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The Calabash: a container, bowl and an instrument

My Magazine 2023/02
5 min
The calabash or a gourd, locally known as lekket, is a tropical plant that usually grows in tropical and subtropical areas of the world.

There are two different kinds. One is a tree, and its fruits can be used as vegetables when harvested early. The other one is growing in the soil, and it is harvested when mature, then dried and used for different purposes. People don't consume it, yet they grow it in various shapes. The round ones, formed like a watermelon or a pumpkin, make utensils, water and food containers, bowls, and instruments. The small ones are used as wall decoration nowadays, but in the past, they mainly served as spoons to eat and drink with!

When the fruit is mature, it is usually divided into two parts, the fruit's meat is taken out and the remaining dried. Some use a sharp and hot iron to design the outer layer. A decorated calabash has additional value. It has been considered a worthy present during the marriage, valuable equipment to start daughters off in their new social role. Some ethnic groups use it as headcovers with added beads around the edge of the calabash for newlyweds or other traditional ceremonies. It is also used to collect money at different ceremonies in The Gambia nowadays.

The calabash still fulfils many practical functions in the day-to-day activities of the Gambian people. As there are different sizes and shapes, they can be used for serving food, milking cattle, food containers, and carrier vessels. In the old days, there were no bowls and other household equipment; instead, they only used different sizes and shapes of calabash. It was convenient for carrying vegetables from farms, making porridge or cherreh (millet), washing rice, drinking milk from it, and as a tool in the daily women's trade at the local markets. 

The calabash played an important role in the Gambian culture and has been used by all communities with respect, love and honour. In some ethnic groups, it is a blessing and privilege if you are offered to drink cow milk from a calabash. Only a few get such an opportunity; some even believe some extraordinary spiritual magic power is connected to it.

As per traditional music and instruments in The Gambia, the calabash was used to make different instruments and sounds. The kora instrument is a harp built from a large calabash cut in half-covered with cow or goat skin and two handles. Strings were traditionally made from thin strips of hide, for example, antelope skin – now most strings are made from harp strings or nylon fishing lines, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings. Kora players have traditionally come from griot families (Mandinkas) who are historians and storytellers passing their skills on to their descendants. A traditional kora player is called a Jali or griot.

 

There are other instruments that also use calabash as sound resonators, for example, the balafon, gongoma, which is now often seen playing around The Gambia but originating in Sierra Leone and Bissau; the simbing, the ngoni, the bolon from Mali and Guinea and some others.

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