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  • Mwinji Siame

Gourds: Who gets to tell the story?




In Zambia, to those who still believe in the power of food to heal, gourds act as a penicillin. According to legend, the gourd fruit, also known as Mphonda in the Nyanja language, can help cure it all from helping with blood pressure to supporting blood flow to all parts of the body. Many of these narratives are passed down orally through folklore and legend demonstrating the ability of the human to act as an archive, yet these stories are often absent from museum archives and displays where gourds are featured. 


In the African context the gourd is used for utilitarian purposes like carrying water or beer but it also serves a higher purpose as the diviner between the physical and spiritual realm. Food is not just food for the body in this sense, but for the soul. However, the profundity of the gourd in African spiritual life has been neglected and sometimes overlooked in Western institutions. In many museums the gourd is presented as a primitive vessel or othered as a tool for mystic practices performed in places afar, but in much of the African continent, and in my native Zambia specifically, its use as a food, its presence in folklore, and its cultural importance are as alive as ever.


My return to Zambia after twenty-two years away has been an exploration of my own diverse culture to understand and collect the stories that are often missed in institutional narratives. It is fitting that my own knowledge of gourds has been shared through storytelling. In visits with my mother and niece, stories and insights about the gourd were shared as casual knowledge attesting to its enduring importance.


In Decolonising The Mind (1986),  Ngugi Wa Thiong'o  describes how cultural institutions such as academia and the law are vassals for colonial norms. They are also the standard that Africans have been taught to judge our own thinking and knowledge, and the standard by which we are often judged. The dominant roles Western scholarship and media play in how knowledge systems are evaluated  means that African cultures and cultural practices are often viewed as inferior or backwards. As International Relations scholar Clive Gabay describes in Imagining Africa : Whiteness and the Western Gaze (2018): “Africa is, in these accounts, and to greater and lesser extents, emptier, more savage, more childlike, less modern, and less civilised than the West''. These sentiments, often held by recognised experts in various disciplines, continue to erase the importance and complexity of the spiritual, social and knowledge systems of people across the African continent. 


The gourd’s relationship to spirituality and wellbeing is often overshadowed by descriptions of its humility.  Though the ‘humble’ Gourd is simple, this language does not consider the many ways it is used in social and spiritual practices thus reflecting an assumption that Africans and our thought systems lack dynamism in both the past and present.


In Zambia specifically, one contemporary example of how gourds are used can be found in the ‘Joe Saka', a gourd that is wrapped in a maize meal sack before being dipped in cold water a number of times. This wrapped gourd is put under the shade of a tree, keeping the contents cool even during Zambia’s hotter, dryer months. The usage of a gourd in this way might seem poetic or ‘quaint’ however, the endurance of this use is a testament to how practical it is as a cooling method. Furthermore, while the gourd used in this way has mostly been replaced by the plastic bottle, the Joe Saka also reflects the inclination to environmentally sustainable production of essential goods in African food and drink culture in general. The Joe Saka was a plastic-free vessel bottle before the need for plastic-free products. It is only after the destruction caused by colonialism and the drive for rapid production under capitalism that world powers have begun to look back on technologies they once saw as ‘rudimentary’ as a solution to the current climate crisis. This sophisticated understanding of the relationship between production and environmental damage has long-existed in African culture but is often overlooked in the way that African food, cultures and norms are sometimes discussed. 


While the archival description of a gourd as a ‘vessel’ in institutions like the British Museum isn’t technically wrong, it lacks the nuance of the historic ingenuity of its use. Some of the most well-known and wealthiest institutions in the media, publishing and academic worlds are run or owned by citizens and governments that gained economic power through the colonisation of countries like Zambia and thus have influenced how the cultures and knowledge systems of people whose practices were restricted or even punished under colonial rule are valued– much of which skews our views negatively. A lack of nuance in archives then reinforces the notion that the cultures and knowledge systems of the Global South are primitive or uncivilised. In fact I would argue that the purpose of Western museums has historically been to capture a moment in time rather than highlight the continued relevance of objects and the knowledge around them in contemporary society.


In Zambia the contemporary relevance of the gourd is present in almost all aspects of life including decor. When a gourd is put on a stand it becomes a welcome sign to thirsty passers-by as it is used to signal the presence of munkoyo, a “sweet, mild beer”, primarily made of mealie meal (corn) and fermented to varying alcohol levels depending on the preference of the drinker. Gourd signage is a simple but clever form of communication for travellers that may not want to waste time venturing further onto  a rest-stop where there are no refreshments. When the gourd is viewed through an Africanist lens and in the physical environment it is used, rather than from behind the traditional museum rope or glass, one can get a sense of its importance in social and spiritual life, both contemporary and historical. 


