The Maasai tribes of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania use containers like this one to carry milk, both fresh and soured. They're traditionally made from the long bottle gourds cultivated by the Kamba people of eastern Africa which they barter or sell to the Maasai. After the gourd was hollowed out and dried hard in the sun, the interior was burned to clean it and supplied with a leather carrying strap and a lid that both doubles as a cup and keeps out dirt and flies. Given the time and effort it took to create them, these vessels stayed in use for long periods of time and usually exhibit lots of wear and sometimes repairs.
This milk gourd has a long animal hide strap that curves under the bottom and is stitched down at several points. It's decorated with tiny colorful beads and four pearly white buttons. The cap is wood wrapped and hand stitched with hide. What makes this vessel stand out from the typical ones, however, is the beautiful hand carving that covers it. Incised into the woody surface are elephants (including a parade of them), zebras, giraffes, more than one rhinoceros, and running down one panel, two crocodiles, all of them bordered by African designs. Although these valued vessels were often given personalized carvings, the elaborate decorations on this example lead us to believe it was made as a gift or for sale at one of the Maasai markets.
The gourd measures 23 1/2 inches tall, with the narrowest circumference around the cap 8 inches and the widest circumference about 18 inches. It weighs one pound 2 ounces and is in very good condition. All of the leather shows wear, but there are no tears. There is no bead loss, no cracks in the gourd and it has a beautiful warm reddish-brown patina. This large Maasai milk gourd makes a handsome display to add to a collection of African art or for a dramatic touch of African art in your home or office.