this reporter got from these women, they don’t seem to make so much profit from the sales of their wares. Mrs Joseph stated that people don’t come around too often, so they don’t get to sell their wares that much.
“God is helping us, but there is no market. Our sales are seasonal. It is once in a while, just as you have come.”
Corroborating her statement Diana Michael confessed that she and her family members are managing what they realise from the sales of their wares for their upkeep as the sales are seasonal.
She said, “We don’t exactly realise too much from the sales of our wares, but I cannot complain. I am grateful to God for whatever I can get to support the family.
‘’Though the work is challenging, we have to manage, because if you say you are not doing this work, then you will be forced to sell firewood or yam.”
To her, she’s better off as a potter than doing other things, since pottery is a highly regarded occupation amongst her people.
Mrs Michael explained that apart from the locals who still use clay to cook, she said most people in big cities do not fancy the idea of using clay to cook, as it is considered primitive.
As a result, she pointed out that often when tourists come around at the centre, the clay wares that do sell more are those used for decorations, and sometimes, flower vases, since nearly everybody loves to plant flowers in their environment.
More interesting is the case of an 80-year-old Mrs Saratu Peter, the oldest in the Pottery Centre, who was seen sitting in the open space close to the kiln, molding her clay pot. She said she learnt pottery eversince her mother was alive.
Peter, who spoke through an interpreter said, ‘’I learnt pottery 80 years ago from my mother and I enjoy the work and I am happy with the work, since I don’t have any other work to do or power to do any other work.
“The challenges I face is that I don’t have legs to walk to any other place where others are working, that is why I am here doing the one I can do.”
A local residing in the community, Issa Mordi, however, does not agree with the local potters. When asked how financially enabling pottery is for the local women, his quick response was, “If they are not making their money, they will not be here today. So, for them to be doing business here and doing the same work that means they are making money to sustain them in business.”
During this reporter’s visit to the centre, it was noticed that the women don’t do much of the clay pieces used for decoration. Apart from flower vases, water pots, cooking pots, and dishes which they displayed when the reporter visited, the only clay pieces that were seen are jewelry (neck chains, earrings and hand bangles) made from clay. Clay pieces for decoration are made by the modern pottery studio.
Some residents of the area who also spoke to our reporter said the government can make the centre a tourist site, considering the fact that a former United States President had visited the centre.
‘’To us here, the visit of President Clinton was historic. With his visit 20 years ago, if it was properly harnessed, the centre would have been made to attract tourists and with that, the government can also generate revenue for the country.
‘’Apart from making revenue for the government, it could also generate employment for the teeming unemployed youth. The government should look into this direction and develop the pottery centre,’’ a resident, Charity Chukwueze said.
For Hanatu Gata, an indigene of Ushafa, she averred that before now, many merely come to buy the beautiful pottery, while others, like professional potters and students do come on excursion to fraternise and watch the women do their craft and learn the traditional skills of turning clay into attractive objects.
According to her, ‘’The reverse is now the case. The centre has become a shadow of its former self. This has brought a set back to the growth of tourism in the area and created a loss for the many women whose primary source of livelihood is making pots and jewelry.’’