March 4, 2016
Southern Torch (3710 articles)

Forging friendships, changing lives

Forging friendships, changing livesBy Joseph M. Morgan

It is late January 2016 and an odd scene is unfolding in the small village of Bamba. It is 90 degrees on this day. Located just southeast of the equator on the continent of Africa outside the city of Campola, Uganda, it is always hot in Bamba. Despite the heat of the midday sun, men are hard at work on this day.

A melodic rhythm rings out through the dirt roads of the village. In a steep swinging arc, Jesse Hemphill slams a blacksmith’s hammer against a white-hot iron bar with alarming force. Clang! The sound reverberates throughout the makeshift open air hut that provides shade and cover for a working blacksmith’s forge. Hemphill pauses to flip an ugly strip of iron with metal tongs as four young men stand around him looking on with an obvious sense of admiration.

Clang! Clang! Clang! He swings the hammer over and over again, striking malleable iron against unforgiving anvil. His leather apron and gloves are coated in dark soot. Two paces to his left, a 2,000-degree adds to the heat of the day as his forehead beads with perspiration. As glowing metal fades to black, Hemphill returns the iron bar to the forge to repeat the heating process. Moments later sparks fly again, and the sound of metal crashing into metal regains its familiar rhythm. Gradually the strip of ugly raw iron begins to take shape. Utilizing an unlikely combination of power and precision, Hemphill creates something beautiful, something unique. He has created a work of art.

Hemphill was doing what blacksmiths have been doing for 3,500 years on that January afternoon: shaping raw metal into something of value. What makes his story unique is that he is using the ancient trade to bridge a gap between two vastly different cultures. His purpose in Africa was for the benefit of the young men standing around him. Hemphill traveled to Bamba earlier this year to teach the men a trade unburdened by the technological requirements many modern jobs rely on in the western world. With the use of only a few basic tools and materials, the ancient trade of blacksmithing will provide the men of Bamba a livelihood to provide for their families and bring hope to an area that endured almost 20 years of devastation through war and disease throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.
Through government instability and the AIDs epidemic that brought war and death to Bamba, an entire generation was virtually wiped out. Almost 70 percent of the people in the small village are under the age of 36. There is almost no work available to the men and women there—only 30 percent of the population is employed.

Metalworking using the traditional blacksmithing technique is a perfect fit for the village of Bamba. The process has not changed much over the 3,500 years of the trade’s existence. Metal is heated over a flame until it becomes pliable. It is then placed on an anvil and beat into the desired shape with a hammer. So despite the seemed oddity of seeing a lone white man from Skirum, Alabama teaching an ancient trade to men in an African village, the value of Hemphill’s contribution there is immeasurable.Centuries ago, one could find a blacksmith in almost every village in the western world. In early American settlements, blacksmiths, often called the “village smithy,” reverted to providing a variety of metal products and services. The blacksmith’s shop, which usually also served as the local hardware store, was not geared for making one particular type of product. The American blacksmith had to be capable of doing it all.Blacksmiths forged tools, nails, hinges and other building materials. Americans depended on blacksmiths for their very survival. Metal implements were so valuable, when early American settlers would build a house and use nails, if they moved, they would burn the house to save the nails so that they could take them with them. Blacksmithing in America continued to prosper greatly until the industrial

Forging friendships, changing livesrevolution. By the late 1800’s, railroads linked the country, and hardware was mass produced in factories to be sold in hardware stores and general stores and blacksmithing slowly faded away into obscurity. Today it is almost a lost art. Much like film photography that requires photos to be processed with chemicals in a darkroom, or master printers who set type by hand and use a printing press to stamp out elaborate scripts on paper, very few have the skillset to do what Hemphill does.

Blacksmithing is not Hemphill’s only passion. He has worked as an educator with DeKalb County Schools for 16 years. It was the combination of his ex
perience at the forge and in the classroom that made him such a good candidate for the trip. Hemphill’s trips to Uganda have been organized by The Reckoning International, a Christian based non-profit organization with projects in third world countries across the globe. The Reckoning focuses on improving the lives of the poverty-stricken through education initiatives, skills training and providing access to basic resources that allow the people they help to learn a trade and create a sustainable living for themselves.

January marked Hemphill’s third trip to Bamba. The circumstances that led him to take the first journey to Africa make for an inspirational story. He said he was contacted in 2013 by a novice blacksmith who had been involved in helping with other projects led by The Reckoning. Hemphill, who has significant notoriety as a master knife maker and a strong following on social media, said the man who contacted him was familiar with his work through Facebook.

“Tim Troyer, the head of The Reckoning was at a conference and he was talking with the guy who ended up asking me to be a part of the trip to Africa,” Hemphill said. “He said Tim was having a conversation with him, not even knowing about his background in blacksmithing. Tim was telling him about the idea for the project in Bamba and told him about the plan to start teaching these guys how to use blacksmithing to make knives. He said they were looking for somebody who had a background in forge work and as a teacher. He said chills just went down his spine when he heard that.” Hemphill said the rest is history. “They asked me to go in 2013 and I saw it at the time as a once in a lifetime opportunity. I never would have thought that I would end up back there for my third trip in three years.”

Hemphill said his trips to teach the men in Bamba have been life-changing. “This trip was about relationships and friendships. We’ve gone to the same village on all three trips so we’ve really gotten to know the people there,” Hemphill said. “It was tough leaving this time because now they’re our friends. We’ve worked together and sweated together and laughed and got burned at the forge together. HeForging friendships, changing livesmphill said each trip has brought a different experience for him. “I never looked at it like I’m the great Western saviour that’s going to come in and help you out. I just went because I was in a position to help people.

“They’re probably aren’t a lot of people are blacksmiths and also happen to be teachers. I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I know how to make knives so I knew I could help teach them how to make a living at it.” Hemphill said that while he felt a bit like a fish out of water at the beginning of his first trip, it wasn’t long before he found common ground and became comfortable in Bamba.

“You realize that our cultures are different and the color of our skin is different, but we also have a lot in common,” Hemphill said. “The first thing is, you get colorblind real quick. We didn’t see a lot of other white people there, but I don’t even think about that now. You come to realize that the people there are just like us. They have hopes and dreams and the need to make a living just like we do, and if I can be a part of helping them improve their lives I’m happy to do it.”

Now that he is back in the states, Hemphill has returned to his routine—teaching by day and making knives by night. Hemphill said he makes about 200-250 knives per year that are hand-forged with Damascus Steel and made to order. “I make a lot of different types of knives—from straight knives to utility neck knives, to Bowie knives and survival knives,” Hemphill said. “They’re all hand-forged, using Damascus steel. It’s different layers of steel stacked up and heated and hammered together. We use different contrasts of metals because the alloys all react differently to the etching and it brings out swirls of different colors in the blade.”
Hemphill estimates that he has probably made about 3,500 knives since he forged his first blade in 1986, but that number will soon increase dramatically. He recently partnered with a knife manufacturer who recruited Hemphill to put his signature touch on high-production line of knives that Hemphill will design and hand-assemble. The line will feature about 10 knives—from small knives up to big camp Bowies.

“This is what I love doing, Hemphill said. “I’d rather forge than eat. That’s how much I love hammering steel. It’s crazy. There’s just something about the magic of it from stretching a piece and completely changing the shape into something that people see value in.” Hemphill said he hopes that he will be able to make another trip to Bamba sometime in the near future. In the meantime he will continue his work as an educator and doing what he loves most—forging steel into objects of value and beauty. To see more of Hemphill’s knife work or hear more about his trips to Africa, visit him on Facebook at

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Southern Torch

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