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Saving the bottle gourd

The Gourd Museum in Kitui district, eastern Kenya is an unlikely looking genebank. Five years ago, this small, tin-roofed building in the village of Kyanika was a disused shed; now it houses the most important collection of gourd germplasm in Africa, and probably the world. A project of the Kyanika Adult Women's Group, in partnership with two national organisations* and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), the museum is part genebank, part training and education centre, and home to a substantial library of gourd related information. But to the average visitor, it is the gourds themselves that are most remarkable.

Members of the Kyanika Women's Group with some decorated gourdsCultivated for perhaps over 10,000 years, the Bottle gourd (Lagenaria siceraria) produces fruit of bewildering variety. Some are edible, typically eaten in sauces, or picked young and boiled or fried; many others are poisonous. But their hard, impermeable shells and enormous range of shapes and sizes have given them a unique place in numerous cultures - African, Asian and Latin American. Among the Kamba of eastern Kenya, the hollowed out shells, widely known as calabashes, have traditionally been used as containers, holding water, honey, milk and perfume to name but a few. But the shells have also been used for a myriad of other purposes: beehives, washbasins, animal traps, musical instruments and masks. All these uses and more are represented by the museum's fascinating collection. But the purpose of the museum is not only to record an interesting slice of ethnic history; most importantly, it is protecting a vital resource for the future.

Gourds in decline

Indigenous knowledge about gourds, and of how to both promote and exploit their diversity, has traditionally been passed orally from one Kamba generation to another. But increasingly, the ready availability of cheap plastic jerry cans and other containers has led to a loss of interest in gourds among younger people in Kitui. They have also lost popularity as a food: less than one per cent of Kenyans are thought to still eat them. This has resulted in an inevitable decline in the numbers and diversity of gourd types grown in the area, and in the knowledge of how to cultivate and use them. To the women of the Kyanika group, restoring community awareness of gourds, and their values - practical, nutritional, decorative and economic - has been a way of protecting biodiversity and indigenous knowledge, and maintaining a central part of Kamba culture.

Seeds of different gourd landraces on display  at the museumThe process of protecting both the biodiversity of gourds and indigenous knowledge began in 2001, when IPGRI funded a two-year collection and documentation project. The women began by sharing their own knowledge of gourds, and learning from expert gourd growers and craftsmen in their community. More than two dozen collection trips were made by representatives of the women's group and scientists from the partner organisations, both within Kitui district and beyond. Nearly 200 gourd landraces were collected and taken back to the 'museum' in Kyanika for cataloguing. These were propagated in community fields, to produce seed for distribution and exchange. The teams also gathered information about the gourds: a 16 step documentation method was developed, and interviews, songs and stories were recorded on cassette. Back in the museum, the information was typed up and exhibited, accompanied by photographs.

Sharing seeds and knowledge

With the collection process completed, the museum curators have turned their attention to promoting the gourd among their own and other Kamba communities. At the museum itself, visitors can obtain seeds of specific types, and training is available on growing gourds, maintaining their diversity and making craft items for sale to tourists. The exchange of knowledge and seeds has also been much wider, through seed fairs, agricultural shows, festivals and market days. Competitions, always popular in Kamba culture, have proved highly effective in exchanging knowledge. For example, the Kyanika members have trained groups in other villages, and intra-village gourd competitions have been established, testing traditional skills such as the repairing of cracked gourd containers, and attaching ropes to make gourds into buckets for collecting river water. These events have also become an acceptable forum for experts to share skills that might traditionally have been regarded as secret.

The benefits of the museum's work have been wide-ranging. Financially, the group have prospered from sales of plain and decorated gourds and gourd T-shirts, providing income for the women as well as financing the museum. There are plans for internet marketing, and orders from entrepreneurs in Kenya and abroad are rising. In November 2004, the government noted their success and awarded the group with a small piece of land for establishing a new community centre and shop at Kitui town, and a trophy for the best community-based income-generating project in the country. Within the Kyanika community most members are now growing edible gourds, enhancing diet and nutrition. And beyond these benefits the process of collecting, exchanging and promoting indigenous knowledge has also helped to empower individuals and build stronger links within the community.

*National Museums of Kenya,
Kenya Society of Ethno-Ecology

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1st January 2006