Abubakar Shuaibu Abdullahi is a self-taught prosthetist and one of the third generation of young entrepreneurs pushing boundaries at the famous Naraguta leather works in Jos North Local Government Area of Plateau State. He is one of the pioneering handmade limb constructors in northern Nigeria. He now constructs prosthetic ears; a feat he describes as the most challenging of his craft.
Naraguta Leather Works is one of Nigeria’s foremost tanning industries in almost 85 years. From its traditional humble beginning as the vision of one man, Alhaji Audu Dandagwaje in 1935, hundreds of youths have been trained at Naraguta Leather Works, which now rests on the shoulders of a third generation of young entrepreneurs who seem to be moving with modern tides.
Originally, the Naraguta Leather Works made traditional leather items like horse saddles, male bags used by Christian missionaries during the colonial era, and other traditional items.
The industry later evolved into making more modern items, such as quality and creative slippers for male and female, as well as handbags. Today, the leather works have transcended the limits of basic fashion items to making handmade prosthesis and polio callipers for people living with various forms of disabilities.
Abubakar Shuaibu Abdullahi is moving forward in an industry established by his grandfather. Abubakar claims he is the pioneer prosthetist in northern Nigeria and explained that he branched into prosthetic implants 20 years ago by attempting finger prosthesis for a patient at Bimma Specialist Hospital in Jos South Local Government Area of Plateau State.
“I started by constructing fingers. There was an engineer who lost three fingers while operating a machine and he was getting married. So a physiotherapist at Bimma Hospital referred him to me because the patient wanted a prosthetic finger to slip in his gloves,” he told our correspondent.
He, however, explained that the finger prosthesis is passive and only used for cosmetic purpose, providing support for the patient, but does not function.
Our correspondent observed how Abubakar, working like a local tailor, first took measurements of body parts of his patients before he got to work.
“The functional limb will need to be measured to get an accurate size for the one to be constructed,” he said.
Then using masking tapes, toilet papers, a shade of leather that matches the patient’s skin tone and other items, Abubakar does a job that oftentimes forces smile on the faces of his patients.
One of such patients is a 19-year-old Kabir Bashir, a fabric retailer whose upper limbs no longer function following an electricity accident seven years ago. Shortly after, Kabir’s limbs were amputated, and to conceal his condition and possibly shield him from social stigma, he was given a prosthesis constructed by Abubakar, which he said had helped improve his emotional healing process.
Today, Kabiru says acquaintances hardly recognise him as an amputee, except those who are familiar with his story or those who give him a hard stare.
“I have been using prosthesis since I recovered from the accident. Though it is getting old, I know my family is working towards constructing another one for me,” he said.
Naraguta, a large community on the road to Bauchi State, which predates the present day Jos city, became famous for its leather works due to the strategic location of Jos, approximately in the centre of the country.
“This is the centre of Nigeria and people travelling to the southern part of the country traverse through Jos and vice versa for those going to the North-East. Also, the fact that northern Nigeria is known for its high concentration of animals of various exotic breeds could have been an advantage for the leather works,” Abubakar said, giving insight into the antecedents of his family business.
Among Abubakar’s creative stints in prosthesis, his most challenging and stately construction is the ear. “The ear is the most amazing of my inventions. I have not seen it done anywhere. It is most challenging, especially if you need to construct a single ear, not a set. This is because you have to be painstaking to ensure it looks almost identical with the other,” he explained.
He said the challenge to construct an ear fell on his lap when, some time ago, he was invited to Bimma Specialist Hospital to examine a man who lost an ear.
“After examining him, I told them I could do it. The external part of the ear, as you know, is like a satellite dish. It regulates dust and the sound that goes into the ear. So the man, having lost his ear, had been complaining of constant headaches,” he said.
The end product of Abubakar’s ear reconstruction is what looks like an ear-carved headphone with a headband that holds a single ear or the two reconstructed ears together as the case maybe.
But constructing prosthesis is no piece of cake, and even though it takes a few days for Abubakar to finish the job – two to three days for a limb and a day for a finger – it is a creatively tasking job that takes hours of meticulous sculpting, moulding and stitching to make the most pleasant limb.
For a more long-lasting prosthetic, he often advises patients to remove their artificial limb before going into water. “It is leather; and though the quality of leather we use does not retain water, we still advise that you don’t enter water with it because it could fasten the process of wear and tear,” he said.
He said that, depending on how careful one is, some patients like Kabir have used their prosthesis for as long as six years without requiring repairs. He, however, stressed that as patients, especially children, grow or put off or add more weight, there is usually the need for adjustment.
Abubakar’s journey to prosthetic limbs started through trial and error. He had initially made free prosthesis for patients as he battled his conscience over living off people suffering with disability. But after undergoing counselling from religious leaders, Abubakar said he decided to make his products affordable.
Compared to foreign prosthesis, Abubakar said his products were not only cheaper but more durable and lighter. “I usually tell people to go and survey the price of prosthesis in other places before they come to me. There are categories, depending on the size,” he said.
His prostheses cost as low as N160, 000, but a little more than that when he offers home services. He has visited almost every part of the country, including orthopaedic hospitals such as the National Orthopaedic Hospital, Dala in Kano State and Bimma Specialist Hospital in Plateau State, where patients are referred to him by l medical practitioners.
Prostheses are usually imported into Nigeria by various state governments and non-governmental organisations for distribution to people living with disabilities. In 2017, the Plateau State Government, working in collaboration with Tolaram Charity Foundation, distributed about 500 free artificial limbs to amputees in the state. But Abubakar, who relies on locally processed materials, said his work lasted longer than imported ones.
The Plateau State Disability Rights Commission said the state government had paid counterpart funding of N4million for the 500 beneficiaries to get prostheses three years ago. Secretary of the commission, Gurumyen Carl, said they were aware of the handmade prostheses by Abubakar at the Naraguta Leather Works and had been partnering with him.
But Abubakar faces a major challenge in his inability to go into mass production. His work is 100 per cent handmade and customised for specific customers. He hopes to partner with state governments, especially Plateau to do that.
“I see myself in the future doing mass production; I hope the state government would want to partner with me,” he said.