Travels in the North: Day 4

Today was my first day with Ibo’s famous silversmiths. I first began making silver jewellery a little under a year ago when I was living in Santiago, Chile but was shocked and disappointed at how prohibitive the cost of lessons and setting up a workshop was back in the UK. So it was inspiring to watch the artisans of Ibo working in the shady entrance of the old fort, using the most basic tools and household objects to create really beautiful pieces of filigree and chain mail jewellery.

I took a different route to the fort from my hotel, walking through the ‘new town’ which is just two streets back from the old main road. Where the ‘old town’ is all hush and crumbling stone, the new town, a conglomeration of attractive reed huts and cement dwellings, is bustling with life, both animal and human. I was guided by various different shrieking children through narrow wicker-work passages between houses, across a football field, the grass cropped low by hungry goats, and along dusty pathways through the bush which seethes with crickets and bird life until we arrived at the low white fort.

The silversmiths greeted me quietly and I hesitantly took my place on the rush mat next to Salamao, the latest in a long line of jewellers, who would be my teacher. He had explained to me the day before that his great-great-great-grandfather had come to the island from Oman, bringing his knowledge of metal work with him, knowledge which had been passed down from one generation to the next.

I watched them working quietly in the shade and little by little Salamao began to show me what to do, how to create the perfect silver hoops which make up the majority of their work and how to solder tiny silver balls to plaits of silver wire. Soldering was the greatest challenge; where I had always used a hand-held propane torch, they used an old tin full of petrol with a wick made of cotton wool. They blew the flame through copper pipes, regulating the temperature and size of the flame with their own lungs. For God’s sake, I thought to myself, as Salamao handed me the pipe for the first time, don’t breathe in! Cleaning was done in a charcoal fire, to burn off the remains of the borax, and then the pieces were boiled in lemon juice. I crouched over the fire in what was once the kitchen in the old fort, a cool, dark chamber, now full of dust and strange sausage shaped nests built by wasps, breathing in the heady perfume of hot citrus. It was wonderfully atmospheric.

I have always found that making jewellery has a special capacity for making time disappear. I would often find myself working for six or seven hours straight on something in Chile and would only realise how tired I was when I finally ‘came up for air’, fingers aching and covered in silver dust. Today, I saw how the time past by the changing shadows in the star-shaped inner court yard of the fort.

At four thirty we packed up the tools and made our way together back through the bush, in the warm afternoon sunshine, Salamao suddenly becoming talkative. I bid goodnight to them at the crossroads as they continued on to their houses further up the hill and slipped regretfully, guiltily, back into my hotel, a little patch of first world amongst the reed and mud houses and coconut trees.

That evening I went to eat in the house of Nasir. There are no restaurants (in the traditional sense of the word) on the island, apart from those in the smarter hotels. Instead, a handful of locals have set up shop in their gardens or paddocks. You must order during the day though there is only ever one thing on the menu, normally some kind of fish accompanied by matapa (creamy cassava leaves) – we had a very good crab stew the other night. Nasir came and picked us up at the hotel and we made our way through the dark village, past more shrieking children who hadn’t yet been put to bed.

On our way home, we keep tripping up because our eyes are glued to the sky which is one of the starriest I’ve seen with the milky way clearly visible above us. The air smells of salt and mud and the sweet scent of the mangrove. I think I could stay here for a long time.

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Indian Almond inside the old fort.
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Some creations.
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The student and her rather downcast teacher.
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