African Palm Wine Carrier

Beaded Palm Wine gourd with leopard stopper

This Yorkshire World Collections object was one of 100 chosen by young people aged 16-24, as part of the London Cultural Olympiad programme Stories of the World.

This highly decorated gourd or 'calabash' comes from the African country of Cameroon. A gourd is like a melon or squash which can either be picked when it is young and eaten as a vegetable, or later when it has dried when it can have many different uses, such as a water or wine container, a bowl or a pipe, or even as a drum.

Gourds come in lots of shapes and sizes. They can be very big and rounded, or small and bottle shaped, and some are even more than a metre long. This one, decorated with beads between 1890 and 1910, was used to hold palm wine and has a stopper in the shape of a leopard. The beads are made from glass, cowrie shells or cut cane. Palm wine is made from the sap of palm trees and was looked on as a holy wine when this gourd was decorated. Then it would have been used by the king and his special guests on ceremonial occasions, such as court appearances, harvest rituals and the swearing of loyalty to chiefs. Some gourds even held the bones of important royal ancestors, so that when someone drank from them it was believed that person would receive royal protection.

Palm wine is still very important today in most African countries. It is used at funerals, weddings and in the making of herbal medicines. Palm wine is often preferred to modern beer, even though large multi-national beer companies try very hard to sell 'European style' beer in African countries.

The best palm wine is believed to come from a town called Batibo in North West Cameroon. People say that to marry a Batibo girl, the man who is marrying her must provide 10 litres of palm wine, which he must share with his bride as a sign that they will share everything in married life. The new husband must also provide other things like beer, salt and oil to give to his future in-laws, but palm wine must always be included. Look at the videos in the Related Links (at the bottom of the page) to see how the palm tree is cut to make the wine, and a special dance in the town of Batibo.

Discussion Ideas:

  • This gourd must have taken a long time to decorate with beads and especially to make the stopper in the shape of a leopard. Why do you think people would have gone to so much trouble to decorate it?
  • Why do you think animals were commonly used in the decoration of gourds in Cameroon?
  • How do you think the way that people use and value palm wine in this African country has changed over 100 years, and why might this have happened?
  • Why do you think big multi-national companies want to sell their products in poor countries?
  • What do you understand by the term 'third world countries'?
  • What kinds of products are now banned in many European countries but still sold in 'third world' countries?
  • What do the majority of your classmates think Cameroon is most famous for?

Activity Ideas:

  • Make a design for a round gourd to be covered with beads and shells. Look at the geometric patterns in the Cameroon gourds for inspiration (images in Related Links at the bottom of the page). Think about the size, shape and colour of the beads, shells or cane pieces you might use. Will you get the same effect if you use beads that you can buy in craft shops?
  • List any foods or drinks that are common in our shops today that in the past might only have be eaten or drunk by: (a) rich people (b) only on special occasions (c) by people from different countries.
  • Zoom out from the Google Map below and identify landmark features of the country and differences between Cameroon and its surrounding countries. Look at all views of the map. How far is it from the equator? is it mountainous? what nearby country might be the most important to it?

Document icon Learning article provided by: Whitby Museum | 
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