Lesley Lababidi is a travel writer and author. In this interview, she discusses how her documentary on the ancient technique of making Masaga glass led to the recreation of an ancient technology lost in Bida that researchers could not find anywhere in the world, and her recent recognition by UNESCO.
JTell us what was your role in popularizing the Masaga glass coated bead industry?
In 2015, our PRO Alhaji Isa died after working for 20 years in the company.
He was from Bida and had taken us across Nigeria. However, one place he didn’t take us to was Bida. We had planned a trip to Bida to see their culture as the Nupe culture is well known but it passed, almost overnight.
So, I told my husband that I would like to go to Bida to personally offer my condolences to his family. I had never been to Bida and didn’t know anyone there, but got in touch with his older brother – Alhaji Dangaladima, who was one of the ministers in the Bida emirate palace.
Well, I finally went to Bida, spent a week there, and his older brother, Alhaji Dangaladima, took me everywhere to see all the crafts, customs, and Masaga glass beads.
I didn’t expect to do anything with all the information I got there. I went home to Lagos, logged on to my website blog and wrote about my trip to Bida with photos and all.
After six months, I received an e-mail from a professor from a Parisian university and another professor from a Scottish university. They said they had seen my videos of the seemingly glassless bracelets made in Bida and were interested in it because it’s the same technology that was made thousands of years ago.
They sent me a long list of questions and I didn’t know the answers. So I called Alhaji Dangaladima and told him that I would like to visit Bida again.
So, I went back and Alhaji Dangaladima took me to Etsu Nupe Palace and told him the story. Etsu said I could ask any question and I was free to take as many pictures as I wanted.
This started my story about researching and raising awareness about Masaga’s glass works. I started writing magazine articles, brochures, and we did several exhibitions in France with Gothic glass making because what they did was they learned through the Bida glassmakers how to rebuild using this ancient technique.
We don’t know if this was born out of their indigenous technology, if they may have developed it on their own, or if it’s something that has traversed the trans-Saharan routes over these centuries.
We don’t know how it developed, but universities studying archeology have been all over the world looking for this technology (if it survived) and they couldn’t find it anywhere in Nepal, in India, China, South America. It was through this video that they found it on my website.
Thus, Bida glassmakers answered all the questions and I made a very specific video and sent it to the university in France. Based on this, they were able to mount an exhibit that showed how to make the no-sew bracelets and how they built their own ovens.
And, based on the Bida glassmakers learning, they were able to make glass and from there they had a huge summer exhibition in France, showing how the Bida glassmakers taught them to recreate this ancient technique of thousands of years ago. . This lasted in 2017 and 2018.
In 2019, I returned to Bida and met Etsu Nupe. I told him that we had done books, magazine articles and put things on the website. The next thing to do is the documentary. I asked him to help me get permission from the community as many people were involved and we came to an agreement.
During the years I spent there, I discovered that there were two types of glass making. The glass making they do now with recycled bottles and the glass making they did 60 years ago when they made their own glass.
Oral tradition has it that people migrated from Egypt to Bida with the secret of glass making. They settled in Bida and other places in Niger State but later congregated in Bida and became part of the Nupe. It happened in the middle of the 18th century.
They brought their eyewear manufacturing secret called Bikini.
I started asking, what is Bikini? It was a secret that their ancestors used to make glass and only one 95-year-old man ever saw it and participated in it.
I asked if he was still alive and they said yes. So, I said we had to document this but we had to get everyone’s permission because many families were involved and they had a hierarchy from the head of the glass-making cooperative.
So, the Etsu accepted all of this and he brought everyone together; we asked lawyers in Lagos to work with lawyers in Bida to draft the contract.
The documentary was successful. I spent a month in November 2019 making this documentary and it is now on the British Museum website.
When was the Masaga glassworks recognized by UNESCO?
Last year Etsu Nupe was contacted by them. I was not involved in the process but it was extremely complementary. He called me and said he was grateful for the role I had played and I was so touched that he would give me this honor. So I take no credit for the UNESCO designation.
But, the Etsu Nupe, I mean, is a leader. The closeness he has with his people, the appreciation he has for their culture, he put that first. Over all these years, I have seen and admired him because of his dedication to his heritage, to his people, to his role as a traditional leader.
How do you feel honored by Etsu Nupe as “Jakadiya Gargajiyar Nupe”?
I’ve always appreciated that because all over the world people take things but they don’t give back or say thank you in appreciation. He also said that in Nupe culture they always appreciate when people give them, that’s how I got the title of “Jakadiyar Gargajiyar Nupe” (Cultural Heritage Ambassador in Nupe).
What do you expect them to do?
I don’t know what is expected of me, but I continue to work with the Masaga. At the moment, we are doing a training program for young people, to try to interest them in the preservation of glass culture.
What is your assessment of the Nupe people?
I find them extremely sweet in a way. They have respect, not only for me as someone who is not part of the community, but for each other. By their greetings they have the structure of a society and they follow that structure.
Also, within the structure, it creates a lot of respect, constant helpfulness, and I have always been well received.
In England or the USA, the greetings have ended. People don’t greet each other anymore. If you walk past me and I say “hello” you will wonder what I want, but in Nupe culture, walking in and out you will always greet. I like this.
I also notice that the people of Nupe listen, when we have meetings, people have their say and they listen too. They listen to each other, and they listen to everyone. I saw this especially in the community of Masaga.
During the time you were there, how did you manage in terms of food and sleep?
I eat local food. And to sleep, I sleep without air conditioning, I take a mosquito net with me for my personal protection. I can wash with a bucket if I have to, that’s fine.
And do you feel comfortable wearing the local clothes or is it because of the title?
I have been in Nigeria since 1971. I am a chief in Lagos, Chief Otunyeye Oluwa. So I lived in Nigeria, taught in a school and did a lot of things in Lagos.
What brought you to Nigeria?
My husband and I came here with nothing. We started in Ghana in 1970. His father – Fu’ad Labbabidi – had a role in a flour mill there so he sent my husband there and we started in Ghana working in the flour mills from my father-in-law, then my husband decided to open a flour mill in Nigeria, but we had no money.
My brother-in-law was already working here in small businesses in Lagos, so we came to live with him in a very small, high-density place in Apapa. We all lived in one room with just a fan so I started from a very humble beginning in Nigeria and I’m very proud of that because I can live anywhere.
It took us ten years for my husband to finally open Crown Flour Mills; ten years of serious struggle to get there.
I have three children here, my eldest is 46 and he works in Lagos. So I am very connected to Nigeria and when I am in Nigeria I only wear Nigerian clothes because that is where I feel like I belong.
I know people look at me and say I don’t fit in, but in my heart and in my mind, I fit in.
Here you are in this building (the Islamic Academy Fouad), what is your connection?
My husband and Alhaji UK Umar were very close. When the Crown Flour Mills were being developed he was in the civil service and I think they knew each other from there. Anyway when UK Umar and the community wanted to start school he went to my husband and through them they decided to start with primary school so my husband built this primary section here, then the mosque. I have nothing to do with it.
My father in law died around this time and the community decided to name the school Fuad Lababidi Islamic Academy. My husband is always involved in whatever they need. I am not aware of any information on how this happens.
What ambition do you have?
At 73 years old, my ambition is to have the energy to see the opportunities that come my way and to seize them and to have the ability to follow those opportunities because there are so many opportunities in this world and it doesn’t. has nothing to do with business and the rich, it’s true.