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Nigeria’s Calabash: A Plant That Does It All

Long before the first food containers were fashioned or the earliest musical instruments crafted from other materials, nature made a way for man by growing them as plants. The multipurpose calabash, also known as gourds, has met and still meets diverse domestic needs both in Nigeria and in almost every part of the world.

Most calabashes belong to the family of pumpkins, melons, and luffas (sponge plants), and grow as vines, though some grow as trees. The fruits come in different sizes and shapes –mostly round, cylindrical and bottle shaped forms, which make them ideal to fit various purposes. They are grown by sowing seeds directly or by transplanting 2 to 3-week old seedlings. Stems are grown against a frame for the vines to climb and are pruned to yield more fruit. Though the gourds are ready for harvest within 2 to 3 months, to be used as utensils they are allowed to stay for longer periods to mature during which heavy green fruits change into yellowish brown and after which the pulp of fibre and seeds are separated from the hard shell after they have been dried up by the sun.

The use of gourds differ from tribe to tribe, and in general, they are used as containers for serving food and drink or for storing other items. It is made into bottles and cups for serving drinks in southeastern and southern states. They are also used in making beaded rattles known as ichaka in Igbo or as shekere by Yorubas who also use them in making the stringed goje. In northern Nigeria, large round calabashes are used in selling milk and curd (fura de nunu) and small ones are used in making scooping spoons for the milk. Musical instruments like the shantu flutes and drums are made from gourds and leather stretched over them. Large gourds are characteristic of the Argunugu fishing festival in Nigeria, where they are used as fishing floats and containers.

Though they are no longer a common practice, calabashes have been used as a medium for art in many parts of the country. Designs range from elaborate engravings and carvings which are sometimes painted with natural dyes or embroidered with raffia and cowries in northern and western Nigeria to simple nsibidi drawings used in Calabar and surrounding towns.

Due to modernization, uses of the calabash have been relegated to the place of art and decoration since their functionality as domestic objects have become replaced with items made from other synthetic materials. Their usefulness is of even more scientific than economic importance as substances that are biodegradable and consequently, healthier for the ecosystem. In times to come, they may be reemployed as functional objects in homes and in the society at large because of their eco-friendly nature.

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Nnenna is an editor and writer at Connect Nigeria. She loves fine art, books and places.

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