By: Salami Ajibola
Recently I was at a barber’s shop waiting for my turn to get a cut. From the flurry of words between the head that cuts and the one being cut, one could easily smell some stale camaraderie. But it was not until their conversations about football and bets shifted to the two young apprentices circling them that I knew that the latter was a barber too. And the flow of their discussion just went smoothly.
“This tall one has no brain,” the barber started casually in Yoruba, referring to one of the learners. “What should be sense has turned height. And, God, he could eat a house of food. Bread especially. One of these days I know I will shove a mass of hair into that your restless throat. Take those big eyes off me, or you want to turn me into bread?”
Everyone laughed – the barber getting a haircut, myself, another waiting person, plus, interestingly, the other apprentice. But I later came to know he hadn’t laughed, this short apprentice; he is just the kind that has a smile etched onto his face, that ever haunting ghost of laughter that births more laughter in whoever beholds his innocent face.
“This one, this short devil, his own matter amuses me a lot,” continued the barber, laughing to affirm his own words. “In fact the devil living in him is a very stubborn one. No single fear in him. Ah, you don’t get? Every 7pm he would start challenging me that he wants to go home. He lives in Agor here o, this small devil. When I asked him why he came late one certain day, do you know what he said?” He laughed again, coughing into his friend’s face. “He told me, ‘I dey feel tired so I just contunu my sleep.’ I couldn’t laugh that day.”
The barber went on and on about his boys, his friend chipping in with supporting claims, using his own absent apprentice as a case study. I couldn’t stop laughing where I sat, couldn’t have mistaken this place more as a comedy room. Getting barbered for 500 Naira always made me wish my hair ceased growing, but not on this day, because I got more value for my money.
“These ones?” the second barber hissed, his face glistening in the mirror. “Are these ones being apprenticed or just enjoying themselves,” he asked rhetorically. “When we were apprentices, we did the smallest work in the shop. Our boss’s house is where we mostly work: wash clothes, plates, and do all sorts of domestic chores, mtchew …”
And I held on to that.
Growing up gave me ample insight into the world of local apprenticeship. Between hearsay and eyesee, to my own short stint as an apprentice cobbler and my sister’s every evening tale of the maltreatment she and her colleagues suffered from their hairstylist boss, local apprenticeship to me has always had a little blemish to its wealth. You do not start cutting materials until you have been cut by countless errands of amala and ewedu. You will move no inch in skill if you have not moved hectares in drill. And you will never string a speck except it strings out your stint.
Maybe one might argue that these places do not only train us for vocations, but also for life skills — patience, perseverance, and pursuit. But I ask: is that always part of the initial agreements? Another might argue that these places are not specifically designed as training centres, thus the loads of irregularities. And I ask: why don’t we rather go to more organized skill acquisition centres? The argument could go on and on, but the question would remain: is the slaving common in local apprenticeship really worth it?