Mouhamed Ahnou was born in 1966 in Azel a village in the north of Agadez in Niger. His family have been silversmiths for many generations. As a child, on Saturdays and Sundays Mouhamed would go to his father to learn how to make traditional Tuareg jewellery, he would make small pieces to sell to tourists.
Mouhamed is from a large family, he has eight brothers and three sisters all of whom work in this trade – the men making silver jewellery and the women doing leatherwork making traditional bags, purses etc. The women would learn from their Mothers.
Most of the villagers in Azel are silversmiths and leatherworkers. They all work as a co-operative ensuring everyone can make a living. Mouhamed is the representative of the co-operative responsible for promotion and sales. There are approximately 50 families’ in the village with 8 – 10 children each.
In the past the children of the village did not attend school as the villagers believed this would take away their traditions and was a white mans thing. They wanted them only to be taught the Koran. In the 1970’s the Sultan of Agadez asked that each family send one child to school, many of the villagers moved away so that they didn’t have to oblige. At the time Mouhamed’s father was an important man in his village and he was a friend of the Sultan so Mouhamed went to school to show an example to the village. At this time schooling was free. Now days only the teachers are free and the family has to pay for books and uniforms.
They now believe school is a good thing and are happy to send their Children. All lessons are conducted in French for the first 7 years (primary school) after which they take exams and the ones who pass are sent to Agadez to study further. This is where Mouhamed learnt to speak English. (He also speaks Tamasheq, Hausa, French and a little Arabic) The ones who don’t pass stay at home to carry on learning the trade of the village.
The standard of living in the village has increased with the sales of the jewellery. The villagers can now buy enough food, clothes and also medicines when needed (and when they are available.) They are now looking to raise enough money to drill a new borehole as the only one in the village is contaminated and many of the people have typhoid because of it. They are also hoping to set up a clinic and employ a Doctor to work there.
Very sadly Mohameds wife, Assalama and youngest son have both died recently. Djibrilla, just 2 years old, from Typhoid which is still all to common in Africa. Mohamed has one other son Abdarahmane 6 years old.
Because of Mouhamed’s education he now wishes to help his village overcome their problems and improve their lives. He wants to share his knowledge for the benefit of his people and wants them to profit from his contacts and his travels to Europe with the sales of their jewellery.
Before Mouhamed was able to travel, all of his sales would have been to tourists who ventured to Agadez across the Sahara. In 1990 the tourists stopped travelling to Agadez because of a rebellion against the government. The Tuareg are fighting for their autonomy. This has made it very difficult for the people of Northern Niger. Mouhamed now travels to Niamey to sell his jewellery to tourists for a few weeks at a time before returning to his village.
The silver used for the jewellery would have originally come from trading. A caravan would travel across the Sahara to Bilma where they trade Sugar, rice, onion, dried tomato and dried meat for salt and dates. Then the salt would be traded in Nigeria for clothes, shoes, and silver coins. Traditionally the jewellery would be made by melting down old silver coins, these are becoming increasingly difficult to find so new silver is purchased from traders in Niamey.
Silver jewellery is very important to Tuareg women. Traditionally silver is passed to the eldest daughter on her Mothers passing. Each family would have a large collection of Antique silver. A bride would be given silver jewellery for her wedding.
The Agadez crosses are made using the lost wax method. All of the other pieces are cut from sheets of silver and hand stamped.
It would take approximately one day to make one cross