28 Incredible Containers Used by Kenyan Communities

By National Museums of Kenya

Local DrinksNational Museums of Kenya

What is a container?

Containers are one of the five items classified as critical in conveying material culture. The other classifications are tools, ornaments, body carvings and furniture. Kenyan communities developed containers to satisfy the need to cook, carry and store things. Container designs, shapes and materials reflect the many ways in which the different Kenyan communities kept, carried and stored things. This exhibit takes you through various traditional containers used by Kenyan communities.

Preparing the evening meal (1986) by Joseph MuchaneNational Museums of Kenya

Design and function

The shapes of containers were determined by what they stored and the materials used to make them. Materials used included vegetal plant material, wood, leather/skin, clay/ceramic, metals, and a mixture of different materials.

Some of the items that would have been stored in these containers included milk, water, honey, meat and also snuff.

Containers were also used for religious functions, divination and ceremonial functions.

Small Cooking potsNational Museums of Kenya

Beautiful clay containers

In most Kenyan communities, clay containers were traditionally made by women and girls. They were crafted in different shapes and sizes to suit their respective purposes. Wide-mouthed and round containers were used for cooking; narrow necked ones for storing water; and small pots for cooking vegetables and preparing medicines. There were also special pots for brewing beer and for ceremonial purposes.


Water potsNational Museums of Kenya

1: Luyia narrow-necked pots for storing water

This pot isiongo was made by Luyia women and used to store cold water for household use.

Clay containers were best known for water storage. Water pots were made impervious so that the water inside was kept cool due to evaporation on the outside wall of the pot.

PotNational Museums of Kenya

2: Luo wide-mouthed round pots for cooking fish

This is a bowl shaped clay pot (oigla) with four lugs. It was made by a woman potter and used for cooking fish.

Pots were made with a wide mouth to allow fish to be cooked in one piece or in large pieces.

Beer PotNational Museums of Kenya

3: Pokot pot for brewing beer

This is a clay pot known by the Pokot as Loch. It has a narrow neck and spout, and was used for making beer. The small hole was used as a spout for pouring the beer out of, while the materials used for brewing beer were placed inside the large hole. Beer pots do not have handles because beer was never served hot. This type of pot was common among the Kipsigis, the Nandi and the Pokot communities.

Storage potNational Museums of Kenya

4: Samburu storage pot

This is a small jar (moti lengweshi) with a tall neck. It was made by the Ogiek and Samburu for storing meat and fat for the dry season, when food was scarce. These pots were never made with handles.

Milk ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

Plant fiber containers

Some communities in Kenya made containers using plant material. These parts included the bark, stems, roots, leaves and twigs. They were woven by women using an awl, with cow dung smeared inside to make them waterproof. Some communities smoked special pieces of wood, which produce a gummy smoke that sealed the containers completely.

Water containerNational Museums of Kenya

5: Somali baskets weaved using roots of a tree

This is a large water container (han). It was made by Somali women from the roots of the bararh tree, which they considered the best fiber for making such baskets. The roots were boiled before they were weaved into a basket. The basket was made watertight by repeatedly smoking it with burning wood of the korasum tree. The gummy smoke produced would entirely seal the inside of the container while it was wet.

Water ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

6: Borana water container made from roots

This water container (okolle) was made using fiber obtained from the roots of the miyaa tree and used for collecting and storing water. It was never dipped in water, but would have been filled using a different container to preserve it.

ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

7: Coastal containers made from coconut stems

This container with a stand was made from the stems and reeds of the palm tree. It was used by women living in coastal areas to store and carry food.

Winnowing BasketNational Museums of Kenya

8: Marakwet winnowing basket

This is a winnowing basket made from reeds. It was used by women for clearing chaff from cereals and for drying.

BasketNational Museums of Kenya

9: The Mbeere kiondo

This twined basket (kiondo) was made from fibre. The fibre was cut and boiled before being twined by women to make string. The strings were then woven and used to carry items.

Granary (1974)National Museums of Kenya

10: Luo granary

This is a granary (Dero) used to store different kinds of grains. The conical roof was made using millet stocks and then thatched with grass. The base of the granary was made by continuous twisting of the soft twigs, and held by crossed branches.

Luo grain stores were either made from wickerwork or papyrus reeds, and the insides were plastered with cow dung. A short ladder from a forked branch would be placed against the body of the granary for access.

Such granaries are fast disappearing from modern Luo homesteads.

Wooden ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

Wooden containers

Wooden containers were used for carrying and storing meat, milk, fat and grains.

Milk containerNational Museums of Kenya

11: Borana wooden container

This milk container was made from wood and partly woven by women. It was curved using an adze, has a lid decorated with cowrie shells, and leather strap for ease when carrying. It was used by Borana women to carry milk and water.

Milk ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

12: Somali pot

This pot was made of wood from the damaja (Commiphora candidula sprague) tree and fiber straps obtained from the kharari tree. The tree was cut using an axe and adze, and the decorative part was carved using a knife. It was used by women to store fresh milk for their children.

Milking Container (1970)National Museums of Kenya

13: Turkana milk container

This milk container (elepit) is made of wood from edwaite tree and animal hide for the straps. The decorative dots design is made using a heated rod metal. It is used for milking animals.

