African Engineers: A New Boy Arrives in Suame Magazine, Kumasi, Ghana

Many young men come from the villages of rural Ghana intent on making their fortune in the big cities of Accra and Kumasi. For many, their first aim is to become apprenticed to a master craftsman and their first point of call is Suame Magazine in Kumasi, Ghana’s largest informal industrial area and the home of thousands of motor mechanics and motor vehicle body builders. First impressions are lasting impressions and the following is an account of one young man’s first encounter with Suame magazine.

Kwame found that there were no surfaced roads entering the magazine. The only access was gained by deeply rutted dirt roads that squeezed between the workshops, often with insufficient width for two vehicles to pass. Not only workshops lined these roads. Abandoned vehicles, machinery and scrap materials were scattered everywhere, some in piles projecting into the road and some actually lying in the road where they had been run over by a thousand vehicles and become embedded as a permanent feature.

Kwame soon realised that unlike in the village, where most of the houses were built to the same basic pattern, in the magazine all the workshops were different. Most of the larger workshops were built with concrete block walls and corrugated metal roofs and some of the smaller workshops were similarly constructed. Many more of the smaller workshops were built with wooden board walls but the corrugated metal roofs were standard. Many workshops had open sides and others were little more than a wooden workbench. Some artisans sat on the ground in the shade of a mango or neem tree with only a small toolbox by their side.

The level of activity impressed Kwame. He had never seen so many people, mostly men, busy at work or moving about with obvious purpose. Everywhere there was the noise of hammering, the flash and crackle of electric welders and the hum of drilling and grinding machines mingling with the constant roar and drone of vehicle engines. Kwame also noticed that there were people who seemed to have nothing to do. Some were watching the work of others and some were sitting outside their workshops, apparently waiting for work to come to them.

Kwame was fascinated by what he saw as he wandered deeper into the Magazine. Most of the workshops seemed to be involved in vehicle repair. Some claimed to be experts in repairing certain makes of vehicle: Benz, Land Rover, Toyota or Bedford. Some specialised in repairing certain vehicle components: batteries, brakes and clutches, bodywork or diesel engines. A few had special machines for carrying out precision work such as crankshaft regrinding or cylinder reboring. Every workshop had a name-board proudly proclaiming the services it offered. Many of these were brightly painted and some gave lists of services in great detail. The neatness of these name-boards contrasted with the chaos that surrounded the workshops and, in many cases, penetrated inside. Everywhere, machine parts, materials and tools lay around in apparent abandon.

A young man of Kwame’s age was sitting on the ground beside a bench cleaning a piece of machinery. Kwame asked him what he was doing. He was told that the part was a fuel pump and the job was to clean it thoroughly. For this purpose the young man had been given some petrol in a tin can and an old rag. He told Kwame that he was apprenticed to the master who owned the workshop. Being in his first year, his work was confined to cleaning. This gave him the opportunity to know the parts well in preparation for learning how to repair them in subsequent years. Kwame asked how long the apprenticeship would last and was surprised when he was told five years. He felt that he wouldn’t want to wait that long to become a master.

After some time roaming amongst the workshops Kwame found that in addition to offering repair services some workshops made a product to sell. He saw larger workshops constructing the wooden bodies of trotros and cocoa trucks. Alongside these bigger businesses were blacksmith’s shops supplying steel bolts and nuts, hinges and brackets to the body builders. Some smaller workshops were producing coal pots: charcoal-burning stoves like he used at home for cooking. Piles of these coal pots stood waiting for collection by market traders.

So much was going on in the Magazine that Kwame couldn’t take it all in. There were some activities that he could not understand because he lacked the necessary technical knowledge. He was so fascinated by all that he saw that he lost awareness of the time. To his surprise the sun was going down and his thoughts turned to supper and sleep. Where was he going to spend the night? He decided to go back to ask the help of the apprentice he had met. He had some difficulty finding his way, there were no signposts in the Magazine, and by the time he arrived the workers were leaving for home. However his new friend was still there.

Kwame found that the apprentice came from a village far away from Kumasi. He had no place to stay but his master allowed him to sleep in the workshop. He invited Kwame to join him. Part of the apprentice’s function was to provide overnight security and for this two men were better than one. In return for this kindness Kwame funded their supper: fufu and groundnut soup purchased from one of the many women food sellers who plied their trade in the Magazine. Kwame’s father had often warned him of the dangers of buying food off the street, but on this occasion there was no alternative. The soup was very hot with pepper, perhaps to compensate for the lack of any other flavour, but Kwame liked his soup that way. He slept soundly on his first night in Suame Magazine.

Leave a Reply