In a little nook on the north side of Nalerigu’s market sit two men – brothers – who are the town’s gbanzaba, or leatherworkers. Just twenty years ago there were a lot more leatherworkers and they had a lot more diverse work to do. Then the plastic bags, second-hand Western clothes and cheap Chinese products started pouring into West Africa.
Now I only ever see them working on four things: repairing sandals, making chieftaincy cushions, decorative knife sheaths and magical amulets. The latter is one that isn’t going away. In fact, they have a proverb referencing it:
Gbanzaba pɔ’a seaa ni ka kanni.
A literal translation would be “the leatherworker’s wife’s waist has no leather belt.” However, it’s basically the same idea as the old English adage “the shoemaker’s daughter goes barefoot.” The leather belt in question (kanni) is not just any belt, but a magical charm worn by a woman (especially pregnant women) for protection from evil spirits and/or bad luck. Other magical charms the leatherworkers make are amulets with Quranic verses inside and leather charms that bind up secret ingredients and give the wearer protection or supernatural powers.
I enjoy visiting with these guys every time I go to market. I like to jokingly ask what’s inside the magical amulets they are sowing all the while knowing the answer is asiiri (secret!). Once they offered to repair my dying sandals and even gave me a loaner pair to wear around the market until they were done. Now that’s great customer service!