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Clay Pots Hold the Key to Understanding Kenyan Cultures

Margaretta wa Gacheru spends time at an exhibition in Nairobi showcasing clay pots, some thousands of years old, and is surprised by what she learns about the movement of people, social practices and early Kenyan history.

The oldest clay pots found in Kenya are said to be around 8000 years old and a fragment of one of them was recently ‘rediscovered’ deep inside the National Museum of Kenya’s collection by Dr. Freda Nkirote M’Mbogori. The Kenyan archaeologist has included the fragment in a fascinating, wide-ranging exhibition at the National Museum’s Creativity Gallery entitled “Pots and Identities.”

The exhibition features a breathtaking selection of pots from all over Kenya, which Dr M’Mbogori says have historically been used to identify which pre-historic Kenyan peoples were living where and when, as well as with whom they interacted.

Their shapes and incised designs have even been used by archaeologists to explain people’s social practices as well as where and when they migrated from all over the region to various parts of Kenya. Even the techniques used by those traditional potters have been used to identify which ethno-linguistic groups produced the pots, be they Cushitic, Nilotic or Bantu.

One might think that an ordinary clay pot could not play such a significant role in explaining important aspects of early Kenyan history, but given that pots have been a utility item used universally for hundreds of years, it shouldn’t be surprising that archaeologists have been intrigued by these remnants of early societies.

 Dr Freda Nkirote M’Mbogori working in her basement office at Nairobi National Museum.
Dr Freda Nkirote M’Mbogori working in her basement office at Nairobi National Museum.

Dr M’Mbogori’s role in this multifaceted exhibition (which includes both ancient and contemporary pots) has ensured the public can see (through video, paintings, maps, diagrams, displayed texts and actual pots) the way clay pots have been interpreted as markers of people’s movements, interactions, identities and cultural practices.

But if her doctoral dissertation and first-hand archaeological research all over Kenya serve as the foundation of the exhibition, she is also quick to acknowledge the role of the museum staff – particularly Lydia Galavu, Angela Kabiru and Mercy Gakii – without whom she could never have constructed such a comprehensive collection of Kenyan pots.

What Dr. M’Mbogori doesn’t underscore, however, is the fact that in virtually all Kenyan communities (apart from some Cushitic peoples), it is women who are the pot-makers. Nonetheless, she illustrates with her graphic and colorful diagrams the techniques of pot-making as well as the decorative designs found on practically every piece of pottery which are passed down from mothers to daughters and fathers to sons over centuries.

In the video that runs throughout the exhibition (when electricity allows), one can see modern-day potters making traditional clay pots. The men use the ‘coiling’ technique while the women ‘draw’ their clay into the shapes that they will subsequently fire in traditional kilns.

“Sometime back, one man tried to introduce the [contemporary] potter’s wheel to traditional potters, given the wheel is considered a more efficient way of making pots; but neither the men nor the women were interested,” says Dr M’Mbogori.

“Most potters started learning the process of pot-making from an early age so that by their teens, they were already making pots of their own,” she adds, noting that the motor skills used in the process become virtually automatic, so they are not easily changed.

The late Emmanuel Ondif learned to sculpt clay busts of Kenyan people from a priest in Kisumu
The late Emmanuel Ondif learned to sculpt clay busts of Kenyan people from a priest in Kisumu

Nonetheless, whereas in the past every Kenyan community had its potters, today the practice is much less common. Instead, we’ve seen the rise of contemporary Kenyan potters who are now known as ceramicists and artists. Among the ones whose ceramics are featured in the exhibition (thanks largely to Lydia Galavu, chief curator at the Museum’s Creativity Gallery) are Magdalene Odondo, Waithera Chege, Edward Njenga, Beatrice Ndumi, Lillian Barongo Ayieng’a, Mary Kinuthia and the late Emmanuel Ondif.

The one small dispute I have with the exhibition is the distinction made between contemporary and traditional potters. Of course, there are clear-cut differences between them, especially as pottery had a more functional role in the past. But to imply that the early potters didn’t have a sense of aesthetics while aesthetics are exclusively a feature common to contemporary potters (apparent, for example, in the unique shapes of Odondo’s vases and the stunning earthen glazes of Ayieng’a) is to overlook the essential qualities of those traditional designs.

It’s true that the archaeologists use the traditional designs to give both names and classification to those early pots. But to my mind, they are more than markers; they are artistic elements that enable us to appreciate both the aesthetic form as well as the function of those ancient clay pots, a few of which has been carefully pieced together like jigsaw puzzles by dedicated archaeologists like Dr Freda.

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