Metropole Magazine

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24 Jan Written by  Ladi Opaluwa

Unearthing the Bwari Pottery Village

Unless s/he insists, a visitor seeking direction to the Bwari Pottery Village may be told there is no place so designated in Bwari. Yes, residents of the community know the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB). They know the Federal Government Girls College. And they know the Nigerian Law School. A pottery village?

While the Ushafa Pottery Centre has gained in status by the visit there over a decade ago of Bill Clinton, the presence of the earlier mentioned government institutions seem to have eclipsed the Bwari pottery.

The pottery is buried in the backyard of the Law School so that its location in the community is an uncommon knowledge. But how would anyone know? The tarred road on which these institutions are lined terminates at the end the Law School, warning, this is how far you can go, this is the limit of civilisation, the end.

The visitor will continue on this bumpy, dusty road and come shortly to a small white signboard with Bwari Pottery written in green block letters. S/he is indeed in the right place. Thatched, mud houses. Rustic and serene ambience. Heaps of clay. Logs of wood. Two shirtless young men covered all over with clay dust.

The young men look alarmed, perhaps thinking, to what do they owe this intrusion? They direct the visitor to Mr. Stephen Mhya, who introduces himself as the director of the pottery, and the young men as live-in workshop assistants.

Mr. Mhya, who works full-time at the pottery, takes the visitor on a tour of the premises, stating the obvious and explaining the obscure. Those are wood for the kiln and clay for the wheels. (Abuja is the clay pit of Nigeria. All six area councils in the territory claim to have large deposits of high quality clays, making the nation’s capital, theoretically, an 8,000 square kilometres of sticky, clayey landmass. This pottery however brings its clay from Dei-Dei and Zuba, a distance of about 35km.)

The tour turns into a lecture on pottery. The visitor nods all the time. Good clay, Mr. Mhya says, must be plastic and tenacious when moist. So identify a clay pit. Dig clay, soak in water, filter or decant, put in perforated pot for the moisture to evaporate, put on clay bed for drying, and then store in clay pit. The longer it stays in the pit the more plastic it becomes. The clay is then taken to the workshop to be shaped as desired. One of the workshop assistants demonstrates how the potter’s wheel is operated. From here it goes to the drying room and then to the kiln.

Because there is no money to fuel a gas kiln, Mr. Mhya uses a wood kiln he constructed himself, with help from his assistants. It has many chambers. Clay, he continues, is fired in it to 1,300 degrees centigrade, while terracotta, which requires less heat, is fired up to 900 degrees centigrade.

The next stage is glazing. A number of substances, including ash, clay dust, and granite dust, are used at this point, depending on the desired colour. He has an understanding with Julius Berger, the construction giant, for the free supply of some of the substances required in the process.

The ware may then be ornamented, using pigments. Whatever is inscribed at this stage becomes permanent. For Mr. Mhya, his clients, 90 percent of whom are expatriates, determine the design and decoration. He proudly announces that he supplies earthenware to Sheraton and Transcorp Hilton hotels.

Teaching pottery is something he does pro bono, as a way of giving back to society. He trained in the United Kingdom. Now for a period of six months each year, he trains about eight students from different universities.

Mr. Mhya had first established a pottery in Biu, Adamawa state before relocating in 1989 to the present location in Bwari where he built the pottery from scratch, deliberately with thatch and mud to give it a bohemian feel.