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Handmade: Calabash Bowls

Calabash Bowls One of the most artistic handicrafts found in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali are the calabash bowls made from large gourds, which grow on the ground like pumpkins, or on calabash trees. The water tight gourd is used as a container for carrying water from a well to the village, for domestic use in the kitchen for storing grains or water, or for the market days when a woman fills her bowl with market products, balancing the bowl on her head with dignified grace, in order to free her hands for other tasks. There is a small woven thatch ring that she places on her head for better balance.


Just a little esoteric note: there was a study done of the efficiency of movement in African women who carried bowls on their heads. It was found that the particular method of walking and balancing has evolved into the most efficient and least tiring way possible of transporting goods. To our western eyes, it looks like an incredibly difficult thing to do, but it is actually the most energy-saving method possible to women who have no access to vehicles, whether donkey, horse, or motorized. (Kristen Jensen)

In West African societies a woman's calabash bowl is a prized possession, an asset, and after marriage she will often place her bowls in high places within her mud hut, or sleeve them in macramé' hangings to protect them from children or when they are not in use.

The gourds are picked in late fall and are left in the hot sun to dry. By early January or February the calabash bowls are ready to be halved horizontally, but care must be taken or there may be cracks during the cutting. (Older women specialize in mending the bowls using metal fasteners or heavy thread, which look like sutures when sewn.) In northern Cameroon men and women singe the designs on to the calabash with a hot knife. This burnt design work is incredibly intricate, with designs covering both inside and outside of the bowl, or sometimes just on the outside.


The designs are usually taken from nature: trees, flowers, animals and grasses are used most frequently. In some northern Nigerian villages women paint their calabash bowls a plum color and wear them as hats for protection from the sun. Attending one of the Nigerian markets with thousands of women donning calabash bowls is a sight you will never forget!

Each artisan will spend up to one day decorating his or her calabash, which can then be sold in the market for about $2.00 per bowl.



Photo: KZ Fung
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