Milk gourdNational Museums of Kenya

Gourds and calabashes

Gourds can be found in many parts of the country. A gourd is a fleshy large fruit, with a hard skin, belonging to the cucurbitaceae plant species. It was traditionally cut when ripe or ready to be plucked off, then dried in the sun. The seeds were removed and the gourd cleaned before use. Gourds grow in three different shapes. One is long and narrow, popular with the Maasai and Pokot, who traditionally used them to store milk. Another is the double bellied gourd, which the Marakwet traditionally used to carry beer and the Bajun used to carry water while on a journey. The third one has a large belly and a narrow neck, and was used by most communities to store water and porridge. Other communities used the gourd to keep milk, make beer or butter, and feed their children. Handles and covers would be woven, fixed or tied around the gourd's mouth and side. Plant materials, leather, maize cobs, wood and parts of other gourds were used to create the covers and handles. When the gourd is split into two, the halves are called calabash. The calabash was traditionally used as a scoop or as a drinking cup.

Blood/ Milk gourd (1966)National Museums of Kenya

14: Maasai milk and blood gourd

This small short gourd (ekukuri) was used to collect blood from slaughtered cows, or milk when milking. It was smoked out with wood called Oloirien.

GourdNational Museums of Kenya

15: Marakwet gourd

This gourd was cut at the top and had the seeds removed. It was used to carry drinking water.

GourdNational Museums of Kenya

16: Akamba porridge gourd

This large gourd (kikuu) was decorated using smoke dye. It was made using the fruit of a plant, which has been harvested and dried. The head was cut and the seeds inside removed. It was used for carrying porridge.

Half CalabashesNational Museums of Kenya

17: Marakwet calabashes

These calabashes (Mongwo) were made from gourds cut in half. The contents were removed and ashes put in them, before leaving them in the sun for six days. After that the ashes were removed and the calabash cleaned. They were used by the Marakwet to drink milk from, or for holding grains, flour or food.

CalabashNational Museums of Kenya

18: Calabash for decorating the house

This calabash (nzele) is decorated with various colors. It was used for serving porridge to the elders and as a decoration in the house.

Fat ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

Ivory and horn containers

Horn containers were designed from domestic and wild animals, whose horns were cut after the animal had been slaughtered. Horn containers were used for drinking, keeping fat and snuff. Hunting and trading of ivory is today illegal in Kenya.

Drinking hornNational Museums of Kenya

19: Muthambi beer drinking horn

This drinking horn (rugoji) was cut from a cow by a craftsman, using a knife, after the cow had been slaughtered. It was used by old Muthambi men for drinking local beer.

HornNational Museums of Kenya

20: Pokot fat horn

This cow horn (lal) with a hide lid was used to store fat. The fat may also have been mixed with okup (black colouring), which was used to polish ornaments.

Snuff containerNational Museums of Kenya

21: Horns as snuff containers by the Tharaka community

This snuff container (kinyuiro) is made of a bushbuck horn, and the lid from animal skin. It contains a small brush inside, which was used to apply snuff to the nostrils. It was made and used by men only. Old Tharaka men carried them around on their belts.

Milk containerNational Museums of Kenya

Containers made from a mixture of materials

These materials could include wood, leather and horn.

Drinking hornNational Museums of Kenya

22: Kikuyu marriage cup

This drinking cup was made from a cow horn (rohia), wood and an iron handle, and symbolizes respect among the Kikuyu. A young man seeking a girl's hand in marriage from her father would usually be served porridge from this cup upon arrival.

ContainerNational Museums of Kenya

23: Turkana meat containers

This wooden container was used to store meat. The wood was cut and carved into a container with an outlet at the top. It was then smoothed, and skin added to the lower part and around the neck. A leather lid was made and a skin strap woven to act as a handle for the container.

GourdNational Museums of Kenya

24: Samburu milk container

This is a narrow necked milk gourd, with leather thongs and a wooden cork on top as a lid. It was cut from a creeping plant, then put in the hot sunshine for several days to dry.

The mouth was then cut and the substance inside it removed using a stick. It was cleaned out with water and finally fumigated or smoked inside. It was used for churning milk.

Leather bagNational Museums of Kenya

Leather containers

Some communities made containers from domestic and wild animals skin. These containers were sewn while the skin was still soft, and then left to dry.

ContainersNational Museums of Kenya

25: Camel hide containers for storing butter among the Turkana

This large container (ngatuma) was made from camel hide by Turkana women, and used for storing butter.

Hide containersNational Museums of Kenya

26: Marakwet honey containers

This hide container was made from buffalo skins. Buffalo hides were trimmed and stitched at the edges with buffalo tendon by piercing the holes with a strong awl.

While leather containers were usually made and used by men, for collecting honey from the forest, wooden containers were typically used for storage.

Metal kettleNational Museums of Kenya

Metallic containers

Metallic containers were made by blacksmiths using scrap iron, copper, brass and steel. Many communities used such containers.

KettleNational Museums of Kenya

27: Swahili kettle made using Indian design

This kettle was made from copper, with Indian design decorations, and used by the Swahili for serving tea.

Old metal kettlesNational Museums of Kenya

28: Marakwet tea pot

This is an old metal kettle (kibirika), which was used as a tea container and also as storage for small items.

Credits: Story

Exhibit Acknowedgements:
Learn more about the National Museums of Kenya by visiting our website.

Exhibit Curators:
Philemon Nyamanga,
Cultural Heritage Department.

Photography and Creative Direction:
Gibson Maina and Muturi Kanini.
Gibs Photography

The National Museums of Kenya would like to thank the following people for their contribution to this exhibit:

Exhibit Layout: Agnes Mbaika Kisyanga, Barnabas Ngei, Brian Maina Kamau, Hazel Sanaipei and Quinter Anduto.

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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