Ukambani farmers build gourd museum, diversifying income

A group of enterprising women farmers in Eastern Kenya have been working to reverse the loss of gourd diversity in the area by collecting the seeds of the gourds, planting them and upon maturity selling and displaying them in the only museum of its kind in the country and region. The long journey by Kyanika women, the brains behind the project, started by identifying and collecting as many different varieties of bottle gourds as they could from Eastern and Coastal areas as well as from their own nursery, and planted them in their gardens.

Few months after the seeds matured into gourds the women harvested them and slowly started the journey of preserving the rare gourd types a journey that culminated in setting up of a gourd museum in the area that has become the only one of its kind in the country and region. 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.

In the museum, people exchange and obtain seed of gourd varieties, and children are taught the value of the special crop and its unique relationship to local culture and identity enhancing that agricultural biodiversity knowledge is passed down the generations. The museum is one of its kind with majority of the gourds from this area being transported to the National Museum of Kenya and Kenya Nationals Archives in Nairobi for public viewing.

The benefits of the museum work have been wide-ranging. Financially, the group has prospered from sales of plain and decorated gourds and gourd T-shirts, providing income for the women as well as financing the museum. Already the women say that sale of the gourds, which range from Sh200 to Sh2,000, has seen their sales grow by upto 60 percent last year compared to previous years attributing the pent up demand of their products to increased marketing strategy.

“Majority of the visitors we get here are from the urban and peri urban areas who come for the gourds as decorations in their houses. This has been a major boost to our business because these customers don’t even negotiate the price,” says Jemimah Kimonyi the curator at the museum who doubles up as the chairlady of the Kyanika women’s group.

In November 2004, the government lauded their success by allocating 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, the women’s efforts in preserving the gourd culture have seen some of the members being sponsored to go to Malaysia and Tanzania to share and extend the knowledge.

The growing demand for the gourds from Kenyans in Diaspora and tourists has prompted the group to diversify their marketing avenues with plans being at an advance stage to roll out an intenet marketing platform. “We have our sons who are technologically advanced who have agreed to help us market these products internationally,” said Jemimah.

The women now want to capture the entire African market with their gourds identifying Nigeria as their only competitor. “But that shouldn’t worry us because the feedback we get from the customers even the tourists tell us that our gourds are unique and distinct and they haven’t found such elsewhere,” added Jemimah.

Cultivated 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.

The traditional gourd known in Kikamba as kitete has overtime played a significant role among the Kamba community. A widely held belief among the Kamba people is that fetching water in rivers using metallic or plastic bowls would make the rivers dry up because the gods would be upset, thus gourds and calabashes were preserved for that purpose. The seeds of the gourds were a delicacy to the locals and were consumed like groundnuts when fried.

The gourd project has been supported by Bioversity International which has sought to preserve and appreciate indigenous knowledge together with the National Museum of Kenya.