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African Engineers: A New Boy Arrives in Suame Magazine, Kumasi, Ghana
Many young people come from rural Ghana and plan to make their fortunes in big cities such as Accra and Kumasi. For many, whose first goal is to become an apprentice to a master craftsman, their first place of visit is Suame Magazine in Kumasi, the largest informal industrial area in Ghana and home to thousands of auto mechanics. and home to auto body builders. First impressions make lasting impressions, and the following is the account of a young man’s first exposure to Suame Magazine.
Kwame found no paved road into the magazine. The only access is a deeply rutted dirt road squeezed between workshops, often not wide enough for two cars. These roads are not only lined with workshops. Abandoned vehicles, machinery and scrap are scattered everywhere, some jutting out in piles on the road, and some lying on the road, being run over by thousands of vehicles, becoming a permanent landscape.
Kwame quickly realized that unlike a village where most of the houses were built according to the same basic pattern, in a magazine all workshops were different. Most of the larger workshops are constructed with concrete block walls and corrugated metal roofs, and some smaller workshops have a similar construction. Many of the smaller workshops are built with timber-paneled walls, but a corrugated metal roof is standard. Many studios have open sides, while others are little more than a wooden workbench. Some artisans sit on the ground in the shade of a mango or neem tree with nothing but a small toolbox beside them.
Kwame was impressed by the level of activity. He had never seen so many people, mostly men, busy with work or moving around with apparent purpose. There was hammering, the flashing and crackling of welders, the hum of drills and grinders, mixed with the constant roar and hum of car engines. Kwame also noticed that some people seemed to have nothing to do. Some were watching others at work, others were sitting outside their workshops, apparently waiting for work to come to them.
As Kwame went deeper into the magazine, he was fascinated by what he saw. Most workshops seem to be involved in vehicle maintenance. Some claim to be experts in repairing certain brands of cars: Mercedes, Land Rover, Toyota or Bedford. Some specialize in repairing certain vehicle components: batteries, brakes and clutches, bodywork, or diesel engines. A few companies have specialized machines for precision machining such as crankshaft regrinding or cylinder reboring. Each workshop has a nameplate proudly advertising the services it provides. Many of them are painted in bright colors, and some come with very detailed service lists. The cleanliness of these nameplates stands in stark contrast to the chaos that surrounds the workshop and, in many cases, even permeates the interior. Clearly abandoned machine parts, materials and tools are everywhere.
A young man about Kwame’s age is sitting on the ground next to a bench, cleaning a machine. Kwame asked what he was doing. He was told the part was a fuel pump and the job was to clean it thoroughly. For this purpose, the young man was given some gasoline in a tin can and an old rag. He told Kwame that he was an apprentice to the workshop owner. During his first year, his work was limited to cleaning. This gave him the opportunity to get to know the parts well in preparation for learning how to repair them later. Kwame asked how long the apprenticeship would last and was surprised when he was told five years. He felt that he didn’t want to wait that long to become a master.
After roaming the workshops for a while, Kwame discovered that in addition to providing repair services, some workshops also manufactured a product to sell. He saw larger workshops building trotros and the wooden bodies of cocoa trucks. In addition to these larger businesses, there were blacksmith shops, which supplied the coachbuilders with steel bolts and nuts, hinges and brackets. Some smaller workshops produced coal pots: like the charcoal stoves he used for cooking at home. The coal canisters stand in piles waiting to be collected by market vendors.
There was too much going on in the magazine for Kwame to take it all in. There are activities that he cannot understand because he lacks the necessary technical knowledge. He was so fascinated by everything in front of him that he forgot the time. To his surprise, the sun was setting and his thoughts turned to dinner and sleep. Where is he going to spend the night? He decided to go back and ask for help from the apprentice he met. He had some difficulty finding his way, the magazine was unsignposted, and when he arrived, the workers had already set off home. But his new friend is still there.
Kwame discovered that the apprentice was from a village far from Kumasi. He has no place to live, but his master lets him sleep in the workshop. He invited Kwame to join him. Part of an apprentice’s job is to provide nighttime security, and in that regard two are better than one. In return for the kindness, Kwame funded their dinner: fufu and peanut soup purchased from one of the many female food sellers who traded in the magazine. Kwame’s father often warned him about the dangers of buying food on the street, but this time he had no choice. The soup is peppery, perhaps to make up for the lack of other flavours, but Kwame loves his soup. He slept soundly on his first night at Suame Magazine.
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