Clay

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Throughout Africa, creation stories according to which the first human beings were created out of clay are common. One may think, for example, of the Yoruba creation story, in which Obatala, the son of Olorun, the supreme Yoruba God, created the first 16 human beings out of clay, which he molded. The Shilluks of the Sudan also tell a story in which God, Juok, made human beings out of clay. The different colors that distinguish the races are attributable to the color of the clay available at the time of their creation. Similarly, according to the Efe (a Bantu people), God kneaded the body of the first human beings out of clay, an account reminiscent of the Ewe story about the coming into the world of the first woman and the first man. In fact, a common metaphor for God, as he or she creates the world and all that exists in the world, is a potter. Although clay is definitely not the only material from which humans are said to have come, its reference as the very stuff of life nonetheless appears frequently. This is understandable given the omnipresence of clay in African lives: It provides the ground upon which Africans walk and grow their food, and it is a material commonly used to make plates and pots, among other things related to the sustenance of life.
Interestingly enough, throughout Africa, clay pots have also been assimilated with women and their power to create and regenerate life in an intimate and profound way. Indeed, the clay pot is often seen as a symbolic representation of the woman's womb. This is the case among the Bemba people of Central Africa, for example, where a woman about to get married is given a clay pot by her father's sister. Because the main purpose of marriage is procreation, the clay pot stands for the womb that is expected to be filled and blessed with many pregnancies. A similar ritual can be observed among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, when the paternal aunt hands a clay pot full of water to a bride. Water is also intimately associated with fertility in Africa. Then, just like God made the world out of clay, women are the sacred repositories of life, a fact best expressed through the metaphor of the womb as a clay pot.
In effect, the making of pots is an activity primarily reserved for women. It appears that African women have been making pottery for at least 8,000 years. Regarded as a spiritual undertaking, many restrictions and taboos apply to pottery. Among the Chewa women of southern and central Africa, potters are not supposed to engage in sexual intercourse during certain critical stages of the pottery-making process, just like sexual intercourse is forbidden during pregnancy. Similarly, when women menstruate, they cannot gather clay, as is the case for Manda women, or cannot make pots, as is the case for Asante women.
Given the value attached to fertility in general, and women's fertility in particular, clay pots also participate in defining a woman's identity. Learning how to make pots is part of the initiation training that young Bemba women undergo. Among the Chewa people already mentioned, for example, when a woman passes away, one of her pots is broken and buried with her, thus signifying the end of her life. This is also done when a Gurunsi woman (from Burkina Faso) dies. Her pot is broken as an analogy for her now broken and lifeless body.
Clay pots are also perceived and used as spiritual vessels. Indeed, they may house the spirit of those whose body has died. Such is the case with Ifè terracottas, or with Mma ancestral pots. The same phenomenon is observable in the African diaspora. Thus, in Haitian Vodu, the govi, which is a jar made of red clay, allows the deceased to resume their active involvement in the affairs of their original community. In that capacity, the govi is quite precious to the living because, when called on, the spirit is able to dispense advice, guidance, warnings, protection, wisdom, and so on to the living from the govi. Govis are regularly fed—that is, they receive food offerings and sacrifices from the living.
Finally, one must also mention the frequent use of white clay during religious ceremonies. White clay is generously smeared over faces, masks, bodies, and so on because it is widely believed to facilitate communication between the living and the spirits. Among the Saramacca people, in Surinam, South America, for instance, white clay is known as pemba dote and is commonly spread over ritualistic and religious items.

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Further Reading

  • Barbour, J., and Wandiba, S. (1989). Kenyan Pots and Potters. Nairobi: Oxford University Press.
  • Campbell, J. (1969). The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York: Penguin.
  • Frank, B. (1998). Mande Potters and Leatherworkers: Art and Heritage in West Africa. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Jacobson-Widding, A., and van Beek, W (Eds.). (1990). The Creative Communion. African Polk Models of Fertility and the Regeneration of Life. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksell International.