by Kunle Ogunfuyi
A prolific band of cane weavers in the Maryland neighbourhood of Lagos are contributing their own quota to indigenous growth via creativity, reports Adewole Ajao
Maryland is known for many things and one is the cane village beneath the Ojota link bridge. This patch of land surrounded by a canal and wild bushes would have been the perfect spot for a contingent of oil-stained mechanics, but it is the current haven for a nomadic group of cane weavers who have now become synonymous with the popular area.
Their wares are hard to miss as furniture, baskets and other items have formed a temporary landmark. There are around 50 weaving havens under and around the bridge with the wares of the occupants welcoming any prospective client to their smoke-blackened sheds.
The smell of fresh and smoked winnows fills the air as a busy multitude creates more items for purchase in this headquarters of the cane business in Nigeria. This has been the drill for decades after they settled in the unused patches of land. The story goes that the weavers settled here in the 1940s, but the only certainty is the Association of Cane Weavers which was formed in 1986.
Its current president, Edward Akpovo, has been a resident in Maryland for 25-years and his shed bubbles with a handful of his family members. Apart from his wife, who makes colourful baskets, one of his children still has his school uniform on as he scrapes a piece of wood for a deck chair his elder brother is currently assembling. Like his kids, Akpovo started at a young age and explains that this transfer of skills transcends even the familial borders.
“We have branches but anywhere you see canes in Nigeria, we trained them up from here before telling them to go and establish elsewhere.”
His recollections on the early days of the settlement are rife with images of a dense forest that was eventually subdued for their suitability. Despite being tenants for decades, they have never owned any portion of the swampy area which has derived its name from their efforts.
“All this area was a forest then and you could not stay but we made it suitable,” he says while pointing to some adjoining bushes. “The village started when Maryland was still Maryland. Then Lagos was still the capital and we used to sell it ourselves until they decided it was not okay for them and they decided to settle here.”
Over the years they were scattered over both sides of the link bridge to Ojota but a gradual shift to their present location has become inevitable due to the return of the original owners of the land. This has not deterred their work or the popularity of the area, which thrives amidst the challenges of urbanisation. Like water, they have found a way, as there is money to be made amidst numerous challenges that currently make them tenants of the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing.
“They pursued us so we had to come under here which is federal government land from here to New Garage,” Akpovo adds. “We need our own land and if the federal and state governments combine, we can turn this place into a tourist centre.”
Their Promised Land might be Ikorodu or Badagry if plans by the government crystallise. But such obscure areas kindle a fear that the business might die. Such fear on a loss of clientele is not unfounded as most of the weavers are aware of the role their businesses play in society.
“We discussed at length and told them that if they move the village, many people would leave the work and the business would die except they can assure they will sell to foreigners like we do and give us our money,” argued Akpovo.
The thoroughfare also attracts a sizeable contingent of locals and foreigners on a daily basis. Like the buyer, the materials also come from distant areas before arriving at Maryland. The dominant ones are cane, winnow and raffia, which come from Benin, Warri and Port Harcourt via suppliers. But these are useless without the right concept, gas fire, and tools like the pen knife.
“There is nothing you can do without that knife. It is like a ball-point pen for us and everything works together. You must learn how to scrape, tear the cane before you can carve it,” says Stephen Odoma who is one of the oldest hands in the strip. Despite being close to his sixties, the fellow referred to as the doctor of cane still finds time to make chairs and train others.
“I was once a craft examiner for the blind throughout the federation on this cane. Even up till now I set exams and teach them,” recalls the old hand. “Anything you do is down to interest. If you are determined to know something like this job, within a short period you will know it.”
Determination triggered his interest in the profession decades ago, but there are others like him within the area. Such trainees include graduates and others who have caught the weaving bug. The amount of time for training differs but at the end each weaver cannot master all the designs. This makes specialisation a necessity. Ditto a division of labour which is necessary to meet the dynamic demands of customers.
“There are some baskets I can do but I cannot do everything so I specialise in chairs,” says Osofo Okotie. “I have never rejected a contract and work with those who have a nice finishing work to meet customer designs.”
When this is not necessary his family earn their upkeep alongside their head. While he does not pay them, other workers make a certain amount from whatever target is available in an assembly chain that reveals weavers, tailors, glass cutters and those who assemble the frames. There are also various names to the upholstery as coconut, spiral, boss and ordinary chairs feature alongside baskets, baby cots, tables and other household furnishings of various tags. Profit is also an important term even though most are not ready to give a range of how much they make.
“In any work you do, if you are not gaining you cannot do it but when you do something, you also expect a return,” a weaver hints philosophically.
Apart from buying their endless stock, another contribution of customers is concepts for new designs. These come from catalogues and most have stuck over the years due to the profundity of the weavers.
“We have different types of baskets and chairs and the more we do it, the more we have designs on how to do different things,” says Okotie. “Most of the foreigners would come with catalogues to see if we can do designs inside for them and we do form chairs and all kinds of designs for them. Once the welder can construct, we too can also do it.”
According to Akpovo, the Christmas period seems to be the most lucrative period in a year rife with seasonal demand but that does not halt production as the weavers create throughout the year.
“Within a week I can finish a chair and how it lasts depends on how you handle it. If you want it to last for 15 years, it will. It is mostly for inside the house but if you want it to be used inside there is a way we can ensure it lasts.”
The most expensive item here goes for around N80000 but this is infinitesimal when compared to the tenacity of the dwellers who have made creativity and its by-products a way of life. With at least one of their created items finding its way a Nigerian home, their, their self belief and tenacity becomes understandable.