Fat Containers

Gourd, Tiati Pokot people, East of Mount Elgon, Kenya

Horn cup, Nguni people, South Africa, late 19th century

[b]Left:[/b] Collected and purchased from Jean Brown in 1978; 1978.20.346 [br][b]Right:[/b] Possibly purchased from Henry Balfour in 1899; 1899.75.3Left: Collected and purchased from Jean Brown in 1978; 1978.20.346
Right: Possibly purchased from Henry Balfour in 1899; 1899.75.3
Among many African societies, dark, glossy and moist skin is regarded as attractive and sensual on both men and women. Many young women request or demand oil or fat as a gift from their future husband and oiled skin is often considered a must before appearing in public.

The gourd vessel from Kenya was known locally as a sotomwagh and contained the butter or sheep's tail fat which girls and young women use for oiling their bodies. The Nguni-speaking peoples of South Africa used the horn cup for the same purpose.

Even today among the Bantu-speaking peoples of Southern and Central Africa, fat (either from animals or butter) remains one of the most commonly used cosmetics among both sexes to anoint the skin and give it a shining, dark, healthy appearance. Powdered red ochre is mixed with the fat and used by the girls and women of the Xhosa and Thembu people for ordinary beautification or, among the Sotho, Shangaan and Venda, to mark a ritually important state – newly initiated girls, brides and nursing mothers, and so on.

Among certain West African tribes, such as the Mende of Sierra Leone and the Efik and Ibibio of Nigeria, teenage girls are traditionally separated from the group to attend an all-female 'initiation camp'. For several weeks or even months they are instructed in the domestic skills that will make them good wives. They are also fed rich foods to gain weight and their skins are rubbed with palm oil or animal oil. When they return to the village, their fattened, shiny bodies indicate health and fertility and are attractive to potential male suitors.

© 2011 - The Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, England