The calabash was one of the world’s first cultivated plants. It has stayed with the human race for thousands of years, with archeological findings dating as far back as 13,000 BC. Despite it being around for centuries, there is not much information about it online. We can say, however, that the calabash is one of the symbols of rural African life, and of course of the Ghanaian culture.
In this article we will reveal some interesting information about the calabash, an artifact that modern Ghanaian society has embraced with the aim of preserving culture.
What is a calabash?
Scientifically known as Lagenaria siceraria, the word “calabash” is often used interchangeably with the term ‘gourde’. The term ‘calabash’ is derived from the French word calebasse and the Spanish word calabaza and is generally used more frequently than gourde. In Ghana, as well as in many other African countries, it is always referred to as calabash.
The fruit grows on both trees and plant vines. The fruit can be harvested young or mature. If it is harvested young, it is used for consumption as a vegetable. Its color is light green, with smooth skin and a white flesh. On the other hand, If harvested mature and left to be dried out, it will change color to a brownish color and its use will become other than to be consumed. We will see some of its uses later on.
Not only can they have different names, colors and purposes of use, but they also have a variety of shapes: they can be huge and rounded, small and bottle-shaped, or slim and serpentine, and they can grow to be over a meter long.
Origins of the calabash
One of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind, the calabash is one historians believe to be amongst the first to span the globe in prehistoric times. Many archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the Calabash originated from Africa, but over the years have been carried from Africa to other parts of the world including Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
Distribution may have been carried out in the course of human migration, or by fruits or seeds floating across the oceans.
There is no information as to when or how it arrived exactly to Ghana, but if we look around as to how Ghanaians use the calabash nowadays (especially in the North of Ghana) we will notice that it is an element that has been strongly integrated into their culture, especially into the home environment by Ghanaian women.
For centuries, the hard-shelled gourd fruit, reigned supreme among all house-hold items in Africa, used to serve dishes at home, as cups to drink liquids from, even to store shea butter and other household products. It was also a marker of wealth and power when used to proffer water, milk or kola nuts to guests.
Uses of the calabash in Ghanaian society
The calabash has many uses nowadays. Some of which have been carried down from the olden days, to modern days. Maybe you are already thinking about some of them whilst reading this!
Drinking local drinks from the calabash
When you visit a local market in Accra, be sure to find a local drink seller that serves drinks out from huge calabashes, maybe also using a spoon made out of calabash to scoop out the drink, and of course serve you the drink inside a calabash. Traditional Ghanaian drinks taste much nicer out of calabash!
Look at how much this idea has been embraced that places like Mama Cuisine and Purple Pub in Osu have created the Palm Wine Bar, a small bar that serves only palm wine in calabashes – you actually get to see calabashes all around you as decorative pieces hanging from the bar!
If you visit the Accra Arts Centre, you will see first hand, African drums, maracas and other musical instruments, being made out of calabash.
You can also find calabashes that are solely for home decorative purposes. Artisans engrave them by hand, using darker dyes to bring out the chosen designs. Many restaurants, bars, and other public spaces in Accra use them to decorate their spaces. Next time, pay closer attention when you go somewhere!
To store cosmetics
As mentioned before, in the North they still use the calabash to store shea butter and other cosmetics. Not only that, but many top skincare Ghanaian brands are recurring to the calabash as their packaging option nowadays.
Other curious uses
A very curious (and funny) use of the calabash, was released by the BBC in 2009 saying “Motorcyclists in Nigeria have been wearing dried pumpkin shells on their heads to dodge a new law forcing them to wear helmets, authorities say”.
Maybe that was an inspiration from some African tribes such as the Banana tribe in Ethiopia who sometimes wear calabash helmets on their heads? (See image). And then of course we can still see how many African women in the villages use the calabashes to protect their babies from the hot sun.
“Planet savers” – great substitutes of plastic
Plastic has overtaken many ancestral materials that are actually very environmentally friendly. Even though the calabash is still strongly predominant in Ghanaian culture, it is not as used as before. Many people in Ghana do not use calabash to serve dishes at home, nor do makers of some of the local musical instruments make use of the calabash. Many have replaced it with plastic as it’s “cheaper”.
It is important to know that the African calabash is one of the products that have been regarded as a planet saver. Once it breaks or becomes unusable, it can be disposed of and it will decay naturally without polluting the soil. Growing our bowls and cups, is after all only fulfilling our natural role in environmental protection.