African Engineers: Alhajji Chief in Tamale

Beginning in 1972, with help from the Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), the small-scale and informal engineering industry was developing steadily in Kumasi, in skills and manufacturing facilities as well as in numbers. From 1979, an effort was mounted by KNUST to establish a similar programme in Tamale, the capital of the Northern Region almost 400 kilometres north of Kumasi. Progress was slow in a difficult economic climate and by the mid-1980s only one middle-sized engineering workshop had emerged. In what follows, two Ghanaian engineers, Kwame and Dan, introduce a visiting British engineer, Tom Arthur, to their star client.

The tall man strolling towards them in long flowing white robes was an impressive figure. He greeted the three engineers with “Salaam aleikum” to which Dan replied “Aleikum as salaam.” Tom hoped that not all the conversation would be in Arabic or Dagbani and was relieved when a long white sleeve extended a large brown hand that gripped his hand firmly in synchronism with the greeting “You are welcome Dr Arthur. When did you come to Tamale?”
“He is reporting to you on his first day in Tamale,” Kwame cut in quickly before Tom could reply.
“I’m delighted to meet you, Mr Masters,” said Tom, “Kwame has told me much about your good work here and I’m looking forward to seeing your workshop.”
“We do what we can but it’s very difficult,” replied Issah Masters, “My workshop is just over there,” he added, pointing across an open space to some permanent buildings about 200 metres away.

The group walked slowly across to Issah Masters’ workshop, following the red gravel path between patches of tall grass. For Tom, the short walk was a marathon as the early afternoon sun beat down unrelentingly. He would have preferred to walk faster to gain some shade as quickly as possible but their pace was set by the slow measured stride of the man who had followed his prophet to Mecca. Much to Tom’s relief, on reaching the compound they were taken into a cool office and invited to sit in comfortable chairs while cold soft drinks were quickly pulled from a refrigerator and offered to the guests. An oscillating desk fan rhythmically ventilated Tom’s sodden shirt with a cold shock that was almost painful. By the time the drinks were finished and a visit to the workshops was proposed Tom’s shirt was dry and he was ready to face the heat again.

Issah Masters’ main activity was welding and steel fabrication and his two best selling products were bed-frames and steel trunks. “These items are always in demand,” he told his visitors.
“Do any other workshops in Tamale make these items?” asked Tom.
“Oh yes, about six and they are all my ex-apprentices.”
“How did you start in this business?”
“I was trained as a blacksmith and developed the business by adding other skills in metal working.”
“What other products do you make?”
“I produce a bullock plough for farmers converting to animal traction, and I plan to take up some products from the ITTU, like corn mills and cassava graters.”
“How have you benefited from the ITTU?”
“In many ways; the TCC loaned me a lathe for two years until the ITTU building was ready and I produced steel bolts and nuts in my workshop, they trained my people in Kumasi and now here in Tamale, and I hope to benefit from orders sub-contracted to my workshop. I am also hoping that when the GRID project starts I will be able to buy more machines on credit.”

“You should ask Alhajji what he has done to help the ITTU,” said Kwame. “He has been our strongest supporter since we first came to Tamale.”
“We need the ITTU very badly,” said Issah Masters, “and we must all help the TCC to bring it here.”
“Alhajji is too modest to tell me himself so you must tell me,” said Tom.
“Well, he started by organising an artisans association and lobbying the regional administration to support the ITTU project,” said Kwame, “I heard Frank Johnson say that without Issah Masters’ support he could not have started the Appropriate Technology Centre that served for several years as a pilot project for the ITTU.”
“As soon as GRID gets underway,” added Dan, “they will form regional advisory boards and Alhajji will be a member of the board for the Tamale ITTU.”

Later, as the three engineers walked back to the ITTU, Kwame and Dan explained to Tom that Issah Masters was a key political figure for the project. In addition to being a leader of the artisans he was also a chief of one of the several villages that made up the town of Tamale. “When you visit a place for the first time you are expected to first call on the chief,” explained Kwame, “That’s why I broke in just now to emphasise that you were calling on Issah Masters on your first day in Tamale.”
“I see,” said Tom, “it’s important to follow local custom wherever you mount a project. That must be difficult.”
“The university is fortunate to draw staff and students from all parts of Ghana,” explained Dan, “So we can usually find one of our own people to brief us even before we visit an area for the first time.”