The origin and the culture of blacksmiths in Kuku society date 1790 – 1960s. Kuku consisted of a large ethnic group of southerners in Sudan (Poggo 169). The cultural and the linguistic group were among the Eastern Nilotes. The Eastern Nilotic Group occupied the Kajo-Kaji territory. The territory was originally the home of the Moru – Madi Sudanic community. As Kuku crossed the River Nile, they absorbed some of the communities living in that territory at that period. The interaction of the Kuku and Lugabra from the southern region, Kakwa from the west, and the Bari from the north led to the creation of distinct customs, values, norms, and beliefs by the new Kuku people. The Kuku migrants practiced a simple lifestyle, as they were hunters and gatherers while practicing few agricultural techniques. Prior to the use of iron in the ancient times, the Kuku applied pointed sticks to cultivate their lands (Poggo 170). Food was mainly in small-scale production as the population was small. Upon the discovery on the use of iron, it brought with it a revolution to the Kuku people in areas such as warfare, marriage, and agriculture. Conversely, the revolution translated to consolidation of the community’s political, economy, and social institutions. Kuku blacksmiths occupied a prominent place in the society since people revered and respected their technical skills. People despised the Kuku blacksmiths in equal measure due to practicing other values and norms such as working and dancing while nude, drinking strong liquor, eating without washing the hands, singing songs to ridicule the women, smoking bhang in long pipes, promiscuity, and lack of ownership of livestock and farms like the rest of the native community.
The origin of iron smelting and its spread to the entire part of Africa is a subject prone to debate from historians and scholars. For example, the scholars of African history cite of limitation in linguistics and archaeological evidence as others claim of widespread use of knowledge in iron smelting, in most parts of the tropical Africa. Academicians tend to ignore discussion and analysis on the blacksmiths in the African society due to lack of information. The study of Mande Blacksmiths by Patrick McNaughton in 1988 presents a thoughtful discussion on some of the roles played by the blacksmiths in their distinct status, in the society. Mande blacksmiths are in the category of specialist given their distinct technical work unlike the members of the mainstream society. Setting the experts from other members will protect their professional interests from the mainstream society (Poggo 170). The Mande blacksmiths contribute to the development and consolidation of the social organization to design some of the implements in agriculture, hunting, canoe construction, and fishing. Mande blacksmiths work with the spiritual leaders, politicians, farmers, and elders to create a cultural space for the entire community. Flyle’s article focuses on the blacksmiths in rural Sierra Leone on the apprentices trained in the smithery. The traditional society in this era depends on the blacksmiths so as to manufacture the agricultural implements and weapons. Fyle holds that the blacksmiths have mystic powers to that draw people to forge.
A Southern Sudanese intellectual group affiliated with Sudan People’s Liberation Movement claims that Kuku people are one ethnic community among sixty ethnic groups. The Kuku belongs to Eastern Nilotes that engage in agriculture, in the early A.D 500. In the early 1300s, the Kuku group of people migrated eastward to ancient Meroe until they arrived in the modern-day Eritrea. The group travelled south to southwestern Ethiopia until they reached Lake Turkana (Poggo 173). The Kuku people crossed the White Nile to enter the Kajo – Kaji. The initial wave of the Kuku absorbed the inhabitants of the area and has unique norms and cultural values. For example, some of the marriage rituals of the Kuku and traditional dances borrow the Madi people. In the early 19th century, most of the Kuku crisscrossed the land as the population increased to secure lands to cultivate while others settle near rivers to benefit from fish for their nourishment (Poggo 173). Prior to the introduction of knowledge in the use of metal tools among the Kuku people in the ancient period, the people used pointed sticks called paya that were slightly weaker than iron. The toll had multipurpose appliances in cultivation, fishing, hunting, and used as a weapon (Abusabib 94). Agricultural practices were in small-scale as the community used small portions of the land.
Recent research from oral history explains that Kuku community revealed the intrigues of working with iron to derive blacksmiths in the culture of the people. All the blacksmiths in the Northeast and the Great Lakes Region of Africa were similar in that they had a predominant place in the society. Kuku blacksmiths had a dual position in the society since the inauguration of blacksmith activity in 1790s (Poggo 174). The blacksmiths made an enormous contribution to the ancient Kuku people. The manifest of implements made includes wukit, hoes, and v-shaped tool to cultivate. Other items include weapons such as knives, machetes, axes, spears, arrows and tools for constructing canoes. The Kuku blacksmiths unlike the Sierra Leone and the Mande blacksmiths went into specializations in their different skills to artists such as smelters, canoe-makers, workers of iron, and hunters and gatherers. The ancient Kuku iron blacksmith specialized in iron working (Abusabib 95). The individual consisted of a male person with technical skills that the mainstream people did not possess. A tumunit refers to a male individual with specialized skill in iron blacksmith. Kuku elders living in the ancient times held that the Kuku god Sagu issued the knowledge of iron smelting on certain individuals. The iron blacksmith has the ability of mining iron ore, smelting, and forging farm implements and other tools. Kuku men developed special skills to kill wild animals such as hippopotamus, elephant, and rhinoceros. The animal blacksmiths had bravery in carrying out hunting of the wild animals. They could dig large ditches to trail the frequently traveled animals. An animal would fall in the ditch with grass covers to trap the animal. Another technique included waiting for an animal while clinging on a branch, then striking an animal to kill it. A ligo was an expert hunter that had technical skills in designing snares and nets to trap wild animals.
