“Muyi shi Gwari Gwari” a popular Hausa expression means-let’s do it like the Gbagyi or in the Gbagyi way.
This sums up the temperament of the Gbayi people, an hospitable, indigenous community who live very much in harmony with their natural environment. 45km from the city of Abuja, is Ushafa village, home to the Gbayi people of Northern Nigeria.
Enclosed by a picturesque scene of hills, lush meadows and farmlands, for generations, the women of Ushafa village have been renowned for their spectacular skills at pottery and pot making.
In 1991, an Arts Center was built in Ushafa village to showcase the skill and creativity of the women potters of Ushafa community. Designed to draw in tourists and visitors, the centre did more. It helped to forge a locus for community cohesion and empower the initiative of rural woman.
And the world noticed.
In 2000, Ushafa made global news as the first locality in Nigeria to host an American president. Amid colourful fanfare and celebrations, president Bill Clinton came to Ushafa village as part of his visit to rural communities in Northern Nigeria. He was presented with a traditional Gbayi outfit handmade in the village.
For a few years the centre and the potters thrived. It was subsidised by the Federal government and brought to Ushafa, a steady influx of visitors from far and wide.
Many simply came to buy the exquisite pottery. Others like professional potters and students came to fraternise; to watch the women work their craft and learn the traditional skills of turning clay into beautiful objects.
As with many hidden gems across Nigeria, the Arts centre for a time dwindled into the shadows. This has had a major impact on the community. It has stunted the growth of tourism in the area and created a loss for the many women for whom making pots for sale was a primary source of livelihood.
However, in a sudden but welcome change of fortune, Ushafa community and its Arts Center are going through a major resurgence.This is part of a broader vision to open up this area for the development of tourism and to attract investors. And it cannot come soon enough.
The range of beautiful pottery produced today is expansive. Incense burners, tea pots, beads, candlestands, building bricks of various designs and fine pots. These pieces of art exemplify the energy, passion and resilience of the women potters of Ushafa community. They have remained relentless in sustaining this ancient tradition of pottery making using locally sourced clay, traditional tools and skills.
Ushafa village is one of those places in Nigeria where so much is possible but so little is going on. We need to encourage the continuance of traditional skills. We must provide opportunities for the next generation to develop on these skills, bringing on board new technologies and innovation.
Everybody benefits when communities are vibrant, growing and viable.
Fragile communities create disenfranchised individuals and groups. Investing in indigenous arts and crafts like in Ushafa, is a stable way for government to strengthen rural communities.
Spaces which support viable activities will sustain cohesion. Activities which bring people together to work, grow and earn within local communities promotes grassroots empowerment. The Arts Center is crucial to how the Ushafa Community expands its vision of itself and creates an enabling environment for business to thrive.
All across Nigeria are opportunities to grow tourism into a truly viable industry providing much needed jobs and skills. There are many hidden gems quietly waiting to be polished and celebrated as cultural havens. As tourist destinations they are attractive ventures.
However, these places require the right kind of passion and investment. One backed up by a national commitment to preserving and celebrating our historical buildings, artefacts, traditional crafts and indigenous skills.
In Ushafa village, so many could benefit immensely. And the women potters of Ushafa are waiting eargerly to share their skills with the world.0