Sally Lagat: ‘I make a living decorating gourds for ceremonies’

71-year-old Sally Lagat at her home in Komogoch village, Nandi County. [Edward Kosut, Standard]

When the locals leave their homes to work in nearby tea plantations in Nandi, Sally Lagat sits outside her house where she meticulously decorates calabashes every day.

For her passionate dedication and perhaps gifted talent, she has managed to conserve the traditional use of calabash, which is popularly known for making ‘mursik’ in the Kalenjin community.

However, the 71-year-old said due to the waning popularity of the calabash, she is now making ornamental gifts made from calabash for use during traditional ceremonies.

At her home in Kimogoch village in Tindiret Sub-county, she sits on animal skin with her tools, which include cowrie shells, pieces of cow skin, needles, and beads.

“As you can see, I have quite a few orders to work on that are needed in the next two weeks,” she said.

Lagat said she learned how to decorate calabashes from her mother in 1969 when she was 19. She says then, it was an important rite of passage for girls to be trained on how to make and use culturally made items.

Lagat said she learned how to decorate calabashes from her mother in 1969 when she was 19. [Edward Kosut, Standard]

Since she got married in the early 1970s, Lagat said she continued to make calabashes even after they were overtaken by modern means of storage and making the favourite traditional fermented milk.

“Initially, I used to design for my children, relatives and during family social ceremonies until 20 years ago when the gourds became unpopular in many households,” narrated Lagat.

She added that with the current generation, the use of sotet to make and preserve mursik is being eroded as demand for sour milk keeps rising in major towns.

She said she started decorating calabashes after she noticed that it was popular in traditional ceremonies, which allowed her to earn a few coins from the trade.

“The taste of milk depends on how the gourd was designed and sustained. Applying fine charcoal from hardly available trees is what discouraged people from using the gourd milk,” she says.

Mursik poured out of a decorated gourd in Chirchir, Uasin-Gishu County. [Christopher Kipsang, Standard]

Across various Kalenjin communities and clans, Lagat said there is the universal use of sotet during koito or circumcision rites, and various celebrations where it is used as a gift and symbol of respect.

“People come to buy them during festive seasons between August and December. Though the majority of the people no longer use them to make mursik, they are also gifted to the in-laws as a way of dowry appreciation,” she stated.

Lagat revealed that there are three types of gourds that are distinguishable and she makes them on order by clients. One is Maitkok (preserved for the husband as the head of the family). The other is Kipsegerit, adorned with colourful beads and used by women and children. Silagwet is designed to be awarded to the initiates during their homecoming.

“Each type varies from another by the colours of the beads, design, and use. Nowadays, people use them for aesthetic purposes like trophies,” Lagat pointed out.

She said most orders come in August as people prepare for initiation and other traditional ceremonies in December. 

“It is a rigorous task to design a gourd. I normally take one day to complete one so it takes up to two weeks to make 10 of them,” she explained, noting that it takes time to wash out and dry the harvested calabash.

KFCB CEO Dr Ezekiel Mutua admiring a decorated gourd presented to him by artists at Ngeria ACK church, Eldoret, on July 18, 2021. [Courtesy]

Lagat has reserved part of her farm to grow calabash plants.

The size and shape of the milk gourds vary, and it determines their prizes.

A small gourd goes for Sh500, while a bigger one goes for Sh1,000. She makes up to 20 calabashes per month, earning her at least Sh15,000 in a good month.

“It has enabled me to pay school fees for my last two children, both through secondary school and one completed university. It’s easier designing gourds than plucking tea, which I cannot do at my age,” Lagat said.

She noted that during the off-season when demand is low, she sells them in the local markets.

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