Calabash comes from the fruit of the calabash tree and is shaped like a squash. It is a cosmopolitan plant, three to eight meters in length with a short trunk and is part of the large family of cucurbitaceae. Massively cultivated in Africa and several other tropical countries of the world the calabash fruit is hand-processed to serve multiple cultural uses in African society and plays a major role in family life. It’s bitter taste is rather off-putting for culinary use.
Various civilisational practices surrounding the use of calabash in Africa have served to educate countless generations of men and women since time immemorial. Discovered in West Africa, its influence spread to countries of Central and Eastern Africa, where the cultivation of the calabash as well as the artisanal transformation of its fruit, helped to shape the identity of different ethnic groups. However, despite all the cultural richness it embodies, the use of the calabash struggles to survive modernism and is increasingly threatened with extinction.
In Africa, a calabash is used in particular as a kitchen utensil, an object of art, musical instrument and even as a therapeutic substance for various tropical pathologies. Generally processed and sold by African women, the calabash fruit is handcrafted according to its many social functions.
To create a calabash, they allow the fruit soak in the water and wait for the interior to decompose which makes it easier to empty out. They then cut the skin according to the function you prefer to give to the object. It can even be given a predetermined shape by ligating the squash to a certain height at the beginning of growth. In ancient African civilisation, the calabash played a leading role in pottery and decoration.
According to its shape and size, the craft object serves as a goblet, a bottle for shepherds and hunters and a strainer or basket for shopping. In addition to being used as a measurement tool for cereals in traditional African markets, the calabash is also intended for musical purposes and is one of the most used instruments in the 1Sahel region during folklore festivities.
As an illustration, the calabash as a musical instrument has played a leading role in the career of the late Malian singer, Aly Farka Touré. The incredibly melodious musical notes produced by the calabash instrument won him a Grammy Award, one of the highest achievements in the music and performing arts industry and to which an African artistic figure rarely has access.
Also playing a crucial role in African gastronomy, the calabash is used for ritual baths often made of medicinal decoctions. The conservation and ritual blessing of seeds as well as the preservation and curdling of animal milk are also made from it. In West Africa, the gourd is regularly used during the ceremonial rite of washing the bride’s feet before driving her to the marital home. This is supposed to ensure robust ‘spiritual protection’ to the married couple.
During major events in Africa, calabashes are filled with water, milk or cola and always held by maids to symbolically welcome the guests.
The socio-cultural virtues that are inherent in the use of the calabash, have actively participated in the education of many African generations. Speaking to 7DNews, Malian anthropologist, Dr. Cheick Oumar Cissoko said, "An extremely light and breakable object, when emptied of its contents, the calabash makes it possible to test or gauge the dexterity of the African young girl especially through her numerous ways to handle it during domestic tasks".
He added, "The extreme prudence that a young girl is bound to show during the multiple use of the gourd in order to avoid becoming the immediate laughingstock of her entourage, when it falls and breaks, is an educational process that is meant to endow her with values of rigor, discipline and devotion in the community. Also, the musical tales usually told to young people by traditional custodians in both urban and rural areas with the calabash instrument have always been of major educational interest to many African generations”.
However, despite the inexhaustible cultural richness embodied by the African calabash, the object struggles hard to survive the ardor of modernism. Socio-cultural upheavals that have recently occurred on the African continent, are leaving less and less chances for the calabash to resist the impetus of modern times, when new and improved technical objects are used more and more as alternatives, while denying the calabash’s unlimited artisanal and spiritual wealth.
"The cultivation and handcrafting of the African calabash, which is a naturally pure, practical and medicinal object, are increasingly neglected because of the growing influence of modernism on new generations. Various artisanal items from the calabash tree are an integral part of our social heritage. Therefore, they must be preciously safeguarded by upcoming generations. If they disappear, it will certainly be an essential part of African cultural identity and vegetal legacy that would disappear forever", Dr. Cissoko said.
1The Sahel region of Africa is a 3,860-kilometre arc-like land mass lying to the immediate south of the Sahara Desert and stretching east-west across the breadth of the African continent.