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 they are harvested early. The other one is growing in the soil and it is harvested, when it’s mature, then it’s dried, and used for different purposes. People don’t consume it. They grow in a variety of shapes. Some get really big! The round ones, formed like a watermelon or a pumpkin, are used to make utensils, water and food containers, bowls and also instruments. The small ones are also used as a wall decoration nowadays.
When the fruit is mature, they usually divide it into two parts, take out the meat of the fruit and dry it. Some use a sharp and hot iron to design the outer layer. A decorated calabash has additional value. It has been considered as a worthy present during marriage, a valuable equipment to start daughters off in their new social role. In some tribes they use it as head covers with added beads around the edge of the calabash for newlyweds or other traditional ceremonies.
In the history and also nowadays the calabash basically fullfills many practical functions in the day-to-day activities of the Gambian people. As there are different sizes and shapes it can be used for serving food, milking cattle, as a spoon, as a food container and as well as carrier vessels. In the old days, there were no bowls and other household equipment, therefore they only used the calabash in different sizes and shapes. It was very practical for carying vegetables from farms, to make porridge or cherreh (millet), for washing rice, to drink 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 used by all tribes with respect, love and honour. In some tribes it is a blessing and privilege if you are offered to drink cow milk from a calabash. Not everyone gets such an opportunity. Some believe it has some extraordinary spiritual magic power.
Beach musicians; photo: Jana Snuderl
As per traditional music and instruments in The Gambia, the calabash was used to make different instruments and sounds. The kora instrument, 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 line, sometimes plaited together to create thicker strings. Kora players have traditionally come from griot families (Mandinka tribe) who are traditional historians and storytellers passing their skills on to their descendants. A traditional kora player is called a Jali.
To hear some good sounds of kora playing, click on the link below and listen to a beautiful song by griot Sheriff Saihou Kanuteh