The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua

{ Posted on Oct 17 2010 by Bill Zimmerman }

On the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North of Cameroon, is a place quite unlike any other in the country. Here a community of les forgerons—blacksmiths, or metalworkers—practice their craft in the relative cool of a tree grove. Several dozen men with specialized skills are gathered here for a single purpose: to transform piles of scrap iron into finely finished tools, stoves, replacement parts and other useful implements for sale to the local population. Young apprentices learn the craft while operating bellows or shaping wood for tool handles. The production here is performed entirely by hand and on a scale which must be seen to be fully appreciated.

Metalworker collectiveView of the metalworker villageFinished goods on displayStoves & bucketsTweezersHandmade wheelbarrow
[full photo set]

The finished goods here include agricultural tools; hoes, rakes, pick axes, shovels, wheelbarrows, John Deere-green painted plows, pry bars and machetes; household items such as cook stoves, sieves, pans, watering cans, buckets and cutlery; down to the smallest personal items, like precision tweezers. Motorbike taxis are a ubiquitous mode of transport in the Far North, so many spares are copied (and often improved) from the originals. These include motorcycle seats, cargo carriers and fenders. Many of the pieces of forging equipment—hand-cranked bellows, anvils, hammers and sledges—are themselves fabricated from scrap iron and reused materials.

The imported versions of many of these items are available a kilometer or so away at Fokou, a national chain of hardware stores. The items produced by the forgerons are of very high quality and sold at a fraction of the cost of their imported counterparts. This generates an understandably strong market demand for their wares. Thus, scores of hammers may be heard pounding away on anvils at this place from morning until late afternoon. It’s nothing short of an appropriate-tech, human-powered manufacturing industry.

I spent the better part of an hour slack-jawed at the sight, sound and frenetic pace of activity around the forges. When I inquired how long this community of metalworkers had been working at this spot, a man told me, “depuis l’indépendance” (since independence in 1960). Digging a bit deeper into Maroua’s early history, I uncovered an interesting fact. According to the official story, the name Maroua is derived from the town’s founder, Chef Bi-Marva which means “the Chief of the Forge”. The chief was later deposed by Fulani horsemen in the early 19th century. Had the former chief been a practicing metalsmith? If so, the metalworking heritage of Maroua dates back not 50 years, but closer to 200 years.

Whichever figure is more accurate, the metalworkers of Maroua are extraordinary craftsmen and very Afrigadget!

I'm an engineer, ex-Microsoftie, founding board member of AfriLabs, co-founder of ActivSpaces in Cameroon and VC4Africa. Drawn to innovation, creativity & all things tech. More at splinter.me/billz

Comments

  1. […] Bill Zimmerman writes a post about the metalworkers of Maroua in Northern Cameroon: On the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of […]

  2. […] provided us with this great story on Cameroonian Bamboo Magic, recently also posted another story on the metal workers – les forgerons – in Cameroon on his private blog: Tweezers […]

  3. […] the post The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua we learn: On the outskirts of Maroua, the capital of the Extreme North of Cameroon, is a place […]

  4. Frank Hanlan says:

    This looks like a great example of men working as individuals and cooperatively together.
    How much would it cost to get them energy efficient burners/ovens so they didn’t have to burn coals? Are there NGOs working in the area who might be able to supply them or at least finance their initial cost?

  5. Fuzzy says:

    In fact, their setup is quite an efficient use of materials and fuel. I am a blacksmithing demonstrator in Colorado, and I have calculated that a full day’s use of coal for blacksmithing is the equivalent carbon emission as driving 27 miles in an average car.

  6. […] first group of craftsmen we’ll check out are the blacksmiths Mr. Zimmerman writes about in The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua. They melt down scrap metal to make utilitarian items they can sell for less for a fraction of the […]

  7. […] eerste groep vaklieden zijn de smeden waar Bill Zimmerman over schrijft in zijn artikel “The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua“. Ze smelten schroot om en maken er gebruiksartikelen van die ze kunnen verkopen voor een […]

  8. […] primeiro grupo de artesãos que vamos conhecer são os ferreiros que Zimmerman descreve em Os Extraordinários Fabricantes de Maroua. Eles derretem sucata de metal para fabricar itens utilitários que podem ser vendidos por menos do […]

  9. Craig says:

    It’s amazing to see such ingenuity and ability. Being so dependent on mechanized factories in the west it is easy to forget that humans can do all these things by hand. It’s great that such traditions have not been destroyed by globalization. We will need to relearn them one day.

  10. Antibubba says:

    There’s a very modern term for this: Just In Time manufacturing!

  11. […] taozavatra voalohany ho hitantsika dia ireo mpanefy vy tantarain'i Mr. Zimmerman ao amin'ny The Extraordinary Makers of Maroua. Manempo vy efa tsy ilaina intsony izy ireo havadiny ho zavatra ilaina afaka amidin'izy ireo […]

  12. […] via Afrigadget, Bill Zimmerman’s blog post about the metalworkers of Maroua, a town in northern […]

  13. […] провериме е групата на ковачите, пишува г. Зимерман за Извонредните произведувачи од Маруа. Тие го топат старото железо за да направат практични […]

  14. […] these videos are from Cameroon. Blog this! Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook Share on Linkedin share via […]

  15. […] la magia camerunesa de bambú, ha escrito recientemente en su blog privado otra historia sobre los trabajadores del metal –les forgerons– de […]

  16. […] residents, so building tools and goods is way to improve life and save money. The image above is a metalworking cooperative where any number of products are manufactured from recycled materials, often using tools that the craftsmen made themselves. Their wares are […]

  17. Ray says:

    What a cool scene! Swinging those hammers all day would bury most north American folk :-)