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Kenya's 44th tribe takes its space as gourd placed at the museum

A collection of gourds representing all tribes in Kenya at the Nairobi National Museum. [Esther Jeruto, Standard]

At the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi sits a spectacular centerpiece forming the shape of a gourd dubbed the Hall of Kenya.

It holds tens of gourds collected from all the ethnic communities in Kenya.

The gourds are joined together with adhesive wax irrespective of their sizes, shapes, designs, colour and origin and there lies a deep cultural and historical meaning. It denotes a sense of identity.

At the centre of the collection, a red gourd with white patterns sits on others. It is the most recent addition to the collection and is from the Asian community.

The community was recognised as Kenya’s 44 tribe in 2017 by Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i after a presidential proclamation.

“It has been a long journey and we feel proud because after a hundred years in Kenya, we are now fully recognised as a tribe. We decided to put giraffes print on our gourd to symbolise Kenyans heritage," said Farah Manzoor, a pioneer of the recognition journey.

During the calabash placing ceremony, representatives of the community broke a coconut as a symbol of recognition and good luck.

“It is our tradition to break a coconut whenever we are marking an important celebration or attending a high-level meeting,” said Manzoor.

Like in other communities, the calabash among the Asians is used for storage, serving or feeding.

The collection includes long and shallow gourds from pastoralist communities, the Kalenjin gourds, decorated gourd from the Kamba and tens of bulbous small and big ones from other tribes.

Most of the calabashes were placed at the museum in 2007 after a countrywide collection exercise to represent the different ethnic groups.

According to Dr Fredrick Manthi, director in charge of Antiquities, sites and monuments at the National Museums of Kenya, the Hall of Kenya that houses the calabashes serves as agallery that hosts the cultural materials that Kenyans identify with.

“We resolved to have the gourds as our unifying centerpiece because virtually, every community has a way of using them whether for drinking, eating, serving, storage or brewing traditional beer. There is a lot of symbolism that goes with it,” said Manthi.

The location of the gourds right after the entrance of the gallery hall speaks to the desire of unity among Kenyans.

“Heritage should bring us together as supposed to diving us. Regardless of the shapes, sizes and colour of the gourds which represent us, we are a one nation,” he added.

Traditionally, a calabash was placed on a holding object and according to Manthi, the holding object symbolises the moral values that anchors the society.

On the monument, eight metallic stalks attached from the holding base with small gourds join at the top with a suspended huge calabash.

According to Manthi, the stalks represent the former eight provinces.

The sculpture resembles abu, a wind musical instrument with tiny gourds stringed together as part of the musical tools.

As communities develop, retrogressive cultural practices such as female circumcision, cattle rustling are being been abandoned and the push to eradicate the harmful cultural practices is signified by three small extensions stemming away for the vertical stalks with tiny gourds attached to them.

“The small gourds represent the bad culture that we should slowly be discarding and the good ones settle on the hollow base," said Manthi.

Traditionally, African communities used gourds and calabashes for different purpose including storage of food, medicine and water, churning milk, brewing traditional beer, a feeding utensil, a decorative element and a musical instrument.

"The usage goes with the size of the gourd, " said Philemon Nyamanga, a research scientist and the head of Cultural Heritage department at National Museums of Kenya.

For instance, the Kalenjin community uses a special calabash called sotet in virtually all celebrations. The gourd is used for preparing Mursik a traditional fermented milk variant and not even the presence of plastic bottles has eroded the culture.

During weddings, the gourds are usually given to in-laws as gifts to symbolise blessings for the dowry given to the family they are marrying from.

The community has a small gourd called maitkok which belongs to the husband and placed out of children’s reach. The gourd acts as a symbol of respect to the husband as the head of the family. Kipsegerit is used by children and women and Silagwet is used as awards to initiates during the homecoming.

In Luo community, big bulbous gourds are mostly used to churn milk to produce butter.

"The gourd was also used as a sacred tool to communicate with the spirits," said Nyamanga.

The hall of culture leads you into the other galleries which also speaks to Kenya’s historical and prehistoric heritage.

The cradle of mankind speaks about Kenya’s ancestry among other historical artefacts.

However, Kenyans have shunned museums, with Manthi noting their visitors’ statistics are school children with minimal middle-age lot.

“The museums have a lot of things to learn about our heritage and frustrating to hear someone say they last visited museums when they were in primary school. We look forward to a time when we see Kenyans play a major role in preserving our heritage,” said the director.