They are music instruments, cups, buckets, flasks and so much more. Literally, the gourds are calabashes of the rich brew called African culture.
“Plastic ware may have taken over, but the gourds occupy an important place in our way of life” says Traditional Authority Mwalweni of Phoka in Rumphi North.
The relic the Tumbuka chief loosely calls nkhombo is termed chikho in the Central Region where mganda dancers use them to fashion badza—a trumpet.
The folk blowing instrument is also common in the shoreline cultures of the North with Nkhata Bay and Likoma using it as a prop for malipenga.
Some communities, including the Ngonis of Mzimba, Tumbukas of Rumphi and Senas of the Shire Valley, install them under their xylophones to amplify the clung-clung sound that unites most African countries below the Sahara Desert.
The xylo sound, best celebrated by the balaphones of West Africa, only makes loud and clear what gourds mean to the beholder.
At Lura, Cosby Chimbuli Msiska boasts an array of gourds of various sizes and uses—especially how members of the Phoka tribe enjoy their beer, their symbol of togetherness and fun.
“The Phokas are known as very hardworking people, but one thing: we’ll will not deny ourselves a strong drink when it comes to cooling down,” says Msiska.
He took us through his prized collection starting with a cup-sized nkhombo.
He said: “Women used it for feeding babies, but we use it for drinking traditional brews,” he said.
The opaque brews seem so central in the life that one of the Rumphi North parliamentary candidates last year thought constructing a public beer place could win him the hot seat, but deserted it half-roofed having lost the poll to Japi Mhango.
The nkhombo is almost extinct.
The revellers gulp their booze from plastic cups.
A ‘cupful’ costs K100 each and you cannot offer one to a friend without publicly taking a sip to dispel any mischief in the setting laced with deadening distrust and tales of witchcraft.
But nkhombos tap from mphindi the same way the cups get their intoxicating contents from drums.
The Phokas showed us a gourd larger than a basketball which they use for carrying huge volumes of beer.
Some used to use mphindi as a vessel for drawing water from wells and streams when boreholes and buckets were almost non-existent.
“It is good for carrying beer from home to a selling point as well as to your in-laws and friends,” said Anne Msiska.
A post-harvest tradition is still alive which involves the rural dwellers exchanging various farm produce and beer with their beloved.
They call it vibwayila, for it comprises a procession of women travelling from one village to another carrying bulky presents on their heads.
On the roads of Phoka region, the drinkers use a special gourd for carrying takeaway beer.
They call it gogogo or golingo.
It looks double-decked, as if they have placed one nkhombo on top of the other.
It is to the culture warriors what drinking bottles and vacuum flasks are to urban dwellers.
“When it’s time to go, you just pour the remaining beer in your gogogo and leave,” said Msiska.
To the locals, the gogogo is the right vessel for those on the move.
They say its shape prevents the contents from splashing out just as its shell is an insulator which keeps the beer cool.
Such is the centrality of the gourds in Phoka way of life, but turn down the music and be warned: It may as well be vessels of death because some use the gourds to store their magic ammunition which has earned the tribe a fiery place as a tribe of sorcerers extraordinaire.