Their importance to spiritual practice also remains a reality for contemporary Zambians. According to a legend from Zambia’s Central Province, a gourd shrine can also be used to appease an ancestral spirit so as to avoid misfortune in one’s family. In this gourd-shrine ritual a special gourd with beaded handles is put on a tripod made of twigs and some munkoyo is sprinkled inside the gourd.  A plate with mealie-meal is put on top of the gourd. There is drinking and dancing at the ritual and a song is sung; 


Yo, nakusembe nkombo ya muundula.Kabanwemo ba Amoni, mundabakungalausha.

I will cut and prepare a gourd for all.Let Amoni drink from it, so that he will stop troubling me.


This is often done after a dream where one is visited by the ancestral spirit or Mupashi. The ceremony is not unlike western rituals of pouring out alcohol in remembrance of those who have passed or commemorating the death of a loved one with beer-drinking or the practice of receiving wine as part of the eucharist in the Catholic faith. However, the ceremonies of western religions are viewed with less suspicion than African ones.


Scholars like Edward Said (Orientalism, 1972) and Chandra Tapade Mohanty (Under Western Eyes,1984) argue that the ‘single stories’ that neglect the diversity and sophistication of the people and cultures considered separate from western cultures are a legacy of colonialism. In European museums in particular, African objects are literally removed, often forcefully, from the context where they came from. Instead they are displayed in places where they are viewed through a lens that reflects the legacy of imperialism and rarely untangles the racist tropes about African people and cultures in their display. 


While there is ample work being done to highlight how economic, cultural and social forces like imperialism have shaped our knowledge systems, they have been irrevocably altered by this history. Due to colonial policies that restricted the practices of people under their rule, countless mythologies and practices have been lost. Luckily, cultural leaders and institutions like the Women’s History Museum of Zambia (WHMZ) have stepped up to collect these stories not only to archive them, but also present them in a manner that reflects the local understanding of their folklore and traditions.


One of the WHMZ’s main initiatives is the Shared Histories project. This project aims to digitise Zambian objects, mostly held in Swedish museums, and give them life on digital platforms. This process thus far includes workshops such as the Gwembe Workshop (the Gwembe Valley Provenance Research) which allows individuals who have lived in the communities where these artefacts originated to share their own knowledge and experiences. By including people who are usually excluded from the museum archival process, this ‘provenance research’ allows for more nuanced and potentially accurate narratives around the objects which are also digitised making the information more widely available. Plans to use Web3 technologies like blockchain may also protect the narratives and knowledge around these objects by creating unmodifiable blocks of information and ownership that can be traced to source communities associated with artefacts. 


The Women’s History Museum of Zambia has highlighted the importance of dismantling exclusionary ways of practising museology and archiving by digitising their archives and using open-source information to add texture to the meaning of each artefact. Moreover, multimedia projects supported by the museum like their Leading Ladies Podcast allow for accessible and ongoing conversations about how culture is preserved and archived. This also creates opportunities for the public, especially artists, to put new twists on old artefacts so they may continue to retain their relevance in traditional and contemporary contexts.


When communities reclaim their indigenous culture and relevant objects we can make new stories. One of the most important aspects of understanding and critiquing knowledge systems is scrutinising our knowledge of how they came about, who they benefit, who they disadvantage and the ways they impact people in both an emotional and cultural way.


In Zambia, the Gourd has profound meaning as a vessel but it also flitters in and out of the everyday. At my mother’s house there are empty gourds fused together each containing tiny seeds that make them the perfect rattles for grandchildren that flitter in and out over Christmas. Some ethnic groups also play the gourd like a xylophone. These Zambian ‘marimbas’ have, ingeniously, gourds of varying sizes hanging beneath wooden palettes. The sound of the xylophone lubricates even the most serious conversations and snippets of folktales and proverbs with a saccharine joy. In this way the Gourds as a musical instrument serve as the backdrop of myth-making and story-telling and the soundtrack of many social relationships. Similarly uncles might gather around drinking traditional beer exchanging stories. The Gourd, despite the feminine nature of its curvaceous shape, plays an important role in the construction of masculinity through these conversations. The consumption and representation of the gourd is shaped by the forces of history, society and even religion.


When representing the Gourd it is important to keep this in mind and to know that even beyond its spiritual meanings, or its simple uses, the Gourd is a very important feature of the everyday. My first winter back in Zambia I ate gourd sprinkled with a little sugar alongside a cup of black tea on rainy days while sharing frivolous gossip about a neighbour's garden at my mother’s long, brown kitchen table. I don’t like the boil-like bumps on the skin of the Gourd fruit I eat at my mother’s place but as they say, never judge a book by its (humble) cover. 


Mwinji Siame is a culture writer and budding visual artist with an interest in sharing and understanding African women’s experiences. Her nonfiction has most recently appeared in Art Dusseldorf where she wrote about the Women’s History Museum of Zambia. Her fiction is forthcoming in Chapbook format via Dancing Girl Press (US). 

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1 Kommentar


yayini6158
7 days ago

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