The canoe-makers had specialized skills in designing canoes and fishing. An angler acquired spears and large knives from the iron blacksmiths to enable those that fish or hunt for crocodiles in River Nile. They could also organize themselves to rescue people in case a canoe capsized (Abusabib 95). The specialties in this field were referred to as piye and were expert swimmers, anglers, and canoe-men. The water blacksmiths were accorded special respect by the rest of the community. The ligo, piye, and the iron blacksmiths spent a lot of their time to fashion their skills. Only few people in Kuku society had such talents.
Scholars fail to agree on the informants that transferred the knowledge to the Kuku people and this leads to three schools of thought. The first school of thought argues that the Bari migrants had specialty in smelting iron. The Bari people inaugurated the skill to the Kuku society. The Ngepo people through a person called Dwali taught the Kuku clans techniques of making own iron tools. Kuku lived in plains unlike the Ngepo regions that were hillier and had plenty of iron. The Kuku iron blacksmiths had to buy the iron ore to support the manufacturing industry. Another school of thought refutes that knowledge of smelting iron came from Bari immigrants (Abusabib 97). The mythical folklore says that the knowledge was an accidental discovery. The story mentions of one woman called Keji while cooking food observed a molten material solidifying to metal. The husband of Keji decided to experiment on the molten material so as to shape an object before the metal solidified. The experiment led to the realization that the molten lumongot can appear in various shapes The author believes that since that day, the Kuku people search for mineral resources similar to the lumongot. The third school of thought believes that blacksmithing came to the Kuku society by social interactions with other ethnic groups in Southern Sudan.
Whatever the origin of discovery of the technique of irons was smelting, it is a revolution to the Kuku society in the ancient period. Some of the pioneers mine iron ore on the hilly places and mountains along Ngepo area to smelt the furnaces. For the success of the work of the blacksmiths, all the people in the community joined hands to ensure large-scale manufacture of tools. Smelting of iron requires plenty of energy and fuel to sustain the trade. The blacksmiths burned large quantities of wood to produce much charcoal vital in the iron-smelting industry (Abusabib 99). The iron blacksmiths developed complex techniques to smelt the iron ore. The few numbers of iron-smelters in every society is a confirmation of the complexity of the vocation in mastering.
The furnace of the Kuku blacksmith consists of fire, iron ore, bellows, and charcoal. The iron blacksmith dug a ditch to lay the iron ore and charcoal in equal proportions. The mixture was free of impurities solidified into a lumongoton that one can use to forge tools such as wukit and knives. A large blacksmith furnace requires four people to smelt the iron and manufacture the implements. Only a minority of families dominate the vocational trade. The first families in Ngepo that succeed in smelting iron, fiercely guard the technology to ensure the rest of the people do not possess the knowledge. The families do this so that the mainstream community can rely on them for the manufacture of farm implements, machetes, knives, necklaces, iron nuggets, jewelry, and the gbiriya (Abusabib 99). The blacksmith families married among themselves to protect the trade secret and to enable inheritance of the trade from one generation to another. The early blacksmith bestow a curse to any offspring in the subsequent generation that would not follow the vocation in their life. In the meanwhile, it was a taboo from any individual from the mainstream to engage in the blacksmith enterprise.
In conclusion, the acquisition of knowledge in the ancient Kuku society in Southern Sudan ensured a far-reaching effect in the economic, political, and the social fronts of the society (Abusabib 100). Smelting of iron by the blacksmiths translated to a revolution in warfare, marriage, and the culture of the society. The blacksmiths technology permits the Kuku society to enjoy a period of prosperity, political stability, and prestige in a well-guarded territory. The use of weapons forged with iron help the community to resist attacks from the neighboring community and other foreign invasions. The ability to conquer other nations negates the survival of the community to the present age.
The Kuku ligo, piye, and the iron blacksmiths create a unique subculture in the Kuku society to reflect the nature and the reward of the precarious vocation. Kuku blacksmiths wield enormous political and economic power to enjoy social prestige due to their extraordinary technical skills. The specialist accord respect and reverence from the mainstream community since they have indispensable knowledge and exceptional social behavior that renders them as outcasts in the society. The iron blacksmiths manufacture iron implements and weapons to facilitate food provision and provide military provision to defend the Kuku society from any external aggression.
Pressures of modernity overwhelm the iron blacksmiths in the entire part of sub-Saharan Africa. During the industry revolution, foreign technology replaces the role of an ancient iron blacksmith. The indigenous blacksmith becomes obsolete as the community purchases the sophisticated European items.
Abusabib, Mohamed. "Back To Mangu Zambiri: Art, Politics And Identity In Northern Sudan." New Political Science 23.1 (2001): 89-111.
Poggo, Scopas. "The Origins And Culture Of Blacksmiths In Kuku Society Of The Sudan, 1797- 1955." Journal Of African Cultural Studies 18.2 (2006): 169-186.
Sanni, Amidu Olalekan. "Review: Arabic Literature Of Africa Volume 4: The Writings Of Western Sudanic Africa." Journal Of Islamic Studies 16.1 (2005): 127-129.