African Calabash Collection

Kenya National Archives

Kenya National Archive, Nairobi

Calabash is the term used for artefacts made from the hard shell of a fruit in the gourd family "Lagenaria siceraria."  Once the calabash is dried and hollowed out it can be used for serving or storing food. It can also be used as an inkpot, cosmetic container and by market women as a money box. Aside from the use as containers, calabashes are frequently adapted as musical instruments such as the flute, violin, harp, xylophone and the rattle (which is made with seeds inside or with cowries/beads on the outside).

In West Africa calabash vessels were used for many practical pursposes. Their makers enhanced the beauty of these objects of daily use by decorating their surfaces in different ways. In this example we can see how the gourds curved surface is decorated with abstract motifs of animals and other forms. The lines were incised and darkened to emphasize them.

This calabash is a fine example of how the artist took advantage of the gourd's unique shape and large surface to create a sophisticated image of an elephant. In this photograph the elephant is actually oriented upside down.

Take a closer look. Can you see the elephant's four legs and feet? The large flap of its ear and its trunk?

Akamba Beer Gourds
Beer gourds of this type were developed by the Kamba ethnic group located in the eastern and northern areas of, Kenya. Akamba farmers grew cane from which they produced beer. Large gourds of this type were decorated in a variety of ways. 

Similar to the previous image, this Akamba gourd was also used to store beer. Gourds of this design were found by European explorers in the 1800s. The body of the gourd is dressed in an intricately beaded cover composed of white, red, turquoise, and black beads.

A neck is also encircled with a beaded design, and the leather strap is decorated with small cowries, a type of shell used as currency in Western Africa.

Developed among the Kamba of Kenya, the top of the vessel is decorated with a set of concentric circles representing Mt Kilimanjaro which the Kamba consider their ancestral home. The figures around the mountain are the ancestral creatures of the tribe.

This calabash features a striking combination of decorative techniques including a finely carved band of incised and carved lines set off by bands of black and red paint.

A large calabash container decorated with incised lines and abstract motifs carved into a black painted surface.

Detail view of another black calabash with painted and incised motifs.

Kenya National Archives
Credits: Story

Research and curation:
1. Martin K. Maitha
2. Magunga Williams Oduor, who runs Kenya's leading digital creative writing space (
3. Belva Digital team.

Photography: Bobbypall Photography (

Images: Kenya National Archives

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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