The Fine Art of Turmi Making: A tale of Nobility and Excellence

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There they were, the famous Yan Turmi of Zaria. Everyone passing through the ever-busy Makarfi road was bound to notice them – even if it was just a glimpse, for it was a blend of a traditional institution with modern structures. Bustling under the tall, lined majestic silk cotton trees that adorn Zaria was the Yan Turmi – a home of mortar and pestles. Craftsmen of different age – young, old and middle aged were all busy with their respective jobs of crafting out beautiful pestles and mortars for sale. Turmi – mortar and Tabarya – pestle in Hausa, was all they did; and by God, they were masters at what they do.

The Fine Art of Turmi Making: A tale of Nobility and Excellence

When it comes to arts and crafts in Northern Nigeria and even the whole of Nigeria at large, the fine art of carving out mortars and pestles must come into mind; for it is an age old craft that has been transferred through lineages and has weathered countless generations and civilizations, and is still waxing strong. This simple household utensil can be found in nearly all homes in the North, for every new bride carries it along to her new matrimonial home as a gift and a necessity.

A mortar and pestle is a simple kitchen utensil used since ancient times in preparing ingredients through pounding, crushing and grinding to a specific required state – fine powder, a paste, rough finishing etc. The pestle is a heavy and blunt shaped wooden object, with two bulbous ends used for the pounding and crushing while the mortar is a deep, round bowl, typically made of wood, that houses the ingredients to be processed. The use of mortar and pestle dates back to the prehistoric times, and is sometimes seen as the progression from the use of stone as a grinding device. Mortars and pestles are primarily used in cooking, up to this day. They are also used in processing farm produce through husking and dehulling, and frequently associated with the profession of pharmacy due to their historical use in preparing medicine.

The Fine Art of Turmi Making: A tale of Nobility and Excellence

Ready made Mortar and Pestles in Zaria

The Fine Art of Turmi Making: A tale of Nobility and Excellence

A carver at work

My tour guide, Mallam Surajo, a middle – aged man originally from Kano; was very receptive and helpful. It’s clear that he has done this – helping out inquirers – many times. He narrates to me how this business sponsored his education up to an NCE, built him a house and he’s now married with two kids. He told me how he left his teaching job for this fine craft, because of his love for it and the benefits he has gotten from it. He mostly spoke in Hausa and English, and almost knew exactly the answer I needed from him. No wonder his foster father, Alhaji Baba, the oldest mortar and pestle craftsman in Zaria and the leader of the Sakkarawa left him in charge of attending to people.

The Fine Art of Turmi Making: A tale of Nobility and Excellence

Basakkare, I learnt, was the name given to a single craftsman, while Sakkarawa was the collective name given to the people of the trade. In Northern Nigeria and even a greater part of Nigeria, the craftsmen originated from the Katsinawa clan of Katsina State. The craftsmen then dispersed to all the parts of Nigeria and West Africa, establishing and cementing their status as the grandmasters of carving mortars and pestles. They also taught the trade to interested people, hence the diversity among them. Here in Zaria, there are only two markets that sell ready-made pestles and mortars; the famous Durumi market in the walled city and here, the Yan Turmi of Tudun Wada. I learnt, that the only place that actually carve and are engaged in making Turmi is here, at the Yan Turm. It is then distributed and sold at Durumi and other places.

The Fine Art of Turmi Making: A tale of Nobility and Excellence

Pestles and mortars are skillfully carved out from tree trunks of different trees. The commonest trees used and preferred are the Kirya (African Pearwood), the Madaci (Mahogany) and the Kadanya (forest shea). These trees are gotten from the vast forests in the Hausa land, notably the Birnin Gwari forest, and surrounding forests of Bauchi, Borno and the rest. Due to the recent rise of criminal activities in these forests, these craftsmen are increasingly finding it hard to get the trees they need; and resort to buying tree trunks. Each of these tree have some distinctive characteristics that distinguish it from others, like the medicinal value, the durability, etc. The tree trunks are cut according to the required size of the mortar using a sharp axe (Kalaba). The Gizago, a sharp dagger is also used to chisel and bring out the shape of the mortar. Ma’arnaya,and Masirka are used for smoothening the rough surface and for finally making the pestle and mortar into a finished product. Traditionally, animal fat, groundnut oil and shea butter are used to smoothen the exterior and to make it shine, and to look aesthetically pleasing. Apart from the aesthetics, these finishers also prevent cracks and ensures it durability but due to modernization, Top Gun, a carpentry finisher performs all the functions, and the craftsmen opt for it these days.

From the beginning to the end of the mortar and pestle making process, no part of the tree trunk is wasted; the bark is used for medicinal purposes, the twigs and tree bits are used as firewood, and the remnant of wood is used for making Kwaru, the tool used by traditional Hausa cap washers to hold the cap, and the decayed remnants are shipped off to the farm as a rich manure.

Pestles and Mortars of the core Northern Nigeria value from those from other places. While here it is manually crafted and curved out, in other places like Benue and Taraba, are slightly different, being made mechanically. Those are called Turmin Injin. Here in Zaria, the locally made Turmi ranges in sizes and prices. A Turmi can go for as low as N1,000 and as high as N12,000, depending on quality and quantity. The average lifespan of a pestle and mortar was 30 – 35 years, before the craftsmen decided to lower the quality to 5 – 10 years, due to the market law of demand and supply. “If a Turmi reaches 20 years, will we be getting customers? Joked Mallam Surajo.” I, for one, grew up and saw the pestle and mortar my mom is still using today.

The craft of mortar and pestle making will not go out of fashion, and continues thriving day by day. This is due to the fact that despite the new appliances like grinding machines and blenders, there is still an epileptic power supply in the country. There is also a tradition to be upheld, as people still patronize Yan Turmi in high numbers. Also, some spices, traditional medicines, herbs and delicacies can only be processed using the mortar and pestle.

The pestle and mortar also have an uncommon use; the way it is being used produces slow, intermittent rhythms and pounding patterns that women converted to melodies. It is safe to say that apart from being a kitchen device, it can pass for a musical instrument. While pounding, it is not uncommon to see a women singing or humming to the rhythm of the pounding. This is especially more pronounced when the mortar is large, and can be used by more than one person at a time with multiple pestles.

Pestles and mortars have contributed immensely to the average Northern woman. It has helped in simplifying her tasks and so, the next time you’re eating any local delicacy that involves pounded yam; or tasting a sweet spice and chilly, remember that a skilled, master crafter and a fine artist carved out the pestle and mortar that processed what you’re enjoying!




Salim Yunusa Ibrahim,
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