The versatile calabash

On fashion catwalks, it holds the breast firmly on the chest.  Without it, the melodies of a xylophone will certainly be lost to creaky sounds. 

In the pito and palm wine bars and when pouring libation to the gods, it is guarded jealousy and held in high esteem—the  calabash—  a versatile utility that has outlived generations and continues to hold its own against modernity.

Almost every African folktale or book set in pre-colonial times has the calabash as a regular feature. Its presence is always felt, lurking at the corners of huts and houses or the front and centre of marketplaces.

The African calabash is product of the gourd plant. Research shows that the gourd was among the first crops that man cultivated. It is carefully nurtured to turn out perfectly round without blemish.

Usually the gourd has to be left on the plant for it to mature before it is plucked and hollowed out to remove the contents; mainly seeds. It is then placed in the sun to dry. With time, the green colour fades as it becomes hard and it is ready for use at this point.

Historically, the calabash has served the African well in both domestic and social activities and today, the calabash is still used widely even though plastic household items have fiercely contested it.

But in rural Africa, the calabash is still the champion. The porridge, palm wine, pito and asaana bases have found the calabash indispensable.

The calabash is very easy to maintain, says Lamisi, a pito seller at Kotobabi. “It’s easy to wash and keep the calabash. In our business, plastic cups are not ideal because they are easily stained.”

“Here, merely displaying our calabashes attracts customers. It would be difficult to replace the calabash in pito bars with any other thing,” she says with a smile, while serving a customer.

 It is the object that young girls use when they go to the streams to fetch water, and is always as effective as the basket when it comes to carrying foodstuffs that have been harvested.  It is known to add a palatable taste to water and does not have any impurities that can poison food or water even when it has been stored in it for a long time.

Culturally, the calabash often features at ceremonies across the continent and beyond - from naming, marriages, enstoolment, to burial rites.

In Jamaica, annual calabash rituals and festivals depict their African roots. During this time, people bring sacrifices to the gods of the land to thank them for the good harvest. These sacrifices are always carried in big calabashes to prove the purity of the heart of the giver.

The artist friend 
in a rather quiet and isolated section of the Arts Centre in Accra is Ras Baba’s workplace. Ras, a soft-spoken artist, whose multiplicity of talents is epitomised in his ability to transform the calabash into highly prized prestigious and aesthetic objects.

Ras has a way with turning the most defective calabash into a fine piece of art or decor. Engraving many a calabash with a combination of abstract and figural motifs, he beautifully colours and pigments them into a scenery that can only bring pleasure to the eye, and sophistication to a room.
Adinkra symbols are often requested by culturally discerning patrons. The versatility of the calabash is exhibited in Ras’ packed showroom — adorable lamp holders,    lampshades and dolls. 

“There are thousand things we can create from the calabash,” the artist, who has showcased his work in several international exhibitions, reveals. “Even though it is difficult to work with, the alternative is even more difficult to use. Imagine wood replacing the calabash.”

 People patronise the lamp shades, he explains, because it is natural and does not radiate as much heat as plastic or metals.

“I have been doing this in the past 15 years, learnt it from my father, who spent 30 years of his life carving sculptures, and adding value to the calabash,” he says, while playing a melodious tune on one of the many musical instruments he had carved.

 “Give me a calabash and I will demonstrate God’s aesthetic nature in me”, is just how best to characterise Ras.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, the calabash is also used to make musical instruments. It has been made into everything from a tambourine to a water drum.

 Ras says musical instruments from the calabash are preferred to those from wood because the calabash makes better rhythms.

In Ghana, the melodies of a xylophone hold a special place in the hearts of many, especially those from the northern part of the country, whose ensemble are incomplete without the xylophone.

Ras has an impressive collection of stringed musical instruments. The kalimba, goni, marrakesh and the kora are on display. The kora is so popular that one of the most prestigious music awards in Africa—the KORA Music Awards, held annually in South Africa, has been named after it.

For those who are not familiar with the korogo, a two-stringed local guitar, King Ayisoba, one of Ghana’s decorated musicians, is always seen with it.

The balafon, a musical instrument from Guinea, is being considered for inclusion on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It is built from between 17 and 21 wooden slats on top of two rows of calabashes that serve as amplifiers or resonators.

In Guinean folktale, the story is told of the King of the Sosso people, Soumaoro Kante, who received the first balafon directly from the spirits but he would not allow anyone else to touch it until he heard a griot - a musician and storyteller - playing it.

Medicinal feature
The calabash is not just noted for its aesthetic value. The gourd is medicinal as well. Various parts of the tree are useful for treating different ailments. While the pulp is a well-known herbal remedy for respiratory problems including asthma and cough, a combination of the juice from its pulp, nutmeg, cinnamon and anise gives a herbal syrup which reduces chest disorders and treats gastrointestinal aches.

Researchers in the Philippines also found out that extracts of the gourd prevent vessel growth and can help prevent the spread of cancer cells in the human body.

The gourd is rich in vitamin B1 and C. It has other nutritional values such as calcium, iron, sodium and potassium.

Even on the global catwalk stage, the calabash holds its own against glittering earrings and brassieres and it is conventionally accepted as adoring the breasts of women.

Although African fabrics are largely ignored on the international fashion catwalk, the calabash gives African designers an added advantage in the industry. Brassieres made from calabash are a novel fashion craze on the fashion runway.

“It is cheaper, inspires creativity and easy to find,” a fashion designer, Edith Ovulley, cites as the reason behind the calabash gradually inching into global fashion.

Likewise, in the movie industry, talented make-up artists have found the calabash as just perfect - instead of compelling actresses to expose their breasts, the calabash is smoothly designed to look like the breast with nipples, and with the right lighting system, the untrained eye finds it natural.

So wide is the appeal of the calabash that some restaurants, fashion and television shows in the West have adopted the name, “Calabash.”

Environmentalists believe the calabash should be promoted over a plastic cup or bowl because it is a planet saver. Once it breaks or becomes unusable, it can be disposed off  and it decomposes without polluting the soil.

Universal appeal
With the many pluses earned by the calabash, it is not surprising that during the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa - the very first one on African soil - the Soccer City Stadium was reconstructed in the shape of a calabash. This was done as a representation of Africa as a whole and to demonstrate that Africa is a true melting pot.

From the cradle to the grave, the usefulness and beauty of the calabash is a force to reckon with. It presents a wonderful picture of all the things that are unique and beautiful in Africa.

Like the African, the calabash has fought the battle against domination through the years, and continues the struggle - but through it all, it has proven its resilience and versatility. Indeed, the calabash is the true versatile African.


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