Stephen Leonard
February 2011

I walk dust-filled streets, into the clanging din of Arusha’s central market district. The craftsmen do their work here, selling machine parts and restoring bicycles that should have been sent to a scrapheap years ago.

I locate the key maker’s stand on the sidewalk, just past a row of women working sewing machines and next to an old man sitting cross-legged on the ground, cobbling a new sole onto a worn leather shoe. The stand appears unattended. On the four-foot high wooden box, a hundred old keys and a handful of uncut ones are laced together by thin metal wires. Among scattered bits of metal and wire lie the key maker’s simple tools: a handsaw, a file and a metal vise to keep the keys in place while the craftsman does his work.

I approach, and a boy springs up from his seat next to the cobbler. He wears a blue windbreaker, a knockoff Puma wool cap, and a solemn face. He looks all of 15, but I will discover that he has been working as a key maker for five years.

The job I demand is not easy: five sets of three different keys. The keys themselves are not only difficult to come by, but intricately designed. He quotes me a price and goes to work. The dusty storm of commerce and craft swirls around him, but he appears oblivious to all.

Gripping both my key and an uncut key in hands seemingly three decades older than the rest of him, the boy examines them keenly before placing them in his vise. With a lightning-quick spin of the handle, he locks the keys in place and begins sawing, then filing. He whips the vise loose, takes the keys out, inspects them again, careful not to let either slip from his own vise-like grip as he turns his hands over, peering at both sides. I stare, mesmerized, as he works the saw into the soft metal of the key, then files it down, before checking on his progress.

When he runs out of uncut keys, he says he’ll return in a moment, and with that he runs down the street, ducking into another shop. He comes back with freshly soldered, blank keys, gnarled and ugly.

He files them smooth with the vise before cutting into them with the saw. In a city where tire rubber is recycled into sandal bottoms, where toys are made out of bundled plastic bags and bottle caps, the key maker contributes to Arusha’s own unofficial recycling program.

Nothing goes to waste.

He plinks each new copy down on his workbench for my inspection. As he finishes, a crowd gathers around, and I wonder if they are curious about me, having invaded their craftsmen’s den for an afternoon, or if they want to see the young master at work.

Back home, I try each of the new keys. One doesn’t work, and a couple others stick before turning, but most click butter-smooth into their locks.

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