What is a Calabash?

Growing up in a Salone-American household meant going to endless engagement parties and weddings. It didn’t matter the time of year; a humid, sweaty Saturday in July or a blistering cold weekend in January. Families brought themselves out of the house with children and large dishes of food in tow, to celebrate the forming of a new union. Sometimes I hated attending these events as a child, especially if I didn’t have anyone to play with. Most of the children at these events were too busy running around outside or in another part of the person’s house or rented space to pay attention to the ceremony that was taking place.

African couple african marriage
There is so much involved in planning an African wedding. It’s literally a global family event.

When the time came for me to be married, I scrambled to educate myself on what I refused to learn as a child. I’d seen round-shaped baskets swaddled in white cloth be passed around amongst the women at family gatherings with sniggles and cackles about the items that were being placed in and out of the basket. But after a few conversations with family members, I was able to finally gather understanding behind the important significance of a calabash.

young black girl carrying kalabash basket
She has the same look of enthusiasm on her face like I used to when they made me carry baskets on my head as a kid.

This mysterious bundle is used in many West African engagement traditions, where the groom-to-be’s family presents the potential bride with this basket, offering his love and desire for a particular woman. The calabash is usually a weaved basket with particular items inside; kola nuts, needle, thread, Bible or Quran (depending on religious beliefs). But most importantly (according to some families…including mine), there better be a good amount of money in that basket too. The actual amount of money that should or can be included in a calabash can be tricky. Certain amounts are placed in separate envelopes for distribution to certain members of the bride’s family, according to seniority. This can also include respected members of that family’s community, such as the pastor, identified “chiefs” of the family or even family friends and neighbors. Oftentimes, the actual engagement ring is included in the basket, also wrapped in white cloth.

The groom has a lot of work to do in order to impress a woman’s family and to convince them that he will be a suitable husband for their daughter. Once the items of the calabash have been received and the money is not an issue, the groom then takes the ring and puts it on the potential bride’s finger, hoping she will verbally consent to a future union with him. The union is formally recognized when the pastor or an elder of the family blesses the future couple. Hence, the endless events of celebration, good food, music and even better drinks.

 Sweet to Bitter = For Better or For Worse

I’ve always found the kola nut interesting to include in a calabash. It’s a round, green shaped nut about the size of a walnut with very little appeal in terms of looks and taste. It’s been told that the elders in my family loved kola nut when they were here with us in the land of the living, boasting of its endless benefits and how it kept them healthy and young for so long. But biting into a kola nut is definitely an experience. It tastes sweet at first then it transitions into a bitter tang, which is why I never really cared for the fruit. But this experienced is used to describe exactly how marriage will go: it will be sweet at first but as time goes on, it will definitely be bitter, but you must keep chewing and endure the taste.

 As I’m mending my novel together, so many traditions, memories and significant event come to mind, motivating me to weave them into a scene, chapter or even a title. The Mango Tree Shade has evolved so much over the years; I’ve recently embraced the importance of some of these traditions and learned how to incorporate them into my story. There are different types of couples in The Mango Tree Shade; some are flourishing while others are completely dysfunctional, but it all weaves important lessons that can make the reader reflect on their own path and how they can be excited about what lies ahead for them.

The Calabash: Hope and Expectations

The union of two people will always be an event of beautiful significance, no matter how culture or society may change or evolve. One thing to appreciate about the calabash is that it presents itself as a symbol of standard for both families. The thread and needle represent that future couple building together on a firm foundation, which is why a Bible or Quran is included. Other artifacts or items of endearment are included to create the excitement to build in love, with support from the families that can never be replaced by any nuance of false happily ever afters.

Do you have family traditions when it comes to weddings, new births or other types of celebrations? Have you stepped completely away from family traditions to create new ones of